What I mean when I say that suicide is cowardly

I am on the record as saying that if you are committing suicide, you are committing a cowardly action. That is, the act of suicide is cowardly. But I want to make it clear what I mean when I say that.

In some Middle Eastern countries right now people are being killed for being Christian. Sometimes they are executed. Sometimes they are simply shot in front of their kids, and if the kids are lucky they won’t be shot as well. But you’ll notice that a lot of these stories starts with the murderer going up to the head of the household and asking if he is Christian.

A Holy man would answer yes, and he would become a Saint with the hope that his family is inspired by his courage.

But many, many people would answer no to save their families.

This is the coward’s way out. If you answer no to this question, you are denying Christ, and you are being a coward.

Now, what would MY answer be?

I hope to God I never have to find out.

Just as I hope to God I never get so depressed I want to commit suicide.

Acknowledging that an action is cowardly is a factual statement. I say nothing about the state of the souls of those who commit the act, and I certainly say nothing about my or anybody else’s personal holiness.

But some actions are cowardly. Denying Christ is one of them. And another is suicide.

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13 Responses to What I mean when I say that suicide is cowardly

  1. Syllabus says:

    I think a misunderstanding that is often had by people who never have suffered from depression is that people in the grasp of deep depression (or, in Williams’ case, probably bipolar disorder) are still in control of their faculties to a morally significant extent. Even if you think that the mind is not identical to the brain, as I do, brain chemistry still has a great deal of effect over your mental state, to the degree that, in a very real sense, you can be made to no longer be at the tiller of your own ship. Is someone who has been pumped to the gills with opiates and all manner of other drugs entirely responsible for his or her actions to the extent that we can call them a coward for making a certain choice? Can we hold a person who has been force-fed alcohol without their volition to the point of being completely inebriated morally culpable in the same way we can someone who hasn’t? That seems to me very questionable, and the person suffering from depression is often in the same state.

    I think the analogy between the person denying Christ and the suicide from depression break down on that point. The Near Eastern man being threatened with death by ISIS is being coerced, but he’s still in control of his faculties to a significant enough extent. People suffering from depression are often not in control of themselves to the extent that the hypothetical apostate is. As I see it, one of the prerequisites for a morally culpable action is a sufficient amount of volitional freedom – not necessarily freedom from external coercion, but the actual internal possibility to make multiple choices. The depressed person very often doesn’t have that, and they have often done nothing to cause that condition. Their will is very truly not their own. It makes about as much sense to call them cowardly as to call a soldier who has been captured by the enemy, pumped full of all manner of opiates and other drugs against his will, and who then reveals classified information cowardly.

    • People suffering from depression are often not in control of themselves to the extent that the hypothetical apostate is.

      The problem I have with this is that when I have long conversations with depressed people who tell me about the plans they have made for suicide, up to and including how people will learn of their death, who will get what, and the specific plans they’ll make to make sure nothing goes wrong, tells me that such a person is in control of their faculties to such an extent that they can be quite rational.

      Now, suicide isn’t always like that. But it sometimes is.

      • Syllabus says:

        such a person is in control of their faculties to such an extent that they can be quite rational.

        I’m not saying that their reason is compromised, I’m saying that their will is (if I was unclear, I regret that). The morally relevant part of this is their will, not their reason.

        Now, suicide isn’t always like that. But it sometimes is.

        Sure, sometimes it is. It very well may be that Willams’ suicide was like this; we don’t have all the facts yet. I’m only saying that it’s manifestly silly to assume that it always is

      • I’m only saying that it’s manifestly silly to assume that it always is.

        If I didn’t make that clear in the post, I will now: I do NOT assume it always is.

      • But I’ll ask – What do you mean that their WILL is compromised? Many depressed people do not commit suicide. Am I to assume that such people simply had the right bio-chemistry?

        There’s a point here where free will has to come into play, at least to a certain extent.

  2. Ilíon says:

    I hope to God I never have to find out.

    Do you think it’s possible that this sentiment sets “deny Christ” as the default answer/response?

    • Frankly, I think most people would, though I obviously have no proof of this. As for me, I don’t know.

    • Latias says:

      I definitely agree.

      I hope to God I never have to find out.

      Just as I hope to God I never get so depressed I want to commit suicide.

      I find that quite banal and quotidian, but it is more commendable than confidently asserting that you would surmount the difficulties of any trial for the greater glory of God. It shows that even the most overtly devout people are at least utilitarians regarding their own physical and mental welfare, given that their expressed interest is avoiding physiological and psychological suffering and disquietude. It is not that pedestrian and natural sentiment (to avoid any suffering) that I disturbing, but your acknowledgement of the obvious undesirably of depression, and even though you have not personally experienced it (or want to), you still the actions of judge others who made certain decisions while in a compromised psychological state and emphasize the “cowardly” nature of the act. Instead, my response is reflect on the frailty human condition and the weakness of the human will to overcome many maladies and unfortunate circumstances, and not pass any judgment towards them for their failure of the will. In my more pious moments, I may reflect that one of the perquisites of the beatific vision is the liberation of the limitations of the human condition.

      (I should also note that to emphasize my aversion of suffering, I do not find “secularized” anti-abortion arguments quite compelling because I did not find anything inherently wrong with terminating the life of individuals who are unable to suffer or have a conception of themselves as an entity with conscious preferences and a unique past, present and future. Abortion is morally neutral to me because there is no suffering involved, and it may even deprive one of experiencing grievous despair, unhappiness, and abject privation. I only became opposed to abortion, philosophically and not politically, because I was able to perceive individual humans as beings created for the glory of God.)

      Here is a quote from someone I greatly admire on the contrast of suffering and pleasure:

      “Admitting your position, replied PHILO, which yet is extremely doubtful, you must at the same time allow, that if pain be less frequent than pleasure, it is infinitely more violent and durable. One hour of it is often able to outweigh a day, a week, a month of our common insipid enjoyments; and how many days, weeks, and months, are passed by several in the most acute torments? Pleasure, scarcely in one instance, is ever able to reach ecstasy and rapture; and in no one instance can it continue for any time at its highest pitch and altitude. The spirits evaporate, the nerves relax, the fabric is disordered, and the enjoyment quickly degenerates into fatigue and uneasiness. But pain often, good God, how often! rises to torture and agony; and the longer it continues, it becomes still more genuine agony and torture. Patience is exhausted, courage languishes, melancholy seizes us, and nothing terminates our misery but the removal of its cause, or another event, which is the sole cure of all evil, but which, from our natural folly, we regard with still greater horror and consternation.”

      Some just commit suicide by embracing what most regard with “great horror and consternation” because they perceive it would terminate their genuine agony and torture. Surely, I can sympathize with that decision, but I certainly do not want to be in that predicament. Even the author of the previous perspicuous words was very impious, the best one could is to pray for those who have committed suicide.

      • It shows that even the most overtly devout people are at least utilitarians regarding their own physical and mental welfare, given that their expressed interest is avoiding physiological and psychological suffering and disquietude.

        You are making the very simple mistake of assuming I am one of the most devout people. To the contrary, many of the great Saints embraced suffering. I am not at that point, and freely admit it.

        It is not that pedestrian and natural sentiment (to avoid any suffering) that I disturbing, but your acknowledgement of the obvious undesirably of depression, and even though you have not personally experienced it (or want to), you still the actions of judge others who made certain decisions while in a compromised psychological state and emphasize the “cowardly” nature of the act.

        I am emphasizing it in an intellectual setting where the morality of the objective act is the primary focus. Were I talking with actual suicidal people you can rest assured that my first and primary reaction would be “What can I do to help you?”

        Instead, my response is reflect on the frailty human condition and the weakness of the human will to overcome many maladies and unfortunate circumstances, and not pass any judgment towards them for their failure of the will.

        I pass no judgment, merely acknowledge that, in certain cases (I invite you to look at the combox discussion going on), a failure of the will is indeed occurring. A lot of people refuse to even go that far.

        Some just commit suicide by embracing what most regard with “great horror and consternation” because they perceive it would terminate their genuine agony and torture.

        These people are sinning. The extent of their culpability is for God and God alone to judge, but they are sinning.

        Even the author of the previous perspicuous words was very impious, the best one could is to pray for those who have committed suicide.

        Obviously. Who is denying that?

  3. Separately, let’s look at these two articles. We have this: http://www.suicide.org/suicide-is-not-a-choice.html

    A good quote: Now, someone with severe depression — and untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide — has a similar signal that their brain is sending to them, and that signal is this: you must die by suicide.

    That “signal” is incessant and overwhelming.

    The problem is that it’s contradicted by another common concept regarding suicide, from this: http://belovedhearts.com/grief_center/Why_Suicide.htm

    1. The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution.
    Suicide is not a pointless or random act. To people who think about ending their own lives, suicide represents an answer to an otherwise insoluble problem or a way out of some unbearable dilemma. It is a choice that is somehow preferable to another set of dreaded circumstances, emotional distress, or disability, which the person fears more than death.
    Attraction to suicide as a potential solution may be increased by a family history of similar behavior. If someone else whom the person admired or cared for has committed suicide, then the person is more likely to do so.

    So is suicide an overwhelming signal telling them they HAVE to die, or is it one CHOICE people make so they don’t have to deal with a larger problem?

    Killing yourself to make the voice shut up is also a choice: A cowardly one. An objectively cowardly act, I might add, if my original post has still not clarified things enough.

    I remain unconvinced.

    • Syllabus says:

      But I’ll ask – What do you mean that their WILL is compromised?

      I mean that a severely depressed person’s mental state is often such that, in a very real sense, they are not in their right mind: their judgement is compromised, their instinct of self-preservation is suppressed, suicide often seems like the most moral action available, among other things. The courts recognize that there are certain, if not exculpatory, at least mitigating mental circumstances which distinguish certain prosecutees from others. I think a similar distinction can be had in this case

      Many depressed people do not commit suicide. Am I to assume that such people simply had the right bio-chemistry?

      I don’t know why they didn’t. Maybe they were stronger willed, maybe it wasn’t severe enough to reach that state, maybe they did have the right biochemistry. And there are other reasons that aren’t reducible to biology – they have an ethical or religious code which is more important than anything else to them, for instance, or their love for those who are dependent upon them is strong enough. In some cases, such resistance may be miraculous, but I wouldn’t like to say when. The article you cited is dealing, so far as I can tell, with suicide as such, not suicide among major depressives or manic depressives. I was talking about the latter. It’s apples and oranges.

      I’m not denying there are many instances in which suicide is a cowardly act. Rather, I’m saying that there are some instances where the person committing suicide doesn’t have enough moral or other agency to make a judgement like “he performed a cowardly act”. It seems to me that you need cowardly intent, among other things, to make an act cowardly.

      I’ll return to a scenario I gave earlier – say a soldier is captured in wartime. The enemy pump him full of inhibition-lowering drugs (sodium thiopental, say), and under the influence of these drugs the soldier gives away key tactical information. Under these circumstances, is giving away the secrets a cowardly choice, or an objectively cowardly act, if you prefer that phrasing?

  4. Syllabus says:

    But let’s be clear: Sometimes it is NOT.

    Of course.

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