Friday, May 9, 2014

Suicide & Autonomy

     From an existential standpoint, the morality of suicide is not always cut and dry. Ironically, this is where an atheist has better ground than a deist in regards to arguing against suicide. If the goal of life, a well lived life, is to be a life of Love, then, from an atheist's perspective, suicide is the ultimate in destruction of relationship. Death, brought about by choice, ends any and all chances of reconciliation. There are no more opportunities to forgive, or redeem, or interact. No more opportunities to live authentically or with existential purpose. By that merit alone, the act of suicide could be labeled as unhealthy and requiring treatment.
    
     For deists, there is an afterlife. If we apply the same life goal of living Love, then there is another chance. Christian hymns declare this is "not our home" and that Christians are simply "passing through". The argument I have heard is that suicide takes over what only God can ordain: Life and death. However, God ordained many people to be born deaf, but we invented cochlear implants. God ordained many people to be born with horrible eyesight, but we invented glasses. If the Old Testament is to be taken literally, God was so threatened by a building he confused our languages, but despite this, many people have learned multiple languages. By these examples, it would seem that God has ultimately ordained us with free will. Would it not logically follow that our freedom of will would extend to the self exercising the will. Christians have used this same argument to defend the death penalty. "The criminal knew the consequences of his behavior and decided to commit murder. Therefore, they assented to loss of their own life". Yet, ability to assent to loss of life is withheld from those who are suffering.

     Which leads me to this question: If I, as an existential therapist, am presented with someone who is suicidal, what is the proper response? Taking Hippocrates into account, at the very least, my job is to first do no harm. Who here has not seen someone in great emotional, mental, and/or physical torment that seemed to exist with no end? Is it harmful to force that person to live when they could easily take their life? By denying a person the right to commit suicide, am I not denying their own autonomy and therefore reducing them to a being incapable of authentic living? And is this act, in and of itself, a form of existential suicide because it automatically denies a person their free will and attempts to force another to relinquish their personal will to the will of another?

     I do not know if this is the right answer, or if there really is one. Some cultures have extolled the honor of suicide. Others embraced euthanasia or physician assisted suicide. There does not seem to be an innate answer. Regardless, there is an incongruence with any society that upholds death penalties while condemning suicide. Here is why: Existentially, life is about potential. It's why I struggle with abortion, death penalties, and suicide. While this is not the appropriate place for a debate on what does or does not constitute life, it is an appropriate place to talk about existential potential.

     The murderer could go on to become a healer. The sufferer could go on to be healed. While there is nothing, including serving life in prison, a person can do to bring back the dead, there is still time to make their life greater than it was. While there is nothing anyone can do to remove the scars and pain of past trauma, there is the possibility of converting the trauma into a meaningful beauty. There is potential in our pain, our mistakes, and our crimes. There is space for healing, restitution, and forgiveness. Death is the cessation of that possibility. By that fact alone, suicide may be inherently inauthentic as it denies the person their potential and future self.

(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014
Hanging Question