Kant and the irrationality of suicide

History of Philosophy Quarterly 17 (2):159-176 (2000)
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Though Kant calls the prohibition against suicide the first duty of human beings to themselves, his arguments for this duty lack his characteristic rigor and systematicity. The lack of a single authoritative Kantian approach to suicide casts doubt on what is generally regarded as an extreme and implausible position, to wit, that not only is suicide wrong in every circumstance, but is among the gravest moral wrongs. Here I try to remedy this lack of systematicity in order to show that Kant's position on suicide is more appealing and credible than it seems at first glance. Kant in fact offers three distinct lines of argument against suicide. The first, the chief argument in his Lectures on Ethics, holds that suicide violates the divine will, for in willing our own deaths we usurp God's right to determine the duration of our existence; as God's property, we are not entitled to end our own lives willfully. The second, rooted in the Groundwork, holds that suicide is incompatible with a system of willed ends conceived analogously with a system of nature, so a maxim to commit suicide cannot be coherently willed as a universal practical principle. The third argument, drawn from the Metaphysics of Morals, holds that because suicide obliterates the rational will from the world, and as the rational will is the source of moral worth, suicide cannot be consistently willed by beings subject to moral requirements. To authorize oneself to take one's own life, Kant claims, is to attempt 'to withdraw from all obligation.' We cannot, under the color of morality, seek to cancel the will that authorizes all obligation in the first place. This third argument is demonstrably superior to the other two in being both more philosophically plausible in its own right and more Kantian in flavor.



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Michael Cholbi
University of Edinburgh

Citations of this work

Kant on euthanasia and the duty to die: clearing the air.Michael Cholbi - 2015 - Journal of Medical Ethics 41 (8):607-610.
A Kantian Defense of Prudential Suicide.Michael Cholbi - 2010 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 7 (4):489-515.
Suicide.Michael Cholbi - 2012 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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