The question of suicide
By Laurence Ticehurst
I will not easily, indeed, if ever forget the occasion some years ago when I returned from Dublin to find my neighbourhood in uproar because a young man had ended his own life. Until that day- or rather until the difficult days which followed- I had shared the liberal assumptions about suicide: that it was a tragedy, that those who chose to end their lives in that way deserved to have their choice respected. And in the next few days and perhaps even weeks we are likely to hear a good deal more of such language, since we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath. But when I saw the damage and pain that that the suicide of the young man who lived beside me caused, I began to think that this liberal talk was only half the story.
Of course intolerance is not an attractive emotion. Nor does it lead to well considered political choices. No rational person would wish to reintroduce the crime of assisted suicide. Here above all is case where the police, the courts, and the prison have no place. But we need we acquiesce in what we must tolerate? ( Whatever else is true or not about Plath’s death, she abandoned two small children.)
Political and economic liberalism must be distinguished from libertinism. The former is a doctrine about importance of limiting ( although perhaps not absolutely excluding ) the role of the state in moral matters. The latter is the belief that private morality is at best an irrelevance, and at worst a barrier which stands between people and their true liberation as individuals. Liberalism makes room for tradition and sometimes for departures from it. Libertinism condemns it.
In the case of suicide tradition plainly has the best of the argument. Suicide is not just an individual matter. It is not a crime with only one victim. The victims of every suicide are multiple. Take another case which came my way recently. That of a young working on a masters in The United States who threw himself under the Washington Metro for some trivial reason connected with his academic endeavours. A victimless “crime” you say? I’m not so sure. What of the train driver? What of the emergency services? What of his parents? What of the rest of his family? What of his girl friend? What of her family? And what of the innumerable others- some utterly unknown to him- who have been touched by his foolishness- all because as he put it “he didn’t fit in?” He has condemned all whose life he has touched to live with the trauma he has caused for the rest of their lives.
No! I find myself thinking. Should we not be more aware of the harm that suicide does? Should we perhaps be a rather less tolerant of those who commit suicide? Should we not condemn suicide more vigorously? Should we not perhaps be more aware of the way in which tolerance for suicide, can degenerate into collaboration with it?
But in thinking thus we at once come face to face yet another difficulty. It is exactly the sort of intolerance that I am advocating for suicide, which has in other cases, to led decent people to take their own lives. How can we condemn the act of suicide without denigrating the person who commits it? The question of suicide turns out to be exactly that- a question. In the midst of our tears we have thinking to do.