Is suicide okay ?

One of the leading causes of death in the United States is suicide, yet no one seems to be talking about the alarming number of deaths that occur each year. Why is that?  In our society it is seen as almost a taboo, an indication of a societal inner conflict. Although the suicide rates are almost double the homicide rate, the news reports rarely publicize suicide despite the 30,000 people who kill themselves every year. Unlike homicide, suicide is quite difficult to explain because the victim is also simultaneously the murderer. But what are the incentives of suicide in term of economics? Does suicide indicate a low happiness level in a given society? And the most confusing question: why exactly do people commit suicide?

One of the most complicated issues surrounding suicide is that the individual who committed suicide did not necessarily commit a crime. If the suicide is successful, the law cannot punish the individual. You cannot put someone in jail for committing suicide. Are they not in charge of their own life? And if so, don’t they have the right to end it if it’s their own life? According to the Christian viewpoint on suicide, taking one’s life is a mortal and grave sin because a person cannot “play God” to determine whether or not his or her life should end.  The same is seen throughout history, as suicide seems to play against this type of natural law and animal instinct to survive. Even Dante dedicated a ring of hell in Inferno to those who committed suicide [1].  Thus this is perhaps why so many institutions feel so opposed to suicide since evolution has taught us to do all means to survive and taking ones one life seems to defy the human nature which makes us so unique.

But what are the incentives of suicide in term of economics?

We put into practice the ideas of economics surely one can see that suicide can be explained as simply as the marginal cost of one’s life exceeding the marginal benefit. Arthur Schopenhauer, an economist, says “As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to him life” [2] . In terms of incentives, perhaps suicide is done when the person feels as if they have reached no incentive for life, or less expectations of anything positive happening in their lives.  In An Economic Theory of suicide, Dan Hamermesh makes a model to illustrate the predictions of someone who would commit suicide. In the model he predicted that suicide rises the older the person is, suicide decreases as income increases, and decreases if the person has a high desire to life. He plugged in the data of recent suicides into his model and saw that he was right [3]. With this model, suicide is translated into an economical statement or prediction.

Surprisingly studies find that people who commit suicide aren’t usually the people with necessarily bad lives. People who live in places where diseases such as malaria and aids are prominent can have lower suicide rates than places where the everyday life. David Lester, a suicide scholar, believes that the higher quality of life, the higher suicide rates an area will have. The factors to describe the quality of life include factors such as heath, geography, culture, wealth, and other things. He argues that when you are in an area with a low quality of life and you are depressed you know why you are depressed for example if you are a poor person living in a nation with a genocide and in poverty you are can pinpoint the source of your unhappiness [4] .But if you are in a flourishing country and everything is thriving, but you are still depressed you think that perhaps you are the problem. Thus you would see that you are the problem and stay depressed putting you at more risk of suicide. This seems to correspond to Aristotle’s perception on wealth in the ethics which emphasizes the idea that wealth does not equate to happiness, but the ability to act with reason and exercising your rational faculties. Unlike society’s popular perception, Aristotle defines true riches as virtues and he states that “Wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” [5]  Thus perhaps the person in the less prosperous society can be happier than another individual were the circumstances are in his or her favor .Although suicide is more common in areas where the quality of life is greater, one can see that happiness does not correspond to a better quality of life.

Can suicide be considered as a rational action ?

In the Utilitarian point of view, John Start Mill conveys how all humans are drawn toward achieving happiness which to his definition is that, “happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain”[6]. So if an individual feels as if their life is overwhelmed be pain, are they not entitled to feel the pleasure from death? However, with death comes absence of pain along with pleasure; in death one cannot feel anything. To expand on his definition, Mill argues that utilitarianism is happiness where it is found on whether or not the person finds pain or pleasure and is best when the decision made effects the entire society in a positive way. Then suicide could be seen as a rational decision if it helps society. For example, in the Bible the son of God Jesus Christ sacrifices himself for the sins of humanity. However he did have the ability to escape death and was of a higher power than most humans. Thus it could be argued that Jesus Christ committed suicide on the cross by not escaping death. In regards to sacrifice, Mill claims that the “utilitarian morality does recognize in human beings the power of sacrificing their own greatest food for the good”, but he does not necessarily recognize the sacrifice in itself as good. The sacrifice is not necessarily praised but its effect on society [7].  Therefore we can tie this to modern day suicides, and the overall well-being in society based on these. The Suicide Awareness Voices of Education organization, claims that suicide affects at least 6 other people. Although most depressed people feel as if no one cares for them, the reality is that most likely your suicide will affect others [8]. Family members can be distraught and many people will be left wondering what they could have done to prevent the suicide. But if you are somebody with no family, no friends, and are not overall contributing to society, utilitarianism would see the act as a positive deed. However suicide varies from case to case. For example, a suicide bomber would be praised among those in favor, but seen as an act of terror towards the victims.

Although suicide can be argued as a positive good for society sociologist have found that it might produce a domino effect. When the media sheds light on suicide in a heroic manner, it is found that suicide rates tend to go up. The New York Times argues that publicity for suicide can increase suicide rates especially for young people [9]. When someone has already been contemplating suicide, seeing others commit suicide negatively influences them to perform the same action. In 1962 when Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, suicide rates shot up by as much as 12% in the following months [10]. Thus perhaps this is why the media so rarely covers suicides because unlike homicides, it is difficult to find someone to blame and it can also negatively affect society and those at risk of suicide. In cases like these, the utility morality would negatively impact the happiness of society as a whole by encouraging others to follow the same path. Because celebrities have such a large spotlight placed on them, they have a responsibility to act for the greater good of society.

What would Aristotle say about suicide?

Philosopher Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics conveys that all men are in search for happiness and “happiness is believed to be the most desirable thing in the world, and not merely as one among other good things”[11] Suicide usually occurs when an individual desires happiness but feels hopeless in attaining happiness in the present or future. Aristotle views the purpose of the individual as to be able to contribute to society and that the “good is the final end, and happiness is this” [12]. Thus when an individual takes his own life, he is hurting society by taking away the good that he would be able to contribute if he were living. If asked who does the man hurt by taking his life, Aristotle answers “But towards whom? Surely towards the state, not towards himself. For he suffers voluntarily, but no one is voluntarily treated unjustly. This is also the reason why the state punishes; a certain loss of civil rights attaches to the man who destroys himself, on the ground that he is treating the state unjustly” [13] While he does not see suicide as a wrong done towards the individual because it is consensual, the individual can no longer produce and do anything valuable for society once dead.

As people we will never be able to fully understand why people commit suicide. There are many factors that must be considered such as the emotional state, the physical state, and the circumstances regarding the individual. It is largely ignored in society but nevertheless it is still an issue we have to face today. Whether or not it is something an individual has a right to is something that has been debated throughout history and continues to be debated.

[1]  Katharine Lanier, trans., Dante’s Inferno (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 91–92

2 ,3 , 4 “The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript.” Freakonomics RSS. June 21, 2011. Accessed June 28, 2015.

5 , 11, 12, 13 Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, edited by Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

6, 7 “Utilitarianism,” John Start Mill in How to Find Happiness Without a Free Lunch, ed. Mr. Aparicio, Ursuline Academy, 2015.

[8] SAVE. “Suicide Facts.” Suicide Awarness Voices of Education. Accessed February 25, 2014, http://www.save.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=705D5DF4-055B-F1EC-3F66462866FCB4E6

9, 10 Sanger-katz, Margot. “The Science Behind Suicide Contagion.” The New York Times. August 13, 2014. Accessed June 28, 2015.

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