Is Suicide Always Immoral?

The next essay in “X-men and Philosophy” is “Is Suicide Always Immoral?” by Mark D. White. In it, he examines the question of if suicide can be moral or if it is always immoral, by mostly referencing Jean Grey’s sacrifice when she became Dark Phoenix. He examines the three main ethical views — consequentialism/Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, and Kantian deonotological ethics and concludes that … Kant’s view is the one that best justifies Jean’s suicide?

The question mark is there because the heart of Kant’s view, used here, is that no one should be treated merely as a means, but always also as an end in themselves. This includes yourself, which is why Kant had issues with things like masturbation, as it uses you as a means to an end — pleasure — and not as an end in itself. Thus, sacrificing your life for the lives of others — no matter how many — seems to be treating yourself as a means to that outcome and not as an end in itself, and so is at least suspect if not verbotten. Consequentialists can take that way out simply by arguing on the basis of the overall consequences, but Kantians can’t. Of course, White considers consequentialism and dismisses it because of how difficult it can be to determine overall happiness. Which is a fair criticism of consequentialism, but doesn’t really apply here: we can easily decide that the sacrifice of one life is not going to outweigh the loss of billions here, so that objection doesn’t seem to apply to Jean’s case. Jean’s case seems to not only justify her sacrificing herself in this case, but also, say, Wolverine just up and killing her even if she doesn’t want to die … which is the real problem with Utilitarian views in these cases, and a more relevant comparison point to deontological or Virtue Ethical views.

So, in order to work around the “never just a means to an end” restriction, White essentially has to argue that in Jean’s case she would be forced to do something gravely immoral by Kantian standards, or would become someone who would do gravely immoral things, and so in that case her suicide is not using herself as a means even to her own ends, but is instead used as a way to stop herself from acting immorally, which is her duty as a moral person. This, however, seems to be a bit problematic. Is it really acceptable to say in Kantian morality that if someone, say, takes over your mind and is going to force you to do something immoral and you gain one second of freedom, you should kill yourself to stop yourself from acting immorally? Even if you might be free or in control later? Aren’t you still being used as a means there, a means to the end of Kantian morality, and not as an end in yourself? I concede that you might be able to make it work under Kantian ethics, but I don’t think it’s exactly an easy ride.

I think that the view that best justifies the idea that Jean Grey might be moral for choosing suicide in that case without also easily justifying Cyclops or Wolverine out-and-out killing her is, in fact, Virtue Ethics, and specifically Stoicism. White dismisses Virtue Ethics by concluding that it, in general, would consider suicide wrong because it wouldn’t contribute to any kind of life at all, so it couldn’t contribute to having a fulfilling life. As I’ve talked about before, though, the Stoics considered life to be an indifferent, and in general “fulfilling life” didn’t not mean that virtue would not demand that you sacrifice yours. Courage on the battlefield, for example, came with the understood price of your life, and in fact sacrificing your life for others was often the epitome of courage. However, Virtue Ethical theories — even Stoicism — insist that you not spend your life frivilously, when you don’t have to. You only sacrifice your life when it conflicts with virtue, and when the only way to avoid acting viciously is, in fact, to kill yourself.

So right there, Virtue Ethics gets to White’s Kantian endpoint easily, far easier than White does using Kant. It even sidesteps the issue of what happens if later you might reassert control, because you are judged on this action, not on potential future benefits. Stoicism’s strong insistence that life is an indifferent just makes this even more clear, and it would stop Cyclops and Wolverine from killing her because they are not responsible for her immoral actions, and so if killing her is not an act of virtue — and it might not be — then they are not allowed to do it morally. The only wrinkle is that if Jean is only doing it because she’s under the control of the Phoenix Force, then she’s not responsible for the actions that it takes either, and so doesn’t have any need to kill herself to control its behaviour; she has no moral obligation for actions performed by other entities, even if they’re in her body. So the question would be how much of the action is Jean and how much is the Phoenix Force. But choosing to sacrifice herself to avoid that much suffering would never be an immoral act, even if it wouldn’t be morally obligated.

So, I think White dismisses the other views too quickly here. The essay would have been an interesting examination of how Kantian ethics could handle such a situation if he hadn’t tried to say that Kantian ethics would handle it better, but instead had examined the full issues and benefits of a Kantian approach to the question. As it is, he looks like he’s dismissing the other views too easily in favour of his preferred view … when those views might arguably have a better answer than his.

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