Less Secular Than It Seems

Tom Flynn

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, by Jennifer Michael Hecht (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-300-18608-6). 280 pp. Hardcover, $26.00.

Suicide is t he emergency cord we want to be able to pull when we do not want to wait until the train stops at the station.

—Thomas Szasz, Fatal Freedom (1999)

In 2003, poet-historian Jennifer Michael Hecht gave us The End of the Soul and Doubt: A History, two vastly insightful accounts of modern atheism’s emergence from the Enlightenment. Hecht has made another great splash with Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. The book engendered ample commentary, even a December tribute on The New York Times op-ed page (tellingly, delivered by house communitarian David Brooks). Stay urges secular readers to discard vague convictions that suicide is okay because—well, because the churches are against it. Instead, Hecht puts forward naturalistic arguments that she hopes will embolden freethinkers to stand beside believers in battling what she views as the scourge of suicide.

The voluntary deaths of two friends triggered Hecht’s aching focus on this subject. (Does anyone write on suicide objectively, that is, without first being driven to it by the loss of someone close? Thanks for asking. It was my mother, in 1995, with pills.)

Hecht paints a stark statistical picture. More than thirty thousand Americans died by suicide in each of the last twenty years—38,364 in 2010, the last year for which Centers for Disease Control data was available. Suicide now kills more people than car crashes; it “is among Americans’ top ten causes of death, and for adults under forty-five, it is among the top three.” We are meant to view these statistics as inherently tragic. Or should we understand them as simple statements of fact? Is this just how .012 percent of our fellow Americans elect to die each year?

Hecht says no. “I’m issuing a rule,” she writes passionately. “You are not allowed to kill yourself . . . [y]ou have to stay.” Okay, we know where the book’s title comes from.

An able intellectual historian, Hecht traces the development of Western thinking on suicide. (In what follows, I blend material from the book with additions from my own research.) Self-annihilation had many defenders in the ancient world; Roman law allowed free men to kill themselves for multiple reasons including taedium vitae, roughly “having had enough of life.” After briefly lauding martyrs’ suicides, Christianity firmly forbade the act. By Augustine’s time, theology depicted men’s souls as God’s property, therefore his alone to dispose of.

With the Enlightenment, Western thought reopened the question of suicide. Hecht wishes it hadn’t: “The En­­lightenment enhanced the value of the self above that of community and tradition and made of each man an independent being.” Wait—these are bad things? “[B]oth Hume and d’Holbach sometimes advocated suicide so vociferously that they can be said to have been recommending” it.

Hume in particular introduced the game-changing concept that our lives belong to us, not to king, church, or deity: “Has not every one . . . the free disposal of his own life?” he wrote. “And may he not lawfully employ that power with which nature has endowed him?”

Post-Christian thinking followed Hume’s lead. Here’s Robert Ingersoll: “The old idea was that God made us and placed us here for a purpose and that it was our duty to remain until he called us. The world is outgrowing this absurdity.”

Here’s philosopher John Donnelly, editor of a 1998 pro-and-con anthology on suicide: “Contemporary public sentiment seems to be catching up with the long-standing view of many philosophers that suicide can sometimes be the quintessential free, rational act.”

And here’s the late psychiatric iconoclast (and longtime member of the International Academy of Humanism) Thomas Szasz: “Following Hume, I believe . . . that we have just as much right and responsibility to regulate how we die as we have to regulate how we live.”

In the interest of fairness, I should quote one other humanist commentator: “One archaic yoke remains: the conviction that whoever owns your life, it’s not you. Hence suicide remains under that umbra of social denunciation from which divorce—or, say, marrying outside your social class—has but recently emerged. The prohibition of suicide may be the last of the ancien régime’s curbs on self-determination.” Yep, that was me; I’m one of those suicide-friendly secular thinkers whose mind Hecht hopes to change.

In my case, it didn’t work. Make no mistake, Stay is compellingly written—I don’t think Hecht is capable of writing other than marvelously—so why couldn’t her book change my views? Stay has multiple difficulties, but its fatal problem is straightforward: while many naturalistic thinkers have offered arguments against suicide, and Hecht marshals them skillfully—who knew that apostle of liberty, John Stuart Mill, thought people lacked the right to end their lives?—the most powerful naturalistic arguments about suicide uphold its licitness. Period. Candidly, Humean self-ownership alone is almost impossible to trump.

Hecht is sorely aware that the most formidable case against suicide requires a supernatural subtext: “[O]ur culture’s only systematic argument against suicide is about God.” She fights back as best she can, offering one important precondition and two principal contentions.

The precondition: Suicide must always be thought of as pathological, never as a rational choice. “[T]his book is chiefly about despair suicide, rather than what might be called end-of-life management,” Hecht writes. For her, mental illness and terminal physical illness exhaust the possible motivations for taking one’s life, leaving no conceptual room for suicide as a rational act: “it is an intellectual and moral mistake,” she insists, “to see the idea of suicide as an open choice that each of us is free to make.”

Hecht’s stance, then, excludes individuals who make clear-eyed decisions to end their lives in response to calamities whose aftermath they prefer not to experience—the pullers of the Szaszian cord. Excluded also are those who contemplate life, find it wanting, and resolve to return a gift they never asked for. Hecht fully embraces what scholar Ian Marsh termed the “insistence on reading suicide as pathological”—along with the related certainty that suicide is always a problem, never a solution. She leans heavily on both as she proceeds.

The first contention: Because of follow-on effects, suicide is better understood as delayed homicide. Successful suicide makes others’ self-destruction more likely, in Hecht’s view mooting defenses from self-ownership: “Whether you call it contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling . . . suicide causes more suicide, both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim. If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive.”

The second contention: The would-be suicide who refrains from self-destruction has a future self who will one day be grateful for that forbearance. This may be Hecht’s most audacious claim: &ld
quo;[T]he suicidal person owes something to … a future self who might feel better and be grateful that the person he or she once was fought through the terrible times to make it to something better.”

For reasons I’ll explain below, I’m unconvinced. Hecht’s precondition that suicide is always pathological implies too much; her explicit contentions, however artfully presented, confirm too little. Let’s examine each in turn.

Suicide Is Pathology. Or Is It?

The stigma now attached to suicide functions largely by disparaging the act as invariably pathological and those considering suicide as mentally ill, hence subject to the casual deprivation of their liberty. That stigma has been so powerful for so long that it’s hard to measure how high the prevalence of pathology among suicides actually is (more on this below).

Today, suicide-as-pathology orthodoxy bends both the language mental-health professionals use to talk about suicide and the language journalists use to report on it. Many media outlets have explicit guidelines (often drafted by suicide-prevention organizations) dictating that suicide always be presented as an act of madness. In a disturbing account, Marsh chronicled how this orthodoxy reversed public understanding of a 2005 suicide. A coroner’s inquest had ruled the death of Oxford student Alice McGovern a suicide, suggesting that her act was rational. An initial story in The Guardian simply reported the inquest’s finding, quoting a suicide note in which McGovern wrote, “Life is simply not for me” (Shades of taedium vitae!), accompanied by testimony from acquaintances that she had shown no signs of mental disorder before her death. The forces of revision lost no time. The very next day, an analysis in The Times of London reinterpreted McGovern’s story, musing darkly (if without evidence) that “there probably was an underlying, if undetected, pathology at work.” The article repeatedly impugned McGovern’s sanity based on nothing more than the certainty that any successful suicide simply must be mentally ill. “There would seem to be a certain resistance … to the idea that suicide could be in any way rationally or freely chosen,” Marsh wrote understatedly. “The notion of a ‘voluntary death,’ of one not determined … by mental illness or abnormalities in the personality of the individual in question, cannot be countenanced.”

With such powerful skewing forces in play, it seems inevitable that a disturbing number of rational suicides may be misportrayed as acts of madness. The canonical statistic that 90 percent of suicides are mentally ill, bandied about so confidently by authorities such as psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, may be exaggerated.

Even if it isn’t, it paints a disconcerting picture. Suppose 90 percent of suicides are mentally ill. That means that 10 percent of those who kill themselves do so rationally. Presumably a similar percentage of those whose suicide attempts fail are rational also—yet they are bundled with the mentally ill and (let’s not mince words) effectively enslaved, compelled to continue living lives they yearn to abandon for no better reason than that others think that best for them. And Hecht seems to think such people do not exist!

Shouldn’t secular individuals press for society to better respect the autonomy of would-be suicides—even if that means accepting more suicides among the mentally ill—in order to avoid so blatantly violating the autonomy of rational people? English jurist William Blackstone memorably declared, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Shouldn’t we extend that principle to suicide, recognizing that in this context the “innocents” are the rational 10 percent (or however many there really are) who get mislabeled “mentally ill” and deprived of their liberty just because they wish to die?

On this point Szasz is characteristically blunt. “Killing oneself is a decision, not a disease,” he writes. “Dying voluntarily is a choice intrinsic to human existence.” Hecht’s case that suicide can never be rational remains, in my view, unproven.

Hecht’s Delayed-Homicide Contention

What can we say of Hecht’s contention that each suicide is a delayed homicide? Well, it’s seriously overstated. Hecht implies that anyone who suicides should reasonably expect to be emulated and should bear primary moral responsibility for any resulting deaths. That formulation grants to the person considering suicide a grandiose level of power. And what a patronizing view of emulators, who apparently so lack agency that just knowing about someone else’s suicide can compel them to mimic it. If that seems absurd, and in most cases it should, let’s consider another view.

What Hecht’s data actually seems to show is that knowing a suicide—whether intimately or just as a name in the paper—is statistically associated with a rise in the likelihood that one will attempt or commit suicide oneself. That’s reasonable enough. But expressing the situation that way lifts much of the moral burden from the prospective suicide. If A suicides now and B, who knew A, suicides later, then if B was rational, B’s suicide will have been the consequence of a new, free choice on B’s part. If B was mentally ill, it will have been the consequence of B’s mental illness. Either way, the argument that A is profoundly responsible for B’s suicide is undercut.

The people around me are not auto­mata. If I end my life and others opt to do likewise, those suicides will be their choices, their decisions to abandon lives that were as thoroughly theirs to dispose of as my life was mine. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

Hecht’s Future-Self Contention

Hecht notes that many who attempt suicide go on to lead full lives; some express relief that their previous attempts at self-annihilation failed. From this she concludes that anyone considering suicide should think again, out of respect for the potential desires of his or her potential future self.

For all the surface audacity of this contention—I admit that when I first read it, my reaction was “Wow, I never thought of that!”—I was frankly surprised at how quickly it deflated under closer examination. What a slender reed is this notion that someone considering suicide should assign great weight to how his or her future self might feel about it. Isn’t this the very future self whose development a person considering suicide is on the cusp of extinguishing? Isn’t any debt I might imagine owing to my future self dwarfed by the present stakes when I ponder whether to pull the plug on that self right now? Does the amount I owe my future self vary depending on how long and/or happy my future will be? If so, of what use is this principle, since that is something none of us can know?

Without short-changing the capriciousness of life—and here, Hecht surveys an impressive roster of philosophers—she still ends up suggesting that if we can just bull through our “terrible times,” something better awaits. Contrast that to pro-suicide advocate M. A. Quest’s wry realism: “[C]onditions could just as likely get worse. We do not know what lies ahead.”

On reflection, neither of Hecht’s principal contentions is as strong as it first appeared.

It Gets Worse

“Consider the terrible aftermath of a completed suicide,” Hecht writes: “. . . While ending the pain, and existence of one person, it creates profound grief in those left behind.” Because Hecht so sternly opposes suicide, she never lets herself wonder wh
at the future might hold if self-killing became more widely accepted. That’s a huge omission, because most that now makes suicide dark and ghastly proceeds from its stigma, not from the act itself.

Quest captures matters perfectly: “The problems now associated with suicide are due mainly to negative societal attitudes and the consequent need to be surreptitious, [to] use crude, unsophisticated methods, in unsavory circumstances without discussion or any sympathetic support and then leaving behind a gruesome mess for others to clean up.” Surely that was the case with my mother’s suicide, which (as I’ve written before) was rational enough but became a shocking and brutal thing solely because she needed to go about her final project furtively.

In 1919, French physician Charles Binet-Sanglé published a book proposing the creation of thanatoria, public facilities where people could end their lives openly, by humane methods, among surroundings of their choosing, in the company of family members and friends. The proposal never went anywhere. Yet how much more compassionate that would have been than today’s stark culture of repression that condemns those seeking self-deliverance to dismal, solitary expeditions to the medicine cabinet, tall bridge, closed garage, rooftop, knife drawer, or gun locker.

If wider acceptance of suicide would benefit would-be suicides, it might be equally beneficial for survivors. First, what a boon it would be if fewer survivors had to be surprised by discovering loved ones who had secretively destroyed themselves in horrific ways! Hecht’s book is built on sympathy for survivors, yet she never envisions how much of the rest of the horror suicide holds for those left behind stems from the stigma alone.

Who knows, in a more suicide-tolerant society—dare I say it, a healthier society?— suicide might come to be seen by survivors as just another way to die, and one of the more satisfactory ways at that. Viewed clearheadedly, dying by one’s own hand might still seem less agreeable than, say, dying abruptly in one’s sleep at a ripe but healthy old age. But I think most would find a loved one’s calculated suicide preferable to a lingering death after years of pain and debility or a sudden accident or illness that tears one from life without any chance to prepare.

Each of us must die of something, after all, and there’s an affirming element of empowerment in choosing the time, place, and method rather than surrendering to happenstance. Unfortunately, Hecht’s unyielding disapproval of suicide leaves no place for such a concept.

Hecht declares that “there is no triumph in having argued people into the grave.” But I disagree; it is a triumph for human rights, if admittedly a bittersweet one, when we learn to respect others’ freedom so completely that we respect even their freedom to delete themselves from life.

At Last, the Worst

Stay portrays suicide as inherently bad and harmful to society. Religious conservatives have said the same about everything from miscegenation to abortion to divorce; they’re still saying it about same-sex marriage. The similarity is not coincidental. In her antisuicide jeremiad, Hecht is more conservative than she knows. The interesting question is: Why doesn’t she know it?

The answer may lie in the sheer breadth of her interests. Hecht is a poet and a historian; her oeuvre heroically spans C. P. Snow’s divide. Sometimes Hecht the poet gets in Hecht the thinker’s way. One saw this occasionally in her generally excellent history The End of the Soul. Objecting to, say, some philosophe’s stark materialism, she could express disapproval in a romantic/poetic register that verged on a denial of naturalism.

In Stay, Hecht’s language vaults further yet. Here, she is striving to ground would-be suicides’ sense of debt to their future selves: “Either the universe is a cold dead place with a little growth of sentient but atomized beings each all by him- or herself trying to generate meaning, or we are in a universe that is alive with a growth of sentient beings whose members have made a pact with each other to persevere.”

Thoroughgoing naturalists know which of these scenarios is more nearly true. It’s the first one, in all its Russellian iciness. (Ironically, with this brief passage Hecht the poet has given us one of the most succinct and accurate summations of the human condition I’ve read. She has the same talent that Walter Kaufmann ascribed to Nietzsche for “inventing better slogans and epigrams for hostile positions than . . . opponents could devise.”) The second scenario—the one where the universe is alive? Read it narrowly and it’s a strained metaphor; read broadly, it’s a lamentable plunge into mysticism.

Or consider this astounding flight of rhetoric from the book’s penultimate chapter: “The twin insight is that, first, you have a responsibility not to kill yourself; and second, the rest of us—and you yourself—owe you our thanks and respect. We are indebted to each other and the debt is a kind of faith—a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.”

A secular book that must appeal to faith has lost its way. But perhaps Stay could not have done otherwise. Despite Hecht’s prodigious efforts to gather every naturalistic argument against suicide, the secular worldview as a whole leans so overwhelmingly in favor of the right to suicide that not even the collected cavilings of Montaigne, Mill, Freud, Cioran, and dozens of their peers can prevail against it. Instead of a compelling case against suicide that is wholly secular or naturalistic, Hecht has forged a quirky, almost quasi-religious pleading—albeit one that’s not about God and stands completely outside Christian tradition.

What does it tell us that a thinker of Hecht’s undeniable firepower devoted such energy to this project and, in my view, failed? I wonder whether she may have, however accidentally, demonstrated that it’s not possible to construct a comprehensive case against suicide entirely within a naturalistic system. In order to craft an intellectually, morally, and emotionally conclusive argument proscribing suicide, sooner or later one might have to reach outside of naturalism and into the “woo,” pulling back a handful of poetic tropes about God or souls or faith or a living universe. One gets to pick one’s favorites; Hecht has proven that the task can be completed without invoking God or souls. But perhaps one just can’t form a clinching case against suicide without making some move that strict naturalists would consider illegitimate.

Here’s a debate question for the philosophers reading this: After Stay, can we say with confidence that earnest naturalists are obliged to adopt a Humean position on suicide? I’m thinking the answer may be yes.

After saying all of that, I hope you will read Stay. Even if it has failed, it’s that important. But after you’ve finished, you might want to rebalance your brain with something by Szasz—or, if you can find a copy, Quest’s searing little book Deathrights.

Secularists should campaign to end suicide’s stigma, not stand beside the religious heaping more opprobrium onto the act itself. I give the last word to twentieth-century humanist ethicist Joseph Fletcher: “The full circle is being drawn. In classical times suicide was a tragic option…. Then for centuries it was a sin. Then it became a crime. Then a sickness. Soon it will become a choice again. Suicide is the signature of freedom.”

Further Reading

Donnelly, John, ed., Suicide: Right or Wrong? A
mherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Flynn, Tom. The Final Freedom: Suicide and the ‘New Prohibitionists.’” FREE INQUIRY, Spring 2003.

Flynn, Tom. “If You Want Something Done Right . . .” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Fall 1995. My account of my mother’s suicide. Yes, it was rational.

Jamison, Kay Redfield. Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. New York: Knopf, 1999. An accessible presentation of the orthodox view.

MacDonald, Michael. “The Medicalization of Suicide in England: Laymen, Physicians, and Cultural Change, 1500–1870.” In Framing Disease: Studied in Cultural History, edited by C. Rosenberg and J. Golden. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Marsh, Ian. Suicide: Foucault, History and Truth. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Quest, M. A. Deathrights: In Defense of Suicide. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2007.

Quest, M. A. “On My Own Terms.” FREE INQUIRY October/November 2007.

Szasz, Thomas. Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Szasz, Thomas. Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).