The rationality of suicide.

Meta note: This post perhaps is alarmingly darkly themed. I do suffer from suicidal ideation, but I don’t think that not writing or publishing this post will fix that. Instead, these thoughts are swirling around my head anyway – and so I figure they might as well come out on paper.  I’ve written before about what I choose to publish here, the dilemna being that there might be a social cost to myself for  publishing something, but the conclusion I’ve come to it’s better to write about things, than keep them bottled up.   The subject of suicide also contains its own risks – namely in that I wouldn’t want this writing to encourage someone else to commit suicide. If you are feeling that way, then I suggest calling a friend and talking to them.
If the feedback I get from this post is ‘This post is depressing and I don’t want to read it’ then yeah – I’d agree – I probably wouldn’t want to read it either – but there’s a certain satisfaction I get from writing it and moving on.
I’ll also note two weeks later, that at the time of writing I was simply having a bad day. Writing posts like these is one mechanism for dealing with upset emotions of the time and getting a sense of control of one’s life. From the perspective of a relatively happy mindset two weeks later looking at this post, I don’t think it’s a particularly bad post. Its a little incomplete. I don’t think it’s especially pretentious. The topic is a little indulgent sure, but the tone remains fairly rational.

In my perception, suicide is usually seen as a preventable tragedy in western societies.

On the face of it, this attitude makes sense – any premature death, whether it be by murder, car crash, illness or suicide, ends the potential of the person. There’s an opportunity cost to the rest of society – no more social experiences with that person, and that person can longer contribute value to society. The investment of education and socialisation of the person is lost.

However, when we look a bit closer, it’s not as clear cut as ‘suicide is always a tragedy’.

For example, many of use wouldn’t consider the suicide of various henious criminals a tragedy.  Adolf Hitler commited suicide at the point where the Red Army were invading Berlin. Many of us would suggest that the world would have been better off if Hitler had commited suicide several months earlier, as to avoid more deaths in what was an obviously lost war.

Glenn Mills, an Auckland man who intentionally infected seven people with HIV commited suicide the night before he was due to be sentenced for his crimes. Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped and held three women for ten years commited suicide while in prison.

Some people feel cheated when these criminals kill themselves – arguing that they should live with what they’ve done. I don’t agree with this argument – justice should be about preventing further harm from being caused, and fixing things where they can, but not about subjecting someone to a life of misery. That concept of justice is unsavoury to my tastes.

The suicide of blameless people can also be considered rational as well. For example, the voluntary euthanasia movement has been gaining traction in recent years – advocating access to either assisted suicide or self-adminstered suicide products.

The argument for legal euthanisia is usually a quality of life argument – suggesting that it’s cruel to prolong the suffering or indignity of a terminally ill person, due the highly placed value of ‘the sanctity of life’.

Outside of the terminally ill, there are circumstances where a suicide might be considered reasonable. For example, lots of German citizens opted for suicide upon the approach of the Red Army through their towns – the alternative being raped and possibly murdered anyway.

All of these examples I’ve given are fairly extreme cases, and seem incomparable to the suicide of a young person in a first world society.

However, if we accept that there’s a level of suffering that warrants suicide, then the issue becomes grey – exactly what is the level of suffering that justifies suicide?

In the case of terminal illness, it’s easier to point out that ‘it’s not likely that your suffering is going to be alieviated in the future’. Compare this to mental illnesses like depression, where one might be unconsolably unhappy now, but the narrative given by support groups typically is that ‘things can get better’.

From the perspective of someone with mental illness, the cost benefit analysis could be reduced to something of a gamble – ‘Do I continue carrying on in the hope that things will get better, at the potential cost of continuing unhappiness, or do I opt out now?’.


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