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Am I morally wrong if I can understand why my son took his own life? Am I wrong to see that his decision was a positive one, given the circumstances?

Of course I am distraught, heartbroken and miss him terribly but the guilt I feel for understanding his reasons for ending his life seem to come from expectations of society.

The acceptable moral viewpoints that society seems to have over suicide leave caring family members looking like we don't give a damn, when in fact the absolute opposite is true....the question in my head remains though...am I really morally wrong in understanding his reasons and believing he did the right thing for himself?

To give some background:-

My son was an extremely intelligent, gentle and kind young man, who had battled with schizophrenia for 7 years from the age of only 18. His hopes and dreams in life had to be abandoned through the terrible experiences of hallucinations and panic attacks.

Despite the daily routine of taking drugs that left him with slurred speech and apathy, he tried his best to make something of his life and gave up his masters in pure mathematics to work as a volunteer in a charity shop. Even doing that part time job, for him was a struggle.

In the end he rarely could face leaving his flat. He was fully aware of the toxity of the drugs used to control schizophrenia and knew that his life would probably end in his early 50's with cancer of the liver.

I think he had weighed up the life he had in a rational way and decided that he did not want to pretend to himself any longer that living was going to improve for him.

His decision was terribly brave and probably the hardest thing anyone could possibly have to try and do.

I would be interested in your arguments for and against society and its belief's on this subject and how this equates to my own personal view of understanding and acceptance of suicide under these circumstances.

August 17, 2007

Response from Allen Stairs on August 20, 2007
Let me begin by saying that I'm sorry for your loss. This must be terribly hard. And your sense of guilt is understandable. It's hard to think the thought that one's child may have done the best thing in taking his own life. But as you point out, this thought doesn't come from lack of care or lack of grief, but from the very opposite: from deep caring and empathy born of intimate knowledge of your son's situation.

There are some well-known theological and philosophical arguments intended to show that suicide is always wrong. Immanuel Kant offered one that strikes many readers -- it certainly strikes me this way -- as bordering on sophistry; I won't try to reconstruct it here, and won't recommend it as anything you need consider. Theological arguments against suicide often rest on dubious claims about the divine will and the way in which taking one's own life supposedly usurps God's perogative to decide when we die -- arguments that might well make a believer in a loving and merciful God shudder. But the sense of many reflective people is that these abstract arguments are beside the point in evaluating the actions of someone whose life promises only continued misery.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that we should have a casual attitude toward suicide, nor that suicide is always rational or right. But blanket prohibitions that take no account of real people's pain and prospects can't be justified and have the side-effect -- as you note -- of making those left behind feel needlessly guilty for empathizing with the person who took his life.

Philosophers are by temperament people who tend not to care too much about what "society" thinks if society's views seem ill-founded. "Society" is in no position to pass judgment on the very personal details of your son's life and death. Your words are the words of a loving parent; whatever some people may think, you aren't wrong for feeling as you do.
Response from Oliver Leaman on August 20, 2007

I don't think you are wrong to have such a belief, and we can all think of situations in which people might come to the reasonable conclusion that death was preferable to life. There are of course religious, and not only religious, principles on which suicide is morally ruled out, but social stigma is not nowadays normally much attached to suicide, it seems to me. For example, relatives who assist in the death of someone are rarely now convicted by juries of anything illegal, and in a sense they are assisting in suicide, the suicide of someone who is no longer able to carry it out by themselves. Suicide itself is no longer a crime, in most jurisdictions, and there exists a long tradition in many cultures of respecting the decision to end a life when one no longer believes it is worth preserving.

I would not be overly concerned at feelings of guilt, because we often feel guilt for things over which we have no control at all. It is not as though in a fit of sudden despair when you were not available to be with him he carried out this act. He thought about it over some time, calmly considered the various options and likely eventualities, no doubt including your feelings in the matter and the effect his action would have on you, and came to a certain conclusion. I think we have to respect the decisions of our children, especially when they veer away from where we would like them to go, and not feel guilt as a result of them.

On the other hand, in the case of someone on medication and with mental health problems one is always worried about how far autonomy is at issue. Did he really have the ability to take a calm and measured decision, or was his thinking unbalanced by a particular combination of drugs, or indeed their absence? In that case one might be worried about whether prompt intervention of some kind might have brought about a different conclusion. Then guilt would be appropriate. From the account you provide, though, this is not the situation, and I am sure you would understand the nature of what was taking place much better than anyone else. There is no reason why suicide need not be a brave and defiant act, and you should have no compunction at so describing it.


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