Dear philosophers, I have 2 questions: 1. Do you believe that it is morally permissible for an unmarried person (who has no children to care for) and who has battled depression for many years to commit suicide ? 2. What is your opinion of Liberalism which asserts that a person's life belongs only to them, and no other person has the right to force their own ideals by which that life must be lived ? Thanks, William

William, I will try to answer both of your questions, but I especially wanted to answer the first one. I suffered from depression for most of my life, and considered, in a very personal way, the question you have asked. Forgive my presumption, but I want to make sure that, if you are asking about this because you are contemplating suicide, you know that there are some very effective therapies now for depression. I am not referring just to drug therapies, although medication was crucial (and is crucial) to my recovery; talk therapy is important too. It is not always easy to find an effective and tolerable therapy regimen -- I tried two anti-depressants before I found one that worked -- so (again, excuse my presumption) if you have tried one or even two or three that have not helped, you may need to try another. If all this is irrelevant, then good.

The ethical question you ask is a hard one, but I believe that a person who is suffering terribly and who has no reasonable prospect of gaining relief can in principle ethically end his or her life. (I suspect that people who have not experienced depression, or have only had one or two episodes to cope with can underestimate the exhaustion of dealing with the disorder on an ongoing basis. ) I don't think that marital or parental status is a consideration per se -- I think the likely impact of a suicide on everyone who will be affected must always be taken into account. I know from two cases with which I'm personally familiar that the suicide of a child is absolutely devastating to parents -- worse, I'm convinced, than loss of a child through illness or accident. Close friends and siblings can also be destroyed. Of course it is devastating, too, to partners and to children. These things have to be taken into account. If one is not completely debilitated by the depression, to the point where the rational consideration of options is impossible, then I think that the enormity of the damage that will be done to the people one cares about should motivate the depressed person to mobilize all available energy to seek treatment, rather than to end his or her own life.

I do agree with the liberal principle that one has authority over one's own life (I wouldn't formulate this principle in terms of "ownership" -- I don't think this authority is a kind of property right). That means that no one has the right to force me to adopt his or her values, or to coerce me into some life plan that I would not otherwise pursue.

But this principle doesn't mean that no one has the right to try to persuade me to adopt their values, or to pursue a different life course than the one I seem to be choosing. People who love me and care about me do have the right to try -- by non-coercive means -- to get me to see things differently. What may actually be going on is that people trying to influence me are actually trying to get me to bring to mind some of my own values or commitments -- things that might be getting neglected if I am afflicted with depression or addiction or some other motivation-affecting condition.

Sometimes a person can demonstrate respect for my autonomy by acting against some stated desire of mine. Suppose, for example, I have been in an accident and am in terrible pain. The doctor tells my husband that he can save my life and restore me to health, but only if he performs a procedure that will increase my pain. I insist that I'd rather die; my husband, because he knows me, and knows what I most deeply value, tells the surgeon to go ahead. What my husband has done in authorizing the surgeon is (a) made a judgment about my capacity for making an autonomous decision -- viz., he judged that I was not in my right mind because of the pain; and (b) answered for me in a way that he judged was the way I would have wanted him to answer, had I been in my right mind. These are very special circumstances, and require an enormous amount of knowledge, trust, and compassion. It's no doubt best, overall, if the law makes it difficult for one person to make a decision for another most of the time, but the law cannot cover every possible circumstance. Instruments like living wills and health proxies are meant to try to bring the law and the ethical facts into somewhat closer alignment in cases like this.

William: I think Professor Antony's reply is deep and commendable. I would only add a minor point about self-ownership or the thesis that one's life only belongs to one's self.

"Belonging" can involve property rights (this house belongs to me) but it can also refer to what is good for a person (e.g. he belongs in a hospital, she belongs in a great school, etc). If you step back from your current state (a very difficult act of abstraction, I agree!), can you see that you belong in a caring, curative therapeutic process? I think if you can begin to begin seeing that, you can see a different path than self-destruction. In a way, part of an answer to your question will involve not just a matter of liberalism versus a conservative, paternalistic form of governance, but it will involve a philosophy of values and one's overall understanding of the cosmos. For example, one of the reasons Christian philosophers historically opposed suicide (even the dignified suicide of Lucretius which was valorized in Ancient Rome --see the early chapters of Augustine's City of God) was because they believed that the purpose of life included joy, a joy in creation and Creator. This was why some Chritians historically defined despair as a refusal of joy. Clearly this was NOT taking into account the clinical, organic roots of depression and despair, nor was this taking seriously ways in which depression or despair can be quite involuntary and not a matter of choice (refusal or acceptance). But I mention this to suggest that you might take seriously some worldviews that hold out joy as an attainable, desirable end, even if it must be sought out not just philosophically or theologically but through careful medical practice. To give a somewhat secular alternative example, you might look at John Stewart Mill's autobiography and his account of his misery and despair. He emerged partly through meditative readings of the romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. I note this as "somewhat secular," as their poetry had a rich spirituality not quite akin to secular naturalism.

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