Let me make clear right at the start of this piece that I am not, have not been, thinking about suicide nor has the post been sparked off by any family or friends thinking about suicide. The assisted suicide of the paralysed rugby player, Daniel James, has made me think about the role of family or friends when a loved one is contemplating suicide.
I am not concerned in this post about the legal position but only the moral position. This is a subject on which a treatise could be written and probably has been but not by me. In this short post I can only touch on the most simplistic arguments.
I can imagine that many will believe that one must actively work to prevent suicide of a loved one so as to prolong life but I don't buy into this any more.
If the state always worked to prolong life and prevent premature death then I might have more sympathy but the state doesn't always do so. NICE guidelines prevent some patients from receiving treatment which would prolong life whilst allowing treatment for others. Therefore, the state prolongs the life of some and hastens the death of others who want to live longer. Those whose deaths are hastened by the state haven't made the decision to die sooner. That decision has been made for them. Why therefore, should a loved one not help to hasten the death of one who has chosen to die sooner?
But just because the state hastens the death of some doesn't make the decision moral and nor does it for individuals.
Therefore, how does one judge the moral issues?
I contend that IF it is moral for a person to commit suicide then it must be moral for another to assist that suicide but this does not mean that there is a moral duty on another to assist. However, I believe that there is a moral duty on another not to prevent a suicide. [More of this point later]
Let's consider the morality of a person who commits suicide. Many will say that it is immoral to do so; some on religious grounds. Who determines the morality of an action? We can all have a view but only the person alone has the moral authority to decide to commit suicide. If the moral authority does not reside with that person then who does decide.
The state? How would the state decide? Does the state own us? No!
A religion or religious leaders? How can a religion / religious leaders decide for those who are not believers? They can't but what of believers? I would contend that, even for believers, religion or religious leaders do not have the moral authority but if believers wish to give up their own authority to their religion then that is a matter for them.
If not the state and not religion what options remain. Where might the basic moral authority lie? I can not see beyond the individual.
I believe the individual has the moral authority to commit suicide and further that authority is not diminished even if the individual has a partner and children.The individual will, in all likelihood, take family into account in a decision but having family should not, cannot make suicide an immoral act.
Now having come to the conclusion than an individual has the moral authority to commit suicide then by extension it is moral for another to assist that suicide.
What happens if the other person finds suicide an immoral act. What should this person do if a loved one - or, in fact, anyone - wishes to commit suicide?
Must this other person assist? No? One cannot be forced to participate in an act which one finds immoral.
Should the other person who considers suicide an immoral act do everything to prevent the suicide? I imagine that this would be a very contentious area. In this example there is a clash of moral authorities: the person who wants to commit suicide who, I contend, has the moral authority to carry out the suicide and the other who just as strongly believes the act is immoral and should be prevented.
Basically, there are three acts which the other person can take:
1 work to prevent the suicide and to prolong life
2 do nothing to prevent or assist the suicide
3 work to assist the suicide
To the potential suicide victim (victim is an interesting word given that suicide is an event of choice and not of chance) option 1 is unacceptable but to the other person 1 is the only acceptable choice.
What to do?
Whose moral choice takes precedence?
There are those who would say that in this situation the preservation of life must take precedence but those are likely to be the same people who believe suicide is an immoral act. This is a circular argument: those saying suicide is an immoral act say life should be preserved because suicide is an immoral act.
Something more is needed.
I can break this moral dilemma by saying simply that the person most affected by the act has moral precedence and that is the person who wishes to commit suicide.
Ultimately the individual must have the moral authority to act on himself and another person should not intervene to prevent that act, that suicide.
In real life, however, I expect the situation to be quite different.
If one comes across an attempted suicide one is unlikely to stop and think about the moral dilemmas involved. Rather one is likely to "dive" in and attempt to save the "victim". Last year I did. I never stopped to think. I acted to preserve life. Was it a moral act? This post would say that it was not.
Another dilemma - morality versus the ingrained reaction to an emergency.
Another day perhaps I'll look at this too.