Summary of Hume’s, “Of Suicide”

Of Suicide” by David Hume

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 4, 2015. )

David Hume (1711-1776) was a Scottish philosopher, economist, historian and one of the most famous figures in the history of Western philosophy and the Scottish Enlightenment. Hume is often grouped with John Locke, George Berkeley, and a handful of others as a British Empiricist. Hume begins his essay like this:

One considerable advantage that arises from Philosophy, consists in the sovereign antidote which it affords to superstition and false religion…when sound Philosophy has once gained possession of the mind, superstition is effectually excluded; and one may fairly affirm, that her triumph over this enemy is more complete than over most of the vices and imperfections incident to human nature.

Philosophy is an antidote to the superstition and irrationalism that make our lives miserable. The superstitious cannot even take refuge from their misery in sleep because they are haunted by their dreams; nor can they take refuge in their death, even if they are quite miserable or in pain since they fear offending the gods. Therefore superstition forces them to stay alive, even when dying would be preferable. When fear of death is joined by superstition the result “deprives men of all power over their lives…” We fear bringing about death even though it would often be better to do so.

Hume now turns to the examination of suicide “to restore men to their native liberty … ” He has in mind the superstition that prevents people from committing suicide when in pain. Hume distinguishes the laws by which the gods govern nature and the laws by which humans govern themselves. Just as nature carries on without considering the interests of humans, so humans may use the power the gods have given them regarding their own happiness. Thus people don’t incur the wrath of a god by exercising their will since the gods have given them this power. If it would be against the gods’ province to choose to commit suicide, then it would be against the province of the gods to preserve life by saving someone from an oncoming boulder.

Similarly, since according to the laws of nature an insect can destroy human life, it would be strange if humans weren’t granted such powers regarding their own lives. Hume believes that the gods must have given us the power to escape a bad life. Consider that if our enemies hurt us, most will allow us to fight back. Why then demand that I resign myself to inaction if threatened by pain and suffering? So Hume argues that people’s lives are their own, to dispose of as they choose because the gods have given us this power. That is why we dam rivers and create vaccines, or act as heroes and risk our lives; we use the power the gods have given us to change the world.

Hume argues that committing suicide does no harm to society. He also says that when we are dead, we no longer receive benefits from society, and hence we no longer have obligations. But even if we did have obligations, surely they are limited. If we are not obligated to do a small good for society at great expense to ourselves, then we are not obligated to suffer greatly for some small benefit to society. If I am old and infirm I may quit my job, thereby ceasing contributing to society. So why may I not quit life? And if the continuation of my life is a burden to society, then I should be praised for ending it. Or if you are about to be tortured for crimes against society, wouldn’t putting yourself to death be in the public’s interest? That wouldn’t invade the realm of providence anymore than those who ordered the torture did.

I agree with Hume. We should generally respect individual autonomy, including a person’s choice of when to die. Obvious exceptions would be cases in which an individual’s mental capacities are compromised, as in children or the mentally impaired.

10 thoughts on “Summary of Hume’s, “Of Suicide”

  1. As a woman, I wonder that I can terminate a life growing inside me based on others’ volatile opinions about what constitutes “viable life,” but I cannot terminate my own life.

    Whom do I belong to that someone else’s feelings, opinions, and perceptions are more important than my own as far as the continuance or termination of my life is concerned? I can make all manner of so-called horrible life errors, and society tells me that they are all my responsibility. That is the cost, I’m told, of being an adult. I can smoke. I can over-indulge in alcohol. I make unhealthful dietary choices. I can engage in unprotected sex with many, many high-risk partners. Once I’m a legal adult, I can refuse to continue my education or get a job. I can become homeless, suffer the sexual and other physical depredations of others, and die slowly and torturously. All these things, though nearly everyone agrees they’re unwise choices–mistakes, I’m free to do. Why? Because I’m a legal adult and I am responsible for my own life, terribly “mistakes” and all. The regrets of others who’ve pursued, or been on these paths, never justify another forcing me to act “wisely.”

    Yet I cannot end my own life.

    Why do the suicidal deserve special protections, while the vast majority of society’s derelict do not? Just about everyone who matters — friends, family, politicians, doctors, lawyers, judges, police — tells the societally lost they made mistakes and must now pay for them. Many of them will die painfully, abandoned, and that’s just life. But I cannot end my own life, as many seem to argue, for my own “good”? How is that reasoning at all consistent with our culture’s principles of personal autonomy and responsibility?

    Speaking, too, as a licensed physician, even when I am confident a patient would benefit from additional treatment, I cannot force her or him to accept treatment. Even when the prognosis with treatment is statistically “good,” I can only present patients data–survival rates by years from diagnosis, side effects from treatment… Even if death is imminent without treatment, I cannot impose my will on a (non-minor) patient. So I do not believe the justification mental health professionals give, that acting against patients’ wills is justified based on the clinician’s superior knowledge of the disease state, or on the patient’s lack of clear thinking, or on the regret others who’ve attempted an act but failed at it later express over having attempted at all. At the root of the unique treatment modalities for mental health, in particular suicidal ideation, is an unjustifiable belief — not scientific fact — that life is always better than death. Other scholars in philosophy and medicine have written broadly on why this viewpoint is fallacious and never objective. Just as several European countries have finally concluded that life value can only be determined by a person living life, the rest of the world will eventually follow. The modern mental health therapeutic belief system is wholly untenable since it relies, like religion, on others believing the same principles as clinicians and mental health policy lobbyists — all who have a clear stake in the game.

    Lastly, on a practical note, study after study links quality of social life to depression risk. We’re all advised to have healthy and sufficient connections with others we care about and who care about us. But, who doesn’t want quality social relationships? A mentor of mine from my residency commented about the health protection of friendships that what counselors usually fail to acknowledge is that every relationship requires two people. There are very many reasons outside an individual’s control for her potential isolation. Clinical psychology fails to address how persistent these may be despite therapy, drugs, or other interventions. You can only hope to change an individual, not the others she must interact with. So the clinicians who are adamantly against the right of the patient to choose death, will they commit to being with each patient throughout the week, the day, the night, when loneliness sets in and these people feel abandoned and desperate? Can the clinicians guarantee that whatever treatment-du-jour will overcome the early-life formative experiences we know literally MOLD neurology so that these patients feel radically different, more inclined to stay alive? Will clinicians guarantee patients’ communities will put aside classism, ageism, scathing prejudice based on body habitus, or any of the other myriad prejudices that isolate over a lifetime? Or will clinicians be there, day after day, to provide the intimacy of a hug, holding those who need frequent reassurance? Or can clinicians guarantee a more equitable or hospitable world in general — especially regarding the sometimes monstrously callous or patently malignant mental health system itself?

    I think not.

    So, if clinicians cannot guarantee sufficient quality of life we understand is so crucial to “mental health,” neither should they be entitled to condemn the humans they cannot help to lives patients actually living those lives find to be hellish isolation and hopelessness simply because of clinicians’ assessments of their own lives, life in general, or even other patients’ lives.

    The debate over the right to end our own lives is not a matter of medicine or so-called mental health. We already know this since every day patients whose imminent deaths could be forestalled by medical intervention are permitted to reject medical care, and insurance companies are entitled, based on finances, to reject necessary procedures the medical literature tells us are likely to extend patients’ lives significantly. The debate over the right to end our own lives is shockingly rooted in biased value systems — “shockingly” because other people in this arena uniquely get to command otherwise legal adults not to act on our own bodies.

    To me, there is no greater a contradiction to the concept of personal freedom than this.

  2. Hi Clare:

    I appreciative of your thoughtful comments. I have published a brief 2 page piece on the topic here:

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2014/08/15/better-off-dead/

    And, fyi, I have summarized some of the main pieces on the literature here. These are outlines of well-known pieces in an ethics textbook that I did for students some years ago. Thanks again for the comments.

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/17/the-euthanasia-debate/

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/18/6331/

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/19/summary-of-active-and-passive-euthanasia-james-rachels/

    https://reasonandmeaning.com/2015/05/20/summary-of-voluntary-active-euthanasia-dan-brock/

  3. You articulated some vague thoughts I have had. At the age of 85 and because of my life experiences I find it ludicrous to continue taking meds for a heart condition. Also I fear that I am facing knee replacement. What is the point of a new knee except to relieve the pain? I am at the end and because of financial issues I cannot justify going on. I live on Social Security with help from Hid and am not giving back anything to society. I do remain for my sister who would miss me and my dog whom I adore and depend on for companionship. So I live with the delimma.

  4. Hi Doris

    I’m sorry you are in distress. It would be irresponsible of my to advise you, although perhaps you know others who could. Some states, like Washington and Oregon have legal codes that apply to situations you are describing, and some countries, most notably the Netherlands take a very differnent approach to the issues you raise. And some very deep thinkers, like Victor Frankl for instance, argue that there is much meaning to be found in suffering.

    At any rate, I so appreciate your thoughtful comment on my website. Thank you for that contribution. I hope you find meaning in your future path. ~ John

  5. Arthur Schopenhauer was very clear on this.

    “This is all the more striking, inasmuch as neither in the Old nor in the New Testament is there to be found any prohibition or positive disapproval of it; so that religious teachers are forced to base their condemnation of suicide on philosophical grounds of their own invention. These are so very bad that writers of this kind endeavor to make up for the weakness of their arguments by the strong terms in which they express their abhorrence of the practice; in other words, they declaim against it. They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice; that only a madman could be guilty of it; and other insipidities of the same kind; or else they make the nonsensical remark that suicide is wrong when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every mail has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.”

    I’ll not let a culture I distrust on most issues inform me on my rights concerning my own body and welfare.

  6. And who gets to be the judge as to when one is mentally impaired? The High Priests of Psychiatry? Check out the book “The Myth of Mental Illness” and then ask yourself these questions. IMO no man should sit in judgment of another unless they may do physical harm to another. If we are free then let is be free.

  7. Here IMO is a wonderful quote on suicide.

    A Defence of Suicide
    Excerpts from A Philosophical Dissertation Upon Death by Count Alberto Radicati Di Passerano. The author was an Enlightenment philosophe, heavily influenced by Spinoza. As a result of the publication of the book in England, he was forced to flee that country and died destitute and alone in Holland.

    “A Man ought not to be
    apprehensive he is doing Ill when, tired and tormented by Life,
    he deprives himself of it; seeing he therein makes Use of a
    Right which none can take from him. This is a Right which does
    not only belong to Man, but also to all other Animal Creatures,
    the which do know how to make a better use of it than he does;
    since they, having always lived according to the Natural Laws,
    their Intellectuals have not been corrupted by Education.

    A Man ought not to believe he does any Wrong to the
    Society he chances to be a Member of, in depriving himself of
    Life: For societies were founded for the Benefit of Men; and
    therefore when a Man ceases from reaping Benefit therefrom,
    with Reason he may therefrom separate himself, and more
    especially if the said Society was formed without his
    Approbation or Concurrence; since no Man is tied down to
    stand to any Agreement made without his Participation, or
    against his Will: And notwithstanding the Jews, the Christians,
    and the Mahometans pretend the contrary, by forcing people to
    continue in the Religion wherein they are born, I do aver and
    maintain, that this Violence is unjust and abominable; since a
    Man is no more tied to be a Jew, a Christian or a Mahometan,
    on account of his having been Circumcised, or Baptised, when
    he was an Infant, than if his Parents or the Priests, at his Birth,
    had bound him to love (when arrived at Man’s Estate) a woman
    to whose Beauties or Deformities, good or bad Qualities, he
    should be an utter stranger.

    A Man is not an enemy to his Existence when, quite
    tired and oppressed, either with Poverty, or Contempt, or
    Sickness, or Bondage, he shall voluntarily Cease to live: Since
    if it be a Thing natural always to choose the least Evil when
    Evils are not possible to be avoided; it is a most natural Thing to
    have Recourse to Death, to get free from the Evils and Miseries
    of Life: So let us suppose Men not liable to those Calamities
    which molest them during their Life, nevertheless ought they
    always to run to Death without staying for it; since they all
    know that, by a Decree eternal, they are condemned to die from
    the very Moment they are born; and as the Sort of Death each
    Man is to die is uncertain, and as most Sorts are very painful, a
    wise Man, finding himself to be approaching his End and
    Dissolution, either through Age, or the Indispositions attending
    him, and not having the least Hope or Prospect of ever enjoying
    any more of the Pleasures of Life, would do a most wise Action
    in making Choice of the kind of Death which appeared to him to
    be the pleasantest, in order to evade that most grievous one to
    which he is sentenced: And in so doing, he would demonstrate
    himself a true Friend to Himself.

    In short, a Man ought not to imagine that, in depriving
    himself of Life, he any way discomposes the Order of
    Providence; since the eternal Laws of Motion cannot, in any
    wise, be varied, or altered, on account of a Creature’s living a
    longer or shorter Space of Time, that is, its changing sooner or
    later the Modifications of its Matter: Because Nature being most
    potent and most wise, and operating incessantly in all Matter,
    the consequence is, that her Operations are always superlatively
    perfect; so that it little imports that the Matter which formed the
    Body of a Man assumes the Form of a Million of Worms, or of
    other Beings, that of round it becomes quadrangular or
    multangular; the smallest Atom is ever of some signal Utility to
    the infinite Designs of that most industrious Architect.
    The foolish Prepossession, which Men have in Favour of
    their own Species, is a Child of Ambition, and this is the Child
    of Education: Since, even from the very Birth they are taught,
    that They are the most perfect of all Beings; as being the lively
    Images of GOD, who created all the others purely for their Use
    and Service. Reason being confused and rendered stupid with
    these vain and nonsensical Ideas, Man believes that the
    Destruction of one of his Kind, or Species, must needs put into
    Disorder the whole Frame of Nature; and does not consider,
    “That a Man more or a Man less, nay the whole Race of
    Mankind united, and a Hundred Millions of Worlds, a Thousand
    times greater and more beautiful than this our Terrestrial Globe,
    are no other than a very diminutive Atom, whose existing or not
    existing is not so much, with respect to the Immensity of the
    Universe, as is a single Drop of Water in Comparison with the
    vast Ocean!”

    Let us then conclude; That a Man, weary or satiated with
    living, may die when he pleases, without offending NATURE:
    Since in dying, he makes Use of the Remedy which She kindly
    has put into his Hands, wherewithal he may cure himself of the
    Evils of this LIFE.”

  8. As a professor teaching bioethics, I argued passionately for active voluntary euthanasia. James Rachels’ “Active and Passive Euthanasia” had the most effect on my thinking on the topic. Had never heard of Count Alberto Radicati Di Passerano so thanks for introducing him to me. JGM

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