Dear Philosophers, Why do you think suicide is considered "illegal"?

Suicide is outlawed in different societies and epochs for all sorts of different reasons. These fall broadly into three categories: to enforce religious commands, to protect persons from themselves, and to protect persons other than the would-be suicide. Are these good reasons to outlaw suicide?

Reasons in the first category are not acceptable in modern democratic societies (and, in the US, violate the First-Amendment separation of church and state). Those in the majority must not impose their religion on their fellow citizens.

Reasons in the second category -- so-called paternalistic (or parentalistic) reasons -- can be plausible. It is a good thing that the police can stop the attempted suicide of a young man who is in despair after his lover broke up with him. Chances are he'll get over it and fall in love again, even if this now seems inconceivable to him. But what if, a year or two later, the man still judges his life not worth living and wants to die? Who are we to overrule his judgment in this matter? We may perhaps legally require would-be suicides to receive competent information from relevant experts (doctors, psychologists, etc.) and from others who have gone through a crisis similar to theirs. But when someone has done this, and still wants to die, we should not force him to stay alive "for his own sake." (Note that, in practice, modern democratic societies do not apply such coercion even though they do make suicide illegal. And criminal punishments for attempted suicide are exceedingly rare.)

Reasons in the third category invoke the interests of those who depend on the would-be suicide. This does not include the interests of society or other larger groups. A person is free to withdraw from these groups (to quit her job, to leave her religious group, to emigrate), and this shows that they have no right to her continued contributions. The same point would seem to hold, to a lesser extent, for a spouse: The fact that a person is free to have a divorce shows that her spouse has not right to her continued partnership. The interests of a dependent child, however, support a much stronger claim. To be sure, society must find a way to meet the needs of the child if its parent dies. But the loss of a parent, especially through suicide, is often a devastating loss for a child even if society meets its obligation well (something that, in the real world, is often not the case).

In conclusion, I think there are sufficiently strong reasons in the second and third categories for outlawing -- not all suicides, but some, in a way designed to discourage and to express disapproval. These reasons are strongest with respect to persons with dependent children who experience a kind of crisis that tends to be temporary. These reasons may justify restraining competent people for brief periods. And they may justify forcing competent persons to receive balanced information and counseling relating to their crisis and to the potential impact of their decision on their dependent children.

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