Suicide: The Murder of Oneself

By: Sam Vaknin

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Those who believe in the finality of death (i.e., that there is no after-life) – they are the ones who advocate suicide and regard it as a matter of personal choice. On the other hand, those who firmly believe in some form of existence after corporeal death – they condemn suicide and judge it to be a major sin. Yet, rationally, the situation should have been reversed: it should have been easier for someone who believed in continuity after death to terminate this phase of existence on the way to the next. Those who faced void, finality, non-existence, vanishing – should have been greatly deterred by it and should have refrained even from entertaining the idea. Either the latter do not really believe what they profess to believe – or something is wrong with rationality. One would tend to suspect the former.

Suicide is very different from self sacrifice, avoidable martyrdom, engaging in life risking activities, refusal to prolong one's life through medical treatment, euthanasia, overdosing and self inflicted death that is the result of coercion. What is common to all these is the operational mode: a death caused by one's own actions. In all these behaviours, a foreknowledge of the risk of death is present coupled with its acceptance. But all else is so different that they cannot be regarded as belonging to the same class. Suicide is chiefly intended to terminate a life – the other acts are aimed at perpetuating, strengthening and defending values.

Those who commit suicide do so because they firmly believe in the finiteness of life and in the finality of death. They prefer termination to continuation. Suicide may be an obsessive-compulsive ritual aimed at forestalling much-dreaded change. Indeed, suicide rates are highest among people whose lives are adrenaline-filled roller-coasters: physicians and Bipolar patients, for example. Yet, all the others, the observers of this phenomenon, are horrified by this preference. They abhor it. This has to do with our understanding of the meaning of life.

Ultimately, life has only meanings that we attribute and ascribe to it. Such a meaning can be external (God's plan) or internal (meaning generated through arbitrary selection of a frame of reference). But, in any case, it must be actively selected, adopted and espoused. The difference is that, in the case of external meanings, we have no way to judge their validity and quality (is God's plan for us a good one or not?). We just "take them on" because they are big, all encompassing and of a good "source". A hyper-goal generated by a superstructural plan tends to lend meaning to our transient goals and structures by endowing them with the gift of eternity. Something eternal is always judged more meaningful than something temporal. If a thing of less or no value acquires value by becoming part of a thing eternal – than the meaning and value reside with the quality of being eternal – not with the thing thus endowed. It is not a question of success. Plans temporal are as successfully implemented as designs eternal. Actually, there is no meaning to the question: is this eternal plan / process / design successful because success is a temporal thing, linked to endeavours that have clear beginnings and ends.

This, therefore, is the first requirement: our life can become meaningful only by integrating into a thing, a process, a being eternal. In other words, continuity (the temporal image of eternity, to paraphrase a great philosopher) is of the essence. Terminating our life at will renders them meaningless. A natural termination of our life is naturally preordained. A natural death is part and parcel of the very eternal process, thing or being which lends meaning to life. To die naturally is to become part of an eternity, a cycle, which goes on forever of life, death and renewal. This cyclic view of life and the creation is inevitable within any thought system, which incorporates a notion of eternity. Because everything is possible given an eternal amount of time – so are resurrection and reincarnation, the afterlife, hell and other beliefs adhered to by the eternal lot.

Sidgwick raised the second requirement and with certain modifications by other philosophers, it reads: to begin to appreciate values and meanings, a consciousness (intelligence) must exist. True, the value or meaning must reside in or pertain to a thing outside the consciousness / intelligence. But, even then, only conscious, intelligent people will be able to appreciate it.

We can fuse the two views: the meaning of life is the consequence of their being part of some eternal goal, plan, process, thing, or being. Whether this holds true or does not – a consciousness is called for in order to appreciate life's meaning. Life is meaningless in the absence of consciousness or intelligence. Suicide flies in the face of both requirements: it is a clear and present demonstration of the transience of life (the negation of the NATURAL eternal cycles or processes). It also eliminates the consciousness and intelligence that could have judged life to have been meaningful had it survived. Actually, this very consciousness / intelligence decides, in the case of suicide, that life has no meaning whatsoever. To a very large extent, the meaning of life is perceived to be a collective matter of conformity. Suicide is a statement, writ in blood, that the community is wrong, that life is meaningless and final (otherwise, the suicide would not have been committed).

This is where life ends and social judgement commences. Society cannot admit that it is against freedom of expression (suicide is, after all, a statement). It never could. It always preferred to cast the suicides in the role of criminals (and, therefore, bereft of any or many civil rights). According to still prevailing views, the suicide violates unwritten contracts with himself, with others (society) and, many might add, with God (or with Nature with a capital N). Thomas Aquinas said that suicide was not only unnatural (organisms strive to survive, not to self annihilate) – but it also adversely affects the community and violates God's property rights. The latter argument is interesting: God is supposed to own the soul and it is a gift (in Jewish writings, a deposit) to the individual. A suicide, therefore, has to do with the abuse or misuse of God's possessions, temporarily lodged in a corporeal mansion. This implies that suicide affects the eternal, immutable soul. Aquinas refrains from elaborating exactly how a distinctly physical and material act alters the structure and / or the properties of something as ethereal as the soul. Hundreds of years later, Blackstone, the codifier of British Law, concurred. The state, according to this juridical mind, has a right to prevent and to punish for suicide and for attempted suicide. Suicide is self-murder, he wrote, and, therefore, a grave felony. In certain countries, this still is the case. In Israel, for instance, a soldier is considered to be "army property" and any attempted suicide is severely punished as being "attempt at corrupting army possessions". Indeed, this is paternalism at its worst, the kind that objectifies its subjects. People are treated as possessions in this malignant mutation of benevolence. Such paternalism acts against adults expressing fully informed consent. It is an explicit threat to autonomy, freedom and privacy. Rational, fully competent adults should be spared this form of state intervention. It served as a magnificent tool for the suppression of dissidence in places like Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Mostly, it tends to breed "victimless crimes". Gamblers, homosexuals, communists, suicides – the list is long. All have been "protected from themselves" by Big Brothers in disguise. Wherever humans possess a right – there is a correlative obligation not to act in a way that will prevent the exercise of such right, whether actively (preventing it), or passively (reporting it). In many cases, not only is suicide consented to by a competent adult (in full possession of his faculties) – it also increases utility both for the individual involved and for society. The only exception is, of course, where minors or incompetent adults (the mentally retarded, the mentally insane, etc.) are involved. Then a paternalistic obligation seems to exist. I use the cautious term "seems" because life is such a basic and deep set phenomenon that even the incompetents can fully gauge its significance and make "informed" decisions, in my view. In any case, no one is better able to evaluate the quality of life (and the ensuing justifications of a suicide) of a mentally incompetent person – than that person himself.

The paternalists claim that no competent adult will ever decide to commit suicide. No one in "his right mind" will elect this option. This contention is, of course, obliterated both by history and by psychology. But a derivative argument seems to be more forceful. Some people whose suicides were prevented felt very happy that they were. They felt elated to have the gift of life back. Isn't this sufficient a reason to intervene? Absolutely, not. All of us are engaged in making irreversible decisions. For some of these decisions, we are likely to pay very dearly. Is this a reason to stop us from making them? Should the state be allowed to prevent a couple from marrying because of genetic incompatibility? Should an overpopulated country institute forced abortions? Should smoking be banned for the higher risk groups? The answers seem to be clear and negative. There is a double moral standard when it comes to suicide. People are permitted to destroy their lives only in certain prescribed ways.

And if the very notion of suicide is immoral, even criminal – why stop at individuals? Why not apply the same prohibition to political organizations (such as the Yugoslav Federation or the USSR or East Germany or Czechoslovakia, to mention four recent examples)? To groups of people? To institutions, corporations, funds, not for profit organizations, international organizations and so on? This fast deteriorates to the land of absurdities, long inhabited by the opponents of suicide.

Teen Suicide and Social Media

Social media and the devices that they run on are designed to be addictive, as many industry executives have confessed. Addiction is always punctuated by periods of withdrawal and its “cold turkey” excruciating symptoms. The correlation between all manner of addictions and suicide, or lesser self-destructive and reckless acts is well documented.

College freshmen are “overwhelmed” more than ever (41% in 2016 compared to 18% in 1985). But teens also experience performance anxiety when on social media. This is because these are competitive ecosystems where one’s social ranking is objectively determined by quantitative yardsticks, such as the number of “likes” or “friends” – and also publicly available, for all to see and opine on. Diagnosed anxiety among teens shot up 20% since 2007 and one sixth of all case are classified as “severe”. Peer pressure is ego-dystonic and is often expressed as bullying or mobbing or in other forms of aggression (such as black humor or brutal honesty). Such a toxic environment engenders a lot of destructive envy as well.

Studies show that teens nowadays are more insecure than in previous generations. They are especially concerned about their economic future. They are asocial: they prefer surfing to socializing with friends their age. Both dating and sexual activities have declined by more than 50% since 1985. Today’s teens are not used to privacy and, therefore, to intimacy. They are itinerant, peripatetic, and mature slowly (they are 3 years behind on every scale of personal development). Medically, contemporary teens are obese and have body image problems. Many more of them are on mind altering medication or drugs. These are all hallmarks of pathological narcissism. Twenge discovered that MMPI scores evince a fivefold increase in psychopathology in 2007 compared to 1938. Anxiety and depression have shot up sixfold.

Social media is amenable to mass hysteria, shared psychotic disorders (now no longer a diagnosis in the DSM 5), and the emergence of cults, including nihilistic cults, suicide cults, and death cults (such as ISIS which is a child of social media). This Proclivity is aided and abetted by two attendant phenomena: (1) Catastrophising: an end of days presentiment which is enhanced by (2) Unmooring: the profusion of fake news, truthiness, reality TV, and the narcissistic tide of anti-expertise and anti-intellectualism).

Studies are unequivocal: beyond a certain level, more screen time leads to reduced levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem and to increased manifestations of anxiety and depression. All other off-screen activities had the opposite effects: sports, interpersonal interactions, religious services, consuming legacy print and electronic media, and doing homework.

Social media reflect our values: we prefer efficiency to quality or quiddity. Ours is a quantitative world. But some things do not lend themselves to speed or quantity: family life, romance, or friendships, for example. Modern technology was invented by schizoids: asocial, asexual, somewhat autistic recluses. Businessmen then took over from the engineers and stripped the outcome of anything that stood in the way of monetizing the maximum number of eyeballs. The result is a psychogenic chimera.

The ever-diminishing size of screens (from the cinema screen to the smartwatch) tracked the atomization of our ever more anomic and narcissistic societies. In his book “Suicide”, Emile Durkheim predicted that suicide rates in anomic societies will tend to increase. Since 2010, suicide among teens skyrocketed by 31% and became the leading cause of death among people younger than 24.


Journal of Development and Behavioral Pediatrics (National Survey of Children’s Health)

Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA

Emotion, January 2018 (Twenge, Martin, and Campbell)

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