The reasonableness of suicide

Meredith Doig / 10 August 2014

When is it ‘reasonable’ to choose to end one’s life?

The ancient Stoics thought it reasonable if circumstances prevented a person from living a virtuous life. So, for example, Roman politician and Stoic Cato the Younger committed suicide rather than live under political tyranny, which he thought constrained his freedom to make moral choices.

A large part of Stoic philosophy was centred on ethics, an ethics founded on the use of reason to free a person from the damaging influence of ‘the passions’. There’s aspects of Buddhism in Stoic philosophy, and the modern practice of ‘mindfulness’.

Exit International’s Dr Philip Nitschke has been criticised for providing advice about euthanasia to a Perth man, Nigel Brayley, who subsequently committed suicide.

But perhaps Mr Brayley thought his circumstances were such that, like Cato the Younger, he could no longer live a virtuous life; it’s reported the police had launched a murder investigation into his wife’s death, and were also investigating the disappearance of another woman, a previous girlfriend.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Brayley had some involvement in these women’s deaths /disappearances and that he could not tolerate the accompanying painful emotions, including, perhaps, guilt.

Is it reasonable for him to choose to end his own life?

Further, is it reasonable for Nitschke to provide the advice that enabled him to end his own life?

John Stuart Mill famously asserted in On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant … Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

On this count, we could say Brayley was ‘sovereign’ over his own body and could do with it as he wished, including end it at a time and in a manner of his own choosing.

David Hume argued that suicide was like ‘retiring from society and becoming a total recluse’, something not normally considered immoral.  And yet, this is not the way our society looks upon suicide. Why is it we assume someone who has chosen to end their own life is irrational? Where does such an assumption come from?

Theologian and writer GK Chesterton summarised suicide thus: it is “the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence.” It’s hard to avoid the view that the major impetus for viewing suicide as wrong comes from the religious perspective that all (human) life is sacred and belongs to God.

The RSA’s 10 Point Plan for a Secular Australia includes a call for ‘guaranteed control over one’s own body, free from religious interference, when facing the end of life’, with advance directives given legal force, physician-assisted suicide decriminalised, and government funding of non-religious palliative care.

RSA associate Chris Fotinopoulos has argued that our attitude to euthanasia discriminates between the powerful and the powerless: “the law as it currently stands in Australia allows, albeit through police inaction, some Australians to maintain control over their suffering and death while denying the same level of control to others.”

We know there’s an overwhelming majority of Australians who want physician-assisted dying to be legalised in circumstances where someone is facing terminal illness and is suffering unrelenting pain. But why only in these circumstances?

Surely a genuine commitment to individual freedom should extend to the freedom to end one’s own life, where the person concerned is of sound mind and where the act does no harm to anyone else.


All the more reason.