The Jurisprudence of Permissible Suicide

By Taiwo. I. Abiodun-Oni

N: B- This piece is in no way an implicit or explicit effort in support of suicide but a question on the negative assumption with which the act of suicide is often characterized with.

Mencius wrote:
Fish is what I want; bear’s palm is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take bear’s palm than fish. Life is what I want; yi is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take yi than life. On the one hand, though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all cost. On the other hand, though death is what I loathe, there is something I loathe more than death. That is why there are dangers I do not avoid … Yet there are ways of remaining alive and ways of avoiding death to which a person will not resort. In other words, there are things a person wants more than life and there are also things he or she loathes more than death.

Conceptual clarification
The word suicide, etymologically, is from two Latin roots, Sui (“of oneself”) and Cidium (or “slaying”). McAlpine et al defined Suicide as an act of voluntarily and intentionally taking one’s own life.

Livid Introspections
The principal moral questions surrounding suicide has been are:

  1. Are there conditions under which suicide is morally justified, and if so, which conditions?
  2. Should other individuals attempt to prevent suicide?
  3. Should the state criminalize suicide or attempt to prevent it?
  4. Is suicide ever rational or prudent?

Rationalizing Suicide
There are arguments in favor of allowing an individual to choose between life and suicide. Those in favor of suicide as a personal choice reject the thought that suicide is always or usually irrational, but is instead a solution to real problems; a line of last resort that can legitimately be taken when the alternative is considered worse. They believe that no being should be made to suffer unnecessarily, and suicide provides an escape from suffering.

Jurisprudential Rationality
If suicide be criminal, it must be a transgression of our duty either to God, the State, or us. To prove that suicide is no necessarily a transgression, the following considerations may perhaps suffice:
In order to govern the material world, the Creator established an order, by which all situations, from the grandest act of lucidity to the most inconsequential occurrences, are maintained to play their designated roles. To govern the human world, he has endowed all living creatures with bodily and mental powers inundated with senses, passions, appetites, memory, and judgement, by which they are impelled or regulated in that course of life to which they are destined.
These two distinct creations of the creator of the material and human world, unavoidably encroach on each other, and may either obstruct or assist their mutual beneficial existence.

What then is the meaning that a man who, tired of life and hunted by pain and misery, bravely overcomes all the natural terrors of death and makes his escape from this cruel world; that such a man I say, has incurred the indignation of his Creator by encroaching on the office of divine providence, and disturbing the order of the universe?

Shall we assert that the Almighty has reserved to himself in any peculiar manner the disposal of the lives of men, and has not submitted that event, in common with others, to the general laws by which the universe is governed? This I firmly believe to be plainly false. The lives of men depend upon the same laws od circumstances and happenings as are the lives of all other humans.

All humans are entrusted to their own prudence and skill for their conduct in the world, and have full authority as far as their power extends, to alter all the operations of nature. Without the exercise of this authority they could not subsist a moment.
Has not everyone, of consequence, the free disposal of his own life? And may he not lawfully employ that power with which nature has endowed him?

Does the moral code not teach that when any ill befalls a person, though by the malice of his/her enemies, the person ought to be resigned to divine providence; and that the actions of men are all of part of supernatural plan? When a person falls upon his own sword, therefore, the person receives death equal to one receivable from the hands of the Deity as if it had proceeded from a lion, a precipice, or a fever. The submission which you require to providence, in every calamity that befalls me, excludes not human skill and industry, if possible by their means one can avoid or escape the calamity.

It is the utmost cynicism that one person or supernatural force may have monopoly over life and death. How is it that state sanctioned executions are seen as lawful and an extension of justice, while, self decided executions are ruled as unlawful and against the law of State.
The execution of the social contract theory where a man gives up all or some of his rights for protection from the State seems logically implausible, cynical, antediluvian and an abuse of the freewill of man; which is the unrivaled greatest gift given to humanity.
For a man to resign to fate is the same as retiring to bed. The premises for both scenarios are fatigue from life. It is decisive, matured and non-self deceitful.
Idealistically, Herodotus wrote: “When life is so burdensome, death has become for man a sought-after refuge”. Schopenhauer affirmed: “They tell us that suicide is the greatest act of cowardice that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person.

According to Schopenhauer, moral freedom; the highest ethical aim is to be obtained only by a denial of the will to live. Far from being a denial, suicide is an emphatic assertion of this will. For it is in fleeing from the pleasures, not from the sufferings of life, that this denial consists.
To each on the day he graduates minority and attains adulthood, their lives belong only to them, and no other person has the right to force their own ideals that life must be lived. Rather, only the individual involved can make such a decision, and whatever decision they make should be respected.

Infact, one could argue that the permissibility of suicide in any geography serves as the true test of the ultimate freedom of humanity available in that geography. It is the litmus test of fundamental human rights.
Philosophical thinking in the 19th and 20th century has led, in some cases, beyond thinking in terms of pro-choice, to the point that suicide is no longer a last resort, or even something that one must justify, but something that one must justify not doing.

Many forms of existentialist thinking essentially begin with the premise that life is objectively meaningless, and proceed to the question of why one should not just kill oneself; they then answer this question by suggesting that the individual has the power to give personal meaning to life.
Just like some of the stoics who have argued that suicide is cowardly and wrong, it may be far agreeable that death by one’s own hand and on one’s own terms is more honorable than a life of protracted misery


While self help may not be the best kind of help, it may be the surest.

2 thoughts on “The Jurisprudence of Permissible Suicide”

  1. This is an excellent piece on a topic which is not talked about enough. It is often said that the two most important aspect of a person’s life are birth and death. The first one occurs with neither the person’s consent nor control; as no one is asked to be born. Why then should one not be able to control the second?

    One way to think about this is in line with the paternalistic nature of governments. Is the government best placed to make decisions in an individual’s interest, in all aspects of his life, even against his will? John Stuart Mull opined that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” Does a person taking their own life necessarily cause harm to others? The governed should not always be viewed as incompetent to make decisions for themselves as this violates the dignity accorded to all human beings. Where is the freedom and autonomy?

    Though it could be argued that, despite its subtly coercive means, the the end of paternalism is sometimes benevolent (use of seat belts, helmets, etc). On the other hand, what exactly differentiates a paternalistic government from ‘Thanos’?

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