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David Hume's "Of Suicide"

The person who cares too much for their body cares too little for virtue.
Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

In the spring of 1745 David Hume's mother died. Hume was in London and a friend who visited him found him "in deepest affliction and in a flood of tears." The friend suggested that Hume's grief was a consequence of his atheism: had he shared his mother's faith he would now be of the conviction that his mother was "completely happy in the realms of the just." Hume's reply1 - "though I threw out my speculations to entertain and employ the learned and metaphysical world, yet in other things I do not think so differently from the rest of mankind as you may imagine" - has been taken by some to suggest that behind the appearance of scepticism and unbelief stood a true Christian. Indeed it appears that many of those contemporaries who thought him to be a good man, reconciled this judgement with their own faith only by assuming that Hume was in some way a believer such as they. In his journal of 1784 (eight years after Hume's death) Boswell writes that he

Awakened after a very agreeable dream that I had found a Diary kept by David Hume, from which it appeared that though his vanity made him publish treatises of scepticism and infidelity, he was in reality a Christian and a very pious man2

Not all eighteenth century dogmatists shared this view. Samuel Johnson, Boswell tells us, "holds Mr Hume in abhorrence and left a company one night upon his coming in." Whereas Edmund Burke told Boswell that he only spoke to Hume because "the present liberal state of society required it."3

David Hume died on the 25th August 1776. In March of the following year William Strahan published The Life of David Hume, Esq. Written By Himself. In the same edition Strahan published a letter from Adam Smith, written just after Hume's death, in which Smith describes the tranquillity with which Hume died and reaffirms that he made no death-bed confession. Far from criticizing the character of the atheist philosopher, Smith praises him:

Thus died our most excellent and never to be forgotten friend... Upon the whole I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit. 4

In the twenty-five years following Hume's death numerous attacks were made upon him and his unrepentant attitude to death. In addition to newspaper and journal articles, George Home, William Agutter and John Wesley all published sermons or pamphlets on the subject. Adam Smith also came in for criticism for his supportive attitude to Hume; ten years after his letter to Strahan he wrote about the year 1776, which had seen the publication of The Wealth of Nations as well as the death of David Hume:

A single, and as I thought, a very harmless sheet of paper which I happened to write concerning the death of our late friend, Mr Hume, brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.5

Hume's essay, "Of Suicide" was written in 1755 and was to be published as one of five essays (including "The Natural History of Religion" and "Of the Immortality of the Soul") in that year. Advance copies were printed and sent to friends, but two of the essays, including "Of Suicide", were then withdrawn owing to fear of official persecution.6 Clerical critics of Hume knew of the essay and referred to it as evidence of Hume's atheism and immorality; a French translation was published in 1770 without Hume's knowledge and the English version appeared in 1777 although neither author nor publisher were named. The first attributed publication came in 1783, under the title, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, Ascribed to the Late David Hume Esq., Never Before Published. With Remarks, intended as an Antidote to the Poison contained in these Performances. By the Editor.

The background to the essay sheds some light on the audience to which it was addressed and the climate of opinion in which Hume was working. In the 1750s suicide was not an easy choice of subject for an essay of moral philosophy. Writing a century later Arthur Schopenhauer makes this point:

The most thorough refutation [of the reasons against suicide] has been furnished by Hume in his essay On Suicide, which first appeared after his death and was at once suppressed in England by the disgraceful bigotry and scandalous power of the parsons... that a purely philosophical essay, coldly and rationally refuting the current reasons against suicide and coming from one of the leading thinkers and authors of England [sic.] had to be secretly smuggled through that country like a forbidden thing until it found a refuge abroad, brings great discredit to the English nation.7

In this essay I consider the place of Hume's essay in the long-standing debate about the morality of suicide. The hostility shown towards Hume as a person and towards his views on religion and death - including suicide - are symptomatic of the depth of feeling that this debate generates. I also consider the essay itself and the arguments within it: to what extent does Hume's work vindicate our right to take our own lives? Is Hume's essay as successful as Schopenhauer claims it to be?

First, a summary of the essay itself: Hume approaches the question of suicide from the standpoint of the advantages of the philosophical temper over the superstitious disposition. He begins by suggesting that philosophy is the best antidote to superstition and false religion: many persons of great merit and achievement have lived in mental slavery, but once philosophy takes hold of the mind it inspires "juster sentiments of superior powers" and the false opinions on which superstition is based must vanish. What is more, the person who lives a miserable existence in the clutches of superstition is prevented from putting an end to their misery: superstition adds further terror to our natural fear of death and thereby deprives us of power over our own destiny. Hume's ambition is:

.... to restore men to their native liberty, by examining all the common arguments against suicide, and showing that, that action may be free from every imputation of guilt or blame; according to the sentiments of all the ancient philosophers.8

He offers three arguments to defend this claim. The first purports to show that suicide is not a transgression of our duty towards God; the second that it is not a transgression of our duty towards society; the third that it is not a transgression of our duty to ourselves. The first takes six pages, the second and third a page each. It is safe to assume that Hume's principal target was the theological argument against suicide: this is the great achievement of the essay. The second and third arguments are less compelling, for which reason there is still a discussion to be had about the moral status of acts of suicide.9

Debate about suicide goes back as far as moral debate itself.10 In the Greek world suicide was tolerated: the cynics, stoics and epicureans were in favour, although Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle were all against (in most cases). According to Plato, Socrates argued against suicide the day prior to his own death, saying "the gods are our keepers, and we men are one of their possessions... we must not put an end to ourselves until God sends some compulsion like the one we are now facing."11 Whether Socrates' believed own death to be an act of suicide is unclear; presumably his point was that in normal circumstances suicide is wrong because we are the property of the gods and not our own free agents. Suicide was not a penal offence in Ancient Greece and many notable Greeks took their own lives. Likewise there is no evidence of anti-suicide legislation in Ancient Rome. Again, many philosophers accepted the right of citizens (although not slaves or soldiers) to kill themselves, and many prominent Romans did just that. Such tolerant attitudes did not survive long into the Christian era.

The church's position on suicide was set out first by Augustine. Faced with a growing number of Christian suicides - some in order to avoid rape or torture by enemies and some motivated by a desire to leave this earthly existence as soon as possible in the hope of heavenly bliss - Augustine argued that neither the fear of death, nor the fear of loss of holiness, nor the fear of future sin on one's own part, were sufficient reason to take one's life. Suicide contravenes the Sixth Commandment and as such is a sin. It shows weakness of character and lack of faith. There are no circumstances, Augustine tells us, in which it would be right for a Christian to take their life.12 His view was later endorsed by Aquinas, who added that suicide violated humankind's interest in self-preservation: it was, then, both ungodly and unnatural.

The church established a series of punishments to discourage potential suicides: funeral rites and Christian burial were not allowed, nor were prayers for the dead. The bodies of suicides were customarily buried at crossroads with a stake driven through the chest: this practice combined the desire to mutilate the corpse as a punishment that the person was no longer able to receive with the superstitious desire to 'pin-down' the ghost of the departed to prevent it from returning to haunt its ex-neighbours. Suicide also brought financial penalties: all goods and land were forfeit to the crown and did not pass to the family of the deceased. One consequence of these laws was that many coroner juries found the dead not guilty of felo de se; instead they were found to be insane, which was not posthumously punished. Hence the saying that there are two reasons for not committing suicide: if you fail they call you a criminal, if you succeed they call you a lunatic.

Challenges to the church's position began with Renaissance humanism: for example, Sir Thomas More allowed self-administered euthanasia on the island of Utopia. The first major work published in England defending the idea that suicide is not a sin under all circumstances was John Donne's treatise, Biathanatos. Written in 1608 it remained unpublished until 1647, sixteen years after Donne's death.13 The sub-title of the book explains Donne's purpose: A declaration of that paradox or thesis that self-homicide is not so naturally sin that it may never be otherwise. Wherein the nature and the extent of all those laws which seem to be violated by this act are diligently surveyed. The three-part structure of the book, examining the laws of nature, the laws of reason and the laws of God, follow the Thomist definition of sin whereby all the lights of human judgement are impaired. Donne argues that in some cases suicide may be for the honour of God and thus cannot be sinful per se; he argues for an examination of context before judgement is passed, and for charity towards those who take their own lives. With this book begins the rationalist tradition - later to be joined by Montesquieu, Rousseau, d'Holbach and Voltaire - which defends the right of the individual to chose to live or die according to their own reasoning. It is this tradition - despised by the Christian establishment of the day - to which Hume belongs.

I shall imagine Hume in a series of debates: first with the theological tradition which stretches back to Plato, but which finds its most articulate moments in the work of Augustine and Aquinas; second with Aristotle and Sir William Blackstone, on the responsibilities of the individual to the community and its leaders; and finally, on the question of duties to oneself, with Immanuel Kant. My view is that Hume is at his most convincing when refuting the theological argument. His second and third arguments, while not wholly convincing, point the way towards a more reasoned (and more humane) approach to the question of suicide.

The theologians used a number of arguments to show that suicide is wrong under all circumstances. First, it is against the Sixth Commandment. While the Ninth Commandment is circumscribed in its range of application - "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour" - the Sixth is not. To kill anyone, including oneself, is wrong (unless, of course, it is at the command of God, or sanctioned by the law of the God-ordained ruler). Hume relegates his comments on this matter to a footnote.14 First, he suggests that the meaning is clearly a prohibition against the killing of others, over whose lives we have no authority; second, he suggests the precept must be modified by reason and by common sense as the other commandments are; and third, he says that the Law of Moses is abolished except insofar as it is established by the law of nature. Hume notes that there is no scriptural text that specifically prohibits suicide and, if he had read Donne's Biathanatos he would have known that in the Old Testament there are six recorded suicides, none of which is condemned and two of which appear to be commended. The only New Testament suicide is that of Judas Iscariot, the significance of which seems open to wide interpretation.

A second claim, made by some churchmen, is that suicide is an act of cowardice based on a miscalculation of one's future life-chances and the significance of one's death. Hume has little to say on this point. One could debate endlessly whether Cato, Brutus, Seneca and Lucretia were right to do what they did, when they did, but never convince anyone who took the opposite view. To establish a general principle about the morality of acts of suicide it is not enough simply to give a case-by-case account of celebrated examples. (Although, as I shall suggest later, if one can establish the general principle that suicide is permissible under certain circumstances, then a case by case approach would be needed to establish whether a particular case was morally justified).

The third and fourth arguments are the most important. If there is an instinct to self-preservation in the human species, then the act of suicide would be to go against our nature and the maker of our nature. Suicide could be considered as an act of rebellion against God. Likewise, if we are made by God and, as Plato suggests, our bodies and our lives are God's property, then to end our lives prematurely would be to deny their owner a rightful say over the disposal of their property. In another of Socrates' analogies, we are sentinels, watchers on the city walls, and we are not to leave our posts until our General commands us to. These arguments go together because both suggest that suicide is an act of defiance against our creator: we reject the nature we have been given and the lifespan we have been allotted; we reject both the sort of essence and the specific existence we have been given. It is at this point that Hume, masquerading for the moment as a philosophical theist, steps in to refute the theologians.

According to Hume, God rules the world neither by arbitrary intervention nor by executive fiat; he rules by law.

The providence of the deity appears not immediately in any operation, but governs everything by those general and immutable laws, which have been established from the beginning of time. All events, in one sense, may be pronounced the action of the almighty; they proceed from those powers with which he has endowed his creatures.15

These laws of nature include the laws that govern our existence and our behaviour; our lives, like the lives of the animals and the motions of matter, depend upon the laws of nature for their operation. Given this we must consider whether, when a person kills themselves, they encroach upon these laws or disturb their operation. To arrive 'early in the presence of God' only fits as a description of suicide if to kill oneself is construed as being at odds with the natural laws. Yet, says Hume, it plainly is not. All our actions interfere with the operation of nature, in the sense that we interact with the environment. These interactions are not, however, contraventions. They are as much a part of the natural world as rainfall, waterfalls and the fall of leaves in autumn. To live is to be under the authority of the laws of nature, and thus the laws of God. When we die, we die according to these laws whether we wait until illness and old age take their toll, or whether we take our life in our prime. Neither case is a contravention of nature; both are natural processes.

Hume offers this illustration:

Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the almighty that it were an encroachment of his right for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone, which is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature, and I invade the peculiar province of the almighty, by lengthening out my life, beyond the period which by the general laws of matter and motion he had assigned to it.16

Since God rules by the laws of nature we know when he has chosen to bring someone's life to an end by the simple fact that they die. Death itself is the proof that one's time is up; the method of dying is of no consequence. While it might be in our nature to seek to preserve our life in general, it is also in our nature to take our own lives under certain circumstances. The evidence for this is that we do it. We do not rush premature into God's presence when we kill ourselves, we merely act in accordance with certain of the natural laws God has made.

Unless we already know that suicide is sinful then the fact that it happens is sufficient for us to accept it as part of the natural order. One's own death is merely a rearrangement of the matter that one finds adjacent to oneself. As Hume writes,

It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or the Danube from its course, were I able to effect such purposes. Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channels.17

Hume is able to conclude this first part of the debate by turning the tables on his clerical adversaries:

It is a kind of blasphemy to imagine that any created being can disturb the order the world, or invade the business of providence. It supposes that that being possesses powers and faculties which it received not from its creator and which are not subordinate to his government and authority.18

It is the theologians, not Hume, who insult God. By condemning those who die by choice, yet under natural law, they assert their own authority above God's.

At the end of the essay, in a footnote reference to Pliny, Hume lets slip the true intention of his argument. He quotes Pliny as saying that the ability to commit suicide is an advantage that humans possess even over the deity himself. However, the paragraph of The Natural History from which Hume quotes is not primarily about suicide, but the nature of God. Pliny writes that,

..the chief consolations for nature's imperfection in the case of man are that not even for God are all things possible - for he cannot, even if he wishes, commit suicide, the supreme boon he has bestowed on man among all the penalties of life, nor bestow eternity on mortals or recall the deceased, nor cause a man that has lived not to have lived or one that has held high office not to have held it - and that he has no power over what is past save to forget it and.... that he cannot cause twice ten not to be twenty or do many things on similar lines; which facts unquestionably demonstrate the power of nature, and prove that it is this that we mean by the word 'God'.19

Hume plays the theologian to argue with the theologians. His argument seeks to convince us not just that in the natural world it is not unnatural to choose to die by one's own hand, but also that talk of God is really only talk of the nature.

According to Aristotle if someone stabs themselves they act unjustly. It is against the "law of life", he says, to inflict death on oneself and this action has damaging consequences for the community, depriving it of its members and their abilities.20 At times in Athenian history citizens were allowed to commit suicide so long as they first asked permission of the Council; the implication being that one's life is not one's own. Here, it is not God but society that has first claim upon us. A similar argument was made in Hume's day by Sir William Blackstone. Although the Commentaries on the Laws of England were not published until 1769 - after Hume's essay "Of Suicide" was written, although before it was published - I assume that this argument was familiar to Hume.

According to Blackstone,

... the law of England wisely and religiously considers that no man hath a power to destroy life but by commission from God, the author of it; and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offence; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law hath therefore ranked this among the highest crimes, making it a peculiar species of felony, a felony committed on oneself.21

Disregarding the first point, with which Hume has already dealt, we can best understand the second as a breach of contract or a breach of faith. Which of these it is will be depends upon our view of the foundations of civil society. If we believe, with Blackstone, that our allegiance to the monarch is paramount - the king takes an interest in us and we, in return, live in part for the king - then to kill oneself is to take what belongs to the king. We break our contract and fail to honour our part of the agreement. Further, Aristotle's argument seems to suggest that we owe it to our fellow men and women to remain part of the community and to use our abilities for the common good. Our own assessment of our value to the community is not decisive here; if others find our presence and participation to be of some utility this of itself is a reason against suicide.22

Hume disagrees. He links his objection to the previous argument by developing a law of human nature. If any action, in this case suicide, were to disturb society then we would know not to do it because human nature inspires the sentiment of remorse in us when we act in a way that is to the disadvantage of the community, and inspires the sentiment of blame in us when others act in such a way. In other words, we know whether we are under obligation not to kill ourselves according to the way we feel about the matter. This encourages a case-by-case analysis of the benefits that each individual might offer to the community and rules out a dogmatic opposition to suicide of the sort Blackstone advocates. Hume writes,

A man who retires from life does no harm to society. He only ceases to do good, which if it be an injury is of the lowest kind. All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive benefits of society and therefore ought to promote its interest. But when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer ? ... I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me ?23

If civil society is based on a contract to further our mutual interests and if we decide that our interests are no longer being furthered, or that we no longer have any interests, then we are at liberty to end the agreement.

Real life is not so simple. The examples Hume uses to support his case - the person who has become a burden to the public, or the person who sacrifices themself to prevent a great danger to society - are the easy cases. Many thinkers who rejected the right of the individual to commit suicide have at the same time advocated the duty to risk life and die for the community. To prove his case Hume needs to show that when someone is of value to the community and for that reason the community is keen to maintain the contract the individual still retains the right to break it and take their own life. Part of the problem is that Hume's account of social integration relies on the concept 'sympathy' arising from our experiences of pleasure and pain. Since we have different experiences of pleasure and pain and, therefore, different sentiments with regard to similar objects, so we need an impartial point of view from which to extend our sympathy beyond its natural boundaries. In the Treatise Hume writes,

... every particular man has a peculiar position with regard to others; and it is impossible we could ever converse together on any reasonable terms, were each of us to consider characters and persons, only as they appear from his particular point of view. In order, therefore, to arrive at a more stable judgement of things, we fix on some steady and general point of view; and always in our thoughts, place ourselves in them, whatever may be our present situation.24

What is left unclear is the mechanism by which one person's interest in an early death can be reconciled with the community's interest in the preservation of the lives of its members.

Since the interest of the potential suicide and the interest of the community may be irreconcilable we are left with three options: either the individual always has the right to take their own life if they so choose; or the community always has the right to overrule individual choice in this matter; or there is no general rule and each case must be decided on its own merits. It seems that Hume takes the first view, Blackstone the second, and the Athenians a version of the third. My view is that while Hume may have demonstrated the weakness of Blackstone's position he has yet to establish the correctness of his own. Later in the essay he suggests that our duty is to pursue our interests with regard to our own person. It is not clear how the model of the neutral standpoint can be relevant in this context, for suicide would then become one of those cases where our duty is to do what we want. Nor is it clear that a person contemplating suicide could make the necessary intellectual effort to discover the neutral standpoint, even were such a standpoint thought to be relevant.25

Moving to the third part of the debate we come to the question of duties to oneself. Kant makes a number of comments about suicide, often to illustrate more general points in his ethical writings. First, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals he discusses suicide in the light of the categorical imperative, to act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. If our maxim is a suicidal one - "from self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure" - we see that

... a system of nature by whose law the very same feeling whose function is to stimulate the furtherance of life should actually destroy life would contradict itself and consequently could not subsist as a system of nature.26

Likewise, when we come to the practical imperative to treat persons as ends and never simply as means we discover that we have treated ourselves only as a means if we take our life to escape from a painful existence. Once again we discover that suicide is against the moral law.

These two ideas - that suicide contravenes the law of nature, which aims at the self-preservation of all living things and the moral law, which demands that persons always be treated as ends - recur in the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant writes that,

To destroy the subject of morality in his own person is tantamount to obliterating from the world, as far as he can, the very existence of morality itself; but morality is, nevertheless, an end in itself. Accordingly to dispose of oneself as a mere means to some end of one's own liking is to degrade the humanity in one's person, which after all, was entrusted to man to preserve.27

The basis of Kant's argument, also found in his Lectures on Ethics, is that suicide goes against nature, morality and humanity. We violate our duty to ourselves by killing ourselves because morality and the dignity of human nature are higher values than any particular life. To demean ourselves by suicide is to insult the maker of our natural world and the maker of our moral nature.

Hume has little time for this sort of argument, though of course he did not live to read Kant's particular version of it. He thinks it obvious that our duty to ourself is to seek our interest and that sometimes our interest is in dying. We are at liberty to rid ourselves of existence if we choose to and there are occasions when prudence and courage demand such an action. He writes,

That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question, who allows that age and sickness or misfortune may render life a burden and make it even worse than annihilation. I believe that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it.28

Just as the act of suicide demonstrates that a person no longer feels bound to their community, so too it demonstrates that a person has identified their interests with their own death. They forsake no duty in so doing; rather they exercise their liberty in pursuit of happiness.

Hume passes very quickly from the fact that on some occasions death may be in our best interest to the claim that no-one who takes their own life is ever mistaken about their best interest. However, it seems clear that there are cases where suicide is chosen after a miscalculation of one's life chances. One either could not or did not make a correct estimate of one's interest and therefore one chose death when one's life was still worth living. Contra Hume, the magnitude of the act of will necessary to take one's own life is not a guarantee that one is never wrong in the calculation leading to the act. Furthermore, there are cases when suicide is a cowardly way out of a difficult situation; when, that is, one knows that life is worth keeping in the long-term, but one lacks the courage or the resolve to endure the short-term distress one faces. We need not subscribe to the view that all suicides are cowardly, nor the view that all are transgressions of duty to oneself, to maintain that in some cases individuals act against their best interests when they kill themselves. That we have a right to take our own life - the point Hume does establish - does not mean that of necessity we act rationally or virtuously if we do take our own life.

Since the eighteenth century the debate over suicide has moved on, but the contemporary arguments bear some similarity to those of Hume and his adversaries. In general we are more concerned with duties to oneself and duties to the community, however there are still those for whom the act of suicide is a judgement upon life itself, and therefore to be thought of in a metaphysical way. Such people claim that an argument can be made against suicide in all cases, not due to the consequent disutility for the individual or the community, but due to the moral principle that life is never to be given up willingly.

For Albert Camus the story of Sisyphus - condemned by the gods to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain slope and then watching as the boulder rolls back to the bottom, only to have to start again - is not a tale of despair. On the contrary, Camus thinks that this could be the ground of our obligation to live.

... Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He, too, concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of the night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.29

Must we? Such a dogmatic attitude - whether in Augustine or in Camus - betrays a lack of moral seriousness about the problem of suicide. I think Hume is right to insist, against universal prohibitions, that suicide is a moral issue to be resolved in the particular circumstances in which the matter arises. Some suicides may be wrong, but suicide in general cannot be.30

For the most part, however, the debate31 has moved on to the question of personal interests and social obligations: how do we measure the utilities involved and how do we understand the commitments of citizenship? We may not agree with Hume that no-one ever killed themselves whose life was worth living, but we can agree that at least a percentage of those who have taken their own lives were right to do what they did. Suicide was made legal in France in 1790, the motion proposed by Dr. Guillotin; in England the laws against suicide were repealed only in 1961, although for many years they were applied leniently if at all. Following the publication of Emile Durkheim's Suicide and a number of other sociological, psychological and medical studies, attitudes to suicide have gradually changed. Contemporary society appears to be more tolerant than in Hume's day.

However, there is still a tendency to find suicide regrettable. Much of the recent literature acknowledges that most of us would attempt to intervene to prevent the act of suicide were able to do so and commends such interventions. There is also a tendency to separate out those suicides where depression or old age is the cause from the more glamorous and admirable cases of self-sacrifice such as Captain Oates or Jan Palach. In other words, dying for the sake of others or for the sake of some great principle is still considered morally superior to the action of those who end their lives simply because they saw no reason to continue them. There is a difference between the moral value of an act of self-sacrifice and the moral value of an action with no instrumental intention. But in the same way that suicides that fall into the first category might be good despite their futility, so those that fall into the latter category might be good despite their lack of moral grandeur.

Against the view that suicide could never be a proper choice for a rational agent, Hume wrote to "restore to men their native liberty". I think he is correct to link the right to take one's life with the concept of rational autonomy and correct to insist that if suicide is to be considered as a serious moral question then it must be judged according to individual cases and not be made the subject of some universal principle. I think he has not given sufficient reason to believe that all suicides are justified, for there may be cases where our obligations to other persons overrule our right to die, if we entered into these obligations willingly and have not renounced them. Nor has he dealt adequately with the question of how we decide when suicide is in our best interests and when it is simply an easy way out of an awkward situation. Precisely when suicide might not be acceptable is a difficult question: this is where the serious moral arguments must be made.32


1 This story is recounted in E C Mossner, The Life of David Hume, (Edinburgh, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1954), p.173/4.

2 ibid p.606.

3 ibid p.393/4

4 D Hume, Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, {ed} E F Miller, (Indianapolis, Liberty Classics, 1985), p.xlviii/xlix.

5 E C Mossner, op. cit, p.605, and pp.620-2.

6 D Hume, op. cit, p.577 (editor's footnote). For a detailed account of the suppression of "Of Suicide", see E C Mossner, 'Hume's Four Dissertations: An Essay in Biography and Bibliography', Modem Philology, 48, 1950.

7 A Schopenhauer, Parega & Paralipomena, trans. E Payne, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1974), vol II, p.309.

8 D Hume, op.cit, p.580

9 For a different interpretation, see T Beauchamp, 'An Analysis of Hume's Essay "On Suicide"', Review of Metaphysics, 30, 1976.

10 Discussions of the history of the suicide debate can be found in, S E Sprott, The English Debate on Suicide, (La Salle, Open Court, 1961), A Alvarez, The Savage God, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1971), and R Campbell & D Collinson {eds}, Ending Lives, (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1988). For an account of the history of the word 'suicide', and its synonyms, see D Daube, The Linguistics of Suicide', Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, 1972.

11 Plato, Phaedo, 62b/c.

12 Augustine of Hippo, City of God, 1:16-27

13 J Donne, Biathanatos , (Newark, Delaware University Press, 1984).

14 D Hume, op. cit, p.588/9.

15 ibid., p.581

16 ibid., p.583

17 ibid., p.583.

18 ibid., p.586

19 Pliny, The Natural History, trans. H Rackham, (London, Heinemann, 1938), vol I, p.186.

20 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V:11.

21 Quoted in R Campbell & D Collinson {eds}, op. cit., p.17/18.

22 This is not an exclusively 'conservative' argument; see, for example, William Godwin's comment in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1976), p. 178.

23 D Hume, op. cit., p.586.

24 D Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1978), p.581/2.

25 Brandt makes the point that someone contemplating suicide is probably not able to estimate the rationality of their action very accurately. I think this will be true in many cases, but in others the thought of death may help to concentrate the mind. See R Brandt, The Morality and Rationality of Suicide', in J Rachels {ed}, Moral Problems, (New York, Harper & Row, 1975), and P Devine, 'On Choosing Death', in M Pabst Battin & D Mayo {eds}, Suicide: The Philosophical Issues, (New York, St Martin's Press, 1980).

26I Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. H Paton, (New York, Harper & Row, 1964), p.88/89. (Also p.96/7).

27 I Kant, Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, trans. J Ellington, (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), p.83/4. (This is a translation of Part II of the Metaphysic of Morals).

28 D Hume, Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, p.588.

29 A Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. J O'Brien, (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1975), p.111.

30 A point also made by Sidney Hook, The Ethics of Suicide', Ethics, 37, 1927. Hook writes, "In the course of this paper I shall try to show that any system of thought which absolutely refuses to countenance suicide as a rational possibility is either irresponsibly optimistic or utterly immoral." (p.175).

31 See for example, M Walzer, Obligations, (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 1970); J Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives, (Harmpndsworth, Penguin Books, 1977); and M Pabst Battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ., Prentice-Hall Inc., 1982).

32 This paper was read at a seminar at the Philosophy Department, University College London in February 1989. I would like to thank Malcolm Budd and Michael Rosen for their helpful suggestions on ways to improve the argument of the paper.

© Mark Hannam © 2009