Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


James Skillen


April 14, 1997

Are there any rational arguments for suicide? Some well-known American philosophers think so. But can we trust their rationality? What about the Heaven's Gate cultists who committed mass suicide last month? Were they rational or irrational?

Most of the media reports I heard about the cultists who took their own lives emphasized the strangeness—the irrationality—of the group's action. What troubles people the most is the odd faith of the cultists, a faith that led them to choose death for reasons that most of us reject.

About two months before the mass suicide in San Diego, six noted moral philosophers, led by Ronald Dworkin, presented an argument in favor of physician-assisted suicide before the U.S. Supreme Court. They used eminently rational terms. Based on the assumption that the ultimate authority in human life is the autonomous individual, the philosophers argued that government ought not to stand in the way of each person's decision to live or die according to his or her own convictions about what makes life worth living.

Of course, the philosophers included several qualifications. States should be free to outlaw suicide where it might appear that individuals are acting impulsively or out of emotional depression. States probably should not allow suicide if "it is plausible to think" that later on the person would be grateful still to be alive. Yet, we must ask, who is the all-wise human authority or authorities who can distinguish impulsive from deliberate behavior? Who should be allowed to interfere with another person's autonomy and decide that a person who wants to die now might be happy to be alive later on?

The philosophers are quite convinced that people in extreme pain, especially late in their lives, could be acting quite rationally in asking a physician to help them commit suicide. They might also be rational to choose suicide because of "intolerable indignity or incapacity." The philosophers use some of the same arguments in support of suicide that they use for a woman's right to abortion. A woman's own life does not need to be in physical danger, in their estimation, for her to decide that carrying a baby to term would cause her too much distress. If someone, or a group of people, decides that life has become an intolerable indignity, why not allow suicide?

Philosopher Michael Sandel has criticized the philosophers who argue in favor of assisted suicide on the ground that their fundamental assumption is wrong. The proponents believe that life is the possession of the person who lives it and that each rational person should be free to construct one's own life drama to reflect one's own convictions. On those terms, however, why should we not applaud every suicide as much as we applaud every brave soul who decides to live?

Sandel counters that even John Locke and Immanuel Kant—the two best known fathers of classical liberalism—objected to suicide. However much they valued human autonomy, they knew that people cannot create their own reality. We should not allow the law to be built solely on the assumption of individual autonomy, says Sandel, but instead should expect it to support the dignity of persons in community with a value beyond individual will.

Sandel is right and Dworkin and other supporters of death-by-choice are wrong. Many people believe that the Heaven's Gate cultists acted irrationally. I find the philosophers' argument for suicide equally irrational. It can lead directly to suicides such as those in San Diego. Both the cultists and the philosophers need a different view of life. Human beings have been created in the image of God and called to live humbly before God in service to one another.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”