When Can Atheists Support A Person Who Prefers Dying to Living?

Many of us knew people who chose suicide or who accepted calmly their impending deaths.

I would find it very hard tell someone I know that her/his decision to die is wise.

Rather than fill this discussion with our stories about them (as I almost filled this opening post), how do we explain our accepting or not accepting their decisions?

 

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The idea that an outside agent can have jurisdiction over somebody else's decision to live or die belongs to fictional stories like 1984. We can't not accept some-ones decision to end their life as it's their life and their choice, although I suppose entreaties could be made and reasons for life could be given, at the end of the day nobody but the suicide themselves has the right to make the decision. 

Gerald, you found safety in theory.

I can only be totally honest to such a person about suicide, and that involves being totally honest to and about myself. 

Yes, and with the honesty comes empathy.

The medical profession has on;y recently seen this.

Catholicism sees nothing yet.

Bert, I'd forgotten that and I agree that it's perverted.

For a short time after I realized that my prayers were failing I did some bizarre self denial.

I had a little sanity left; I refused to give up masturbation.

Someone here on Nexus described Catholicism as a death cult. It truly is one.

Hm-mm, who once said insanity is a genetic condition that parents get from their children?

Maybe George Carlin. He probably also said religion is a communicable disease for which quarantine is appropriate.

I may have taken that decision on myself when my mom was suffering two years ago. She had dementia for the last three years, longed actually, didn't know anyone and was in constant pain. When the nurse asked if I wanted them to continue the pain meds every two hours l told her not to miss a dose.
If that helped ease mom out of this world a little faster l can and do live easy with that.

Suicide is obviously an intensely personal decision, but just as obviously, the consequences extend far beyond the personal.  If we disavow any serious supposition that there's some cosmic force looking out for us – as presumably most of us on this Site would indeed disavow – then the question of suicide devolves to impact on the self, and nearly as importantly, impact on one's web of connections to others.

So for example a person with a family, on whom other family members depend for emotional sustenance, would have to carefully weigh the consequences of his/her abrupt departure from life.  It the person in question is suffering from grave illness or infirmity, it would be difficult and callous to condemn that person for choosing suicide, or to deny access to suicide, even if the web of family connections is strong.  But what about a person who is essentially a loner, not from personality but from lack of relatives/family?

In other words, if Joe Blow has no spouse or children, no siblings, parents have passed away, no girlfriend, no close friends… and Joe is retired, or marginally employed… and Joe wants to choose suicide?  What then do we say?  Perhaps Joe isn't suffering from anything discernible.  He doesn't have cancer or Alzheimer's or AIDS.  Maybe he's just depressed.  Maybe he's upset over his stock market losses, or that a former girlfriend left him.  Do we enjoin Joe to persevere with life?  Or do we support him in his plans to kill himself?

My point is that whenever we have strong connections to others, our actions aren't strictly our own, because the consequences affect others strongly too.  But lacking such connections, the adverse impact of us "shuffling off this mortal coil" aren't as clear.  This doesn’t mean that a loner's life is somehow less valuable, but it does mean that the impact of that life's possible end is different.

Another factor is age.  Intuitively there is strong difference in reaction to the suicide of a teenager vs. that of an elderly person.  The elderly person may yet have remaining decades of life, and can yet influence other lives in profound ways.  But that person's own life has presumably already attained most of its potential.  The teenager, being on the opposite end of life, can't escape the gnawing feeling that potential would be horrendously curtailed by suicide. This it is natural for us to be more supportive of an elderly person's leaning towards suicide, than that of a younger one.

It does seem that no society offers blanket support and embrace of suicide.  The more enlightened societies understand that an ailing elderly person should have access to the right to die, but to my knowledge, no society has ever regarded it as being perfectly natural and reasonable for healthy people to voluntarily end their lives just because they are disgusted with life in a philosophical sense. Typically the justification for such a stance is religious, but it could also be secular.  Society invests in our education and upbringing, and for us to voluntarily take ourselves out of society, before infirmity or senescence, is evidently somehow unfair.  This is a question that's not been resolved even from the atheistic viewpoint.

Michael OL, you might not have intended to write a rather long justification for doing nothing, but that's what it looks like to me. Here are two fer instances:

...whenever we have strong connections to others, our actions aren't strictly our own, ....

My actions are always my own and any who are affected have to respect my rights in the matter.

It does seem that no society offers blanket support and embrace of suicide.

I've read that Switzerland offers "blanket support and embrace of suicide." Non-citizens need only a passport and enough money to pay the relevant costs.

I hope you will look again at your essay and identify and describe your discomfort with the issue.

My point is that cultural animosity against suicide transcends religion. 

To give an analogy, most religions are hierarchical and enjoin amongst worshipers a stance of meek obedience.  But a similar cult of obedience is entirely possible in a secular society.  Most religions similarly inculcate in the worshipers a sense of self-denial.  But similarly intense self-denial may be the cultural postulate in an entirely secular society too.

Suicide is taboo in nearly all religions, and certainly in the Abrahamic ones.  But it seems to me that even if we could magically erase the influence of religion, there would still remain a  stigma against suicide. To be sure, we would no longer struggle with exceptional cases, such as those who are under clear and considerable suffering.  But that still leaves the case of what happens to a person who can't point to any illness or debilitation, but who nevertheless wishes to exercise the personal prerogative of ending his/her life.  Surely that happens from time to time, does it not?  Well, there I think the influence of personal connections (namely, family) is important.  If dad decides that he wishes to cease to exist but leaves behind mom and the kids, that does create a bit of complication.  That complication isn't present if a fellow never became a husband or father, for instance.

The broader picture is that while many of our biases are rooted in religion, not all of them are so rooted.  I'm not saying that this is good or bad - but that it just IS.  And so if we swept away religiously-derived taboos against suicide, we'd still be left with other, latent taboos.

Michael, you bring in the situation of parenthood.  I spoke from my position as a retired elder; a father with young children wouldn't have my freedom to depart.  I have even questioned the right of parents with dependent kids to participate in dangerous sports.  How can a father of three children under ten risk his life in mountain climbing knowing that his chance of dying is considerable.  No; unless death is rapidly approaching, the parent is obligated to care for his family to adulthood.  Often a curable depression has deprived a family of a source of stability and income; it shouldn't be allowed to.

Jerry, your short post has a lot of thought- and feeling-provoking content.

I too am a retired elder. I didn't want children and married a woman who also didn't want children. My four brothers and sisters each had one or more children and I alone was free to depart.

Not intending to make the changes that would fit me for parenting, I undertook an activity that resulted in my learning that many men feared they would lose their jobs if they challenged the politicians I challenged (and am most happy that I did challenge).

Often a curable depression has deprived a family of a source of stability and income; it shouldn't be allowed to.

I agree, but unhappily many Americans and their political party disagree.

 

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