Is it Always Immoral to Commit Suicide?

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This is a short reflection I wrote for my Kant Seminar:    
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     Kant argues that making false promises and committing suicide are both contrary to the Categorical Imperative because they are non-universalizable. To demonstrate both acts are immoral he employs to both acts an argument strategy which I will call the Argument from Unintelligibility. Essentially the argument is that when universalization leads to the unintelligibility of a concept, the maxim that produced the unintelligibility cannot be universalized. The argument seems to work better in regards to false promises than on the prohibition of suicide. First, I will examine his arguments against false promises and suicide; then I will examine its weaknesses when applied to suicide.
To demonstrate that we should not act on a maxim that permits false promises Kant presents the Argument from Unintelligibility. The main argument is:

  1. The utility and intelligibility of false promises rely on the existence of true promises.
  2. If the notion of a false promise is rendered unintelligible, it cannot achieve the end for which it is intended (to deceive/extricate oneself from an obligation).
  3. If we universalize the maxim that it is permissible to make false promises in order to extricate oneself from and uncomfortable situation/obligation then the notion of a false promise will be rendered unintelligible.
  4. Therefore universalizing this maxim will create a world in which our maxim prevents us from the achieving the very end we seek to accomplish by means of a false promise.

The basic idea is that by universalizing the norm of false promises we end up with a contradiction: a promise to comply with a future obligation only has weight in a society were it is the norm to uphold promises. If the norm is that people to do not uphold promises, then a promise is devoid of its common sense meaning. A false promise only functions in a society where there is a norm to uphold promises. So, if we universalize the norm of not upholding promises, promises become meaningless.
In 397-8 Kant makes the assertion that we have a moral duty to preserve our own lives. Later, in 422 he offers an argument that resembles the Argument from Unintelligibility to support his assertion. To set up the argument Kant asks us to suppose there is a person who’s life is full of so much misfortune and misery that out of self-love they decide it is best to end their life. Is this person duty bound to continue living? In order to answer this we need to see if we can universalized the maxim “from self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure”.
In universalizing this principle Kant recapitulates something similar to the Argument from Unintelligibility with the addition of a requirement that this principle of self-love should also be a principle of nature.

  1. The function of self-love is to keep us living.
  2. If we universalized the principle of “self-love allows suicide” then self-love would not keep us living.
  3. If self-love did not keep up living then this would contradict (1).
  4. The laws of nature cannot lead to contradictions.
  5. Therefore, we cannot commit suicide out of self-love because it cannot be universalized.
  6. Therefore, committing suicide out of self-love is not inline with the categorical imperative.
The main problem with applying the Argument from Unintelligibility to a prohibition on suicide is the assumption that the function of self-love is to “stimulate the furtherance of life”. It is not clear that (1) is true. It is equally plausible to say that the function of self-love commits us to a life of dignity. In this interpretation we can envision situations where there is no prospect of a life of dignity thus self-love might serve to compel us to end our life. Consider someone who has been in a horrible accident and as a consequence is completely paralyzed, cannot live apart from on life support, has difficulty communicating, is in and out of consciousness, and is in constant pain. It is difficult to see how this might be considered a life of dignity. Self-love, interpreted as a life of dignity might compel us to say that this person’s duty is to end their life, or at the very least, it is an option for them.
Kant’s possible reply could be that such a conception of the function of self-love is not actually self-love. This is not a particularly strong reply because in some sense it becomes a semantic argument. The key problem for Kant is that he has not demonstrated that a concept of self-love cannot preclude the notion of life with dignity.

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