The Suicidal Man

26Oct07

Kant discusses the morality of suicide in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:

“A man feels sick of life as the result of a series of misfortunes that has mounted to the point of despair, but he is still so far in possession of his reason to ask himself whether taking his own life may be contrary to his duty to himself. He now applies the test ‘Can the maxim of my action really become a universal law of nature?’ His maxim is ‘From self-love I make it my principle to shorten my life if its continuance threatens more evil than it promises pleasure.’ The only further question to ask is whether this principle of self-love can become a universal law of nature. It is then seen at once that a system of nature by whose law the very same feeling whose function (Bestimmung) is to stimulate the furtherance of life should actually destroy life would contradict itself and consequently could not subsist as a system of nature. Hence this maxim cannot possibly hold as a universal law of nature and is entirely opposed to the supreme principle of all duty.”

(Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Tr. H. J. Paton, Routledge, London & New York, 1997. pp. 85-6)

Kant does not think that suicide can be justified as it is based on a principle of ‘self-love’ that could not be willed as a universal law without denigrating one’s personhood, and so contradicting its own foundation.

1. Is this argument convincing?

2. How does it compare with Velleman’s argument that, in some cases, we should consider legalising death for the sake of dignity, not self-interest?

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