“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
In a recent article in The New York Times it was reported that in the past decade there has been a sharp increase in the number of suicides, especially among middle-aged Americans. According to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report issued by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, more people now die of suicide than in car accidents. While these reports focused on suicide rates among baby-boomers, preliminary research by Rutgers suggests that the incidence of suicide for future generations is not likely to abate. The reasons for suicide are often complex, involving personal as well as circumstantial factors, like the economic downturn in the past decade. But a contributing factor could be that there is a subtle shift in society’s attitude towards suicide. This is seen in the growing chorus of advocates for the decriminalisation of suicide. As The New York Times article puts it, ‘One suicide can inspire other people, unfortunately, to view suicide as an option’.
The modern liberal ethos can also be said to encourage society to change its attitude towards suicide. Some liberal philosophers and thinkers have argued energetically that although suicide must always be considered immoral, there are certain circumstances that make this course of action acceptable. For example, Robert Brandt clearly articulates the liberal utilitarian view when he argues that it may be appropriate to take one’s own life in order to meet one’s obligations to one’s family. For example, suicide may be justifiable if it relieves one’s family members of the burden of catastrophic medical expenses because of a terminal illness. Following the trajectory of this logic, other liberal thinkers have expanded the list of sufficient reasons for suicide to include painful, terminal illness, loss of prestige and status, loss of limb and beauty and loss of sexual ability.
Another version of this liberal view emphasises the importance of personal autonomy, a principle that has almost become a sacred dogma in modern secular medical ethics. In their influential book, Principles of Biomedical Ethics Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress argue that human beings, as self-determining agents, should be given the liberty to make their own evaluations and choices about their lives. This includes the right to end their lives. To deny human beings of the right to commit suicide, they argue, is to violate the principle of autonomy. For Beauchamp and Childress, the principle of autonomy must in some respects be given precedence over others, including beneficence and nonmaleficence. Therefore, a person with a sound mind must be allowed to decide his own destiny even if others are of the view that that decision would harm him or her. In modern society, where individualism and rights discourse are already rife, the principle of autonomy is often seen simply as a logical corollary.
Christian reflection on suicide emerged from a context where taking one’s life is not only acceptable but in some cases even regarded as noble. With the exception of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and the Pythagoreans, Greco-Roman society generally did not frown on suicide as morally reprehensive. The Stoics, for example, regarded suicide as warranted when one is suffering from a chronic illness, or when one is impoverished. They also taught that suicide is acceptable when one wishes to escape torture. The classical justification for this came from the pen of the Stoic philosopher Seneca (4 BC – AD 65): ‘Against all injuries of life I have the refuge of death. If I can choose between death of torture and one that is simple and easy, why should I not select the latter?’
Although the Church has since its inception objected to suicide as a rational act, it was Augustine who offered the most robust theological reasons against the practice. Augustine argued persuasively and emphatically that the commandment against murder (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:20) prohibits both homicide and suicide. ‘The commandment is, “thou shalt not kill man”; therefore neither another nor yourself, for he who kills himself still kills nothing else than man’, writes the Bishop of Hippo. In fact, Augustine thinks that suicide is worse than murder. The murderer, he reasons, can at least repent of his sin and be reconciled to God. That option is not available to the suicide. However, Christians are opposed to suicide not only because it is a violation of the right to life, but more importantly because it is a violation of God’s sovereign right to life.
In his thoughtful and moving book, Suffering Presence the Christian theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas eloquently argues that suicide is wrong because human life is a gift from God. Living, according to Hauerwas, is therefore an obligation that human beings owe to their Creator. And this determination to continue living even when one’s life is seriously compromised is itself an act of trust in God, who rules the heavens and the earth with his sovereign wisdom. To condone and valorise suicide in the name of personal autonomy or on the calculus of cost-and-benefit is therefore antithetical to the Christian tradition. As Robert Wennberg puts it, ‘… to kill oneself is to opt out of life’s enterprise and to contravene the divine intention for human existence … it is to terminate a process sovereignly ordained by God for the creation of sons and daughters of God and the reclamation of a separated humanity’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was published in The Bible Speaks Today (April 2014).