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David Bostock on suicide in Plato's Phaedo - Part 2

In the last posting we looked at two formulations of an argument about suicide. In order to understand this post I suggest that you refer to Part 1.

Bostock seems to think that premise 1 is generally accepted by most people, he says, “Even if you hold that death is the end, you may still find it difficult to say what is wrong with suicide. After all, there is nothing very surprising in the thought that some unfortunate people live such wretched lives that their life is not worth living, and they would, therefore, be better off dead (p. 16).” He goes on to point out that Socrates accepts, in general, the idea that some people would be better off dead, namely, philosophers. His reasons are not, of course, due to the wretchedness of their lives, but due to what Socrates thinks awaits them on the other side of death. On such an account, should we not fit Christians into this picture? After all, Paul, in Philippians 1:21-24, says that though his earnest desire is to be with Christ, he is convinced by the needs of the church at Philippi that it is more profitable for him to stay alive. “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Phil. 1:23-24).”

That being said, I seems to me that (aside from the fact that Paul is not, here, approving suicide) there is a problem with the thought behind premise 1. The problem can be brought out by a question. What is it about the people in question, that brings us to the conclusion that they would be better off dead?

A whole list of things should automatically come to mind. Perhaps it is their circumstances, their character, their location, or some other accidental feature of their existence. (I am here using the term accidental as the opposite of essential.) The question that must immediately follow, upon the positing of any accidental feature, is whether or not anything that is only accidental to a person’s existence can be a sufficient reason to morally obligate the person in question to commit suicide. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics (see The Basic Works of Aristotle), asked similar questions about the different things that are often conceived of as being the ultimate purpose for man’s life. The ultimate answer is no.

What kind of circumstances would be necessary, such that, any human person that is put in those circumstances would be morally obligated to commit suicide? I would suggest that there are none. One might suggest that someone in a comma, or who has been medically declared to be vegetable, is in a circumstance that morally obligates them to commit suicide. However, it does seem that, at least in this circumstance, ought implies can.

Could location morally obligate someone to commit suicide? It seems, at least at first glance, that the most that “location” can obligate is a change of scenery.

What about Character? I would suggest that evil people are, in a sense, already committing, what I would term, existential suicide. That is, they are worse off than the people they are harming; they are, bit by bit, destroying themselves. Their character is being, bit by bit, eroded away by their evil acts. Evil, like rust, is eating away at their character, and removing, in a sense, every bit of humanity from them. So, in a sense, they are destroying themselves. I would suggest, however, that so long as they are alive, there is some good in them and that by that very fact they are not better off dead. It seems unnecessary, but I would like to add that it seems repugnant to think that people who are, in general, good, would be better off dead. However, perhaps someone would disagree with me.

It seems to me that there is, therefore, no accidental aspect of a person’s being by which we are justified in saying that the person in question would be better off dead. I would like to suggest that the only other option is to say that due to the person’s nature they would be better off dead. This, however, would seem to condemn the entire human race to death by suicide, because it seems that all mankind share a common nature.

In conclusion, it seems that premise 1 is false, as there is no way to determine that any given person would be better off dead.

The second problem that I see with the second formulation (premises 4-6) is Bostock’s understanding of the term “self-interest”. It seems to me that a distinction should be made between what is commonly known as “selfishness” and “self-interest”. It seems to me that selfishness is the vice of self-interest. Which is to say that, a person that is “self-interested” is concerned about their person, their being; on the other hand, a person that is “selfish” is concerned only about their appearances. This distinction is vital to the question of suicide. A person that is self-interested will seek to be virtuous. A person that is selfish will seek to appear virtuous.

I would suggest that a self-interested person, when going through difficult circumstances, rather than seeing suicide as the appropriate, good, and by consequence, virtuous, measure to take, would see that perseverance is the virtuous action. Perseverance through hardship builds character, and that is what is best for the person in question. A person who has bad character is not worried about acting virtuously. However, if they could be brought to realize that their actions were wrong, and, in fact, that they were destroying themselves; then they would, I hope, realize that the most virtuous action is, not suicide, but a change of character, by acting virtuously.

It seems to me, then, that even if we could, for the sake of argument, allow that some people would be better off dead, we would be driven to the conclusion that it is not self-interest, but selfishness that would drive those people to suicide. In the end the question comes down to whether you wish to build character or just escape with your mask intact.

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