Is there a level of suffering where ending one's life become a rational, viable option? If we are talking about physical pain and discomfort and a diminished quality of life in which there is no evidence for potential improvement, or even evidence of further decline, then most people would say yes, in that case, ending one's life would only be a reasonable and rational option to explore. Cases resembling this sort of scenario could involve a person with a terminal illness with a bleak prognosis and the expectation of an extremely painful and undignified demise, or an ex-sportsman so severely injured in an accident that his only method of communication is through blinking, thereby losing all his livelihood and career prospects, ability to communicate effectively, engage socially, pursue aspirations, be healthy, has lost all quality of life etc. In such situations, the case for suicide, or even assisted suicide, can be made without too much objection.
There are still going to be controversial instances of assisted suicide
and there will always be a fine line between what is treatable or
curable, and what is not.
But surely the question should not be 'is this
person's condition treatable?' but rather 'is this person suffering to a
greater extent than they agree to take on? Is this person prepared to
continue suffering to this extent for the potential gains that may come of it?'
point is that it is irrelevant to point to the good that may come after
the suffering a person endures, how 'good' those things may be, or how
likely it may be that the person will experience good things after their
suffering, the experience of suffering and the foreknowledge of suffering to come is all that is relevant, and all that should be relevant, to any person empathetic to the possible suffering of other human beings and to the conscious experience of undesirable pain.
This is why I firmly believe that a person's mental suffering and
torment should, in principle, although difficult (but not implausible)
in practice, be reasonable grounds for ending one's life, assisted or
Advances in the field of neuroscience tell us that pain, both physical
and emotional, occur in the brain. You may think that your toe hurts
when you stub it, but in reality there is no pain located physically in
your foot, it is happening in your brain and you are being tricked into
feeling that the pain is located in the same region where the incident
occurred on the body. We know this to be true because the anaesthetics
in hospitals do nothing to alter the skin or nerve endings around the
incision of the surgeons blade, but instead make changes in the
manifestation of the experience we label 'pain' occurring in the brain.
Everything we experience is realised in the brain as an organ, we are
simply tricked into believing that our toe literally 'feels' the pain of
being stubbed. With appropriately advanced technology, one could link
up an artificial limb to the nervous system and one would really 'feel'
the same pain when the artificial toe is stubbed.
In this sense, there doesn't seem to be a clear difference between
physical pain and emotional or mental pain, except that only the former
is virtually mapped onto our body to trick us into assuming locations
for the pain. Mental suffering occurs and is actualised in the brain, in
a way much less tangible to us. We cannot pinpoint it's experienced
location on the body, except to sometimes complain of the onset of a
headache due to emotional or mental stress that day. There is no readily
available medicine we can take that works in a similar way, the best we
have are antidepressants and mood stabilisers that work over long
periods of time to reduce undesired extremes in emotional suffering, but
does nothing to cure the source of the problem, often it barely makes
substantial difference in isolation.
Therefore, it follows that mental suffering should be regarded as no
less pertinent or 'real' than physical pain. Both are located in the
brain, and both should be taken seriously as valid and sound reasons for
ending one's life.
I will now present what I see to be a fair analogy to the relationship
between a person and his experience of suffering, and the link between
that and reasonable suicidal desires.
Imagine being in a stereotypical torture chamber. There are all variety
of despicable machines and devices around you, some of greater
hideousness and callousness than others, but all inflict physical pain
of some sort, to some extent.
You are trapped in a machine that inflicts an amount of pain that causes
you to scream out every so often, and makes you wince as it slowly
grinds and turns. It inflicts pain that illicits a bodily response, but
not so much that you cry out in agony. Imagine any device or implement
of torture to fit the bill as you wish.
You have been in this contraption for 5 minutes. The operator of this
device says to you, 'You have a choice. Continue enduring this pain for
the remainder of the hour, at which point all torture will immediately
cease and you will receive a prize of 1 million pounds, or, stop
proceedings now and walk away.'
It's a tempting offer. It hurts, but you know exactly when the pain will
end, and you know how much it hurts as you have experienced it for 5
You look around and realise that there are multiple people in the room,
each entrapped in a contraption of their own, each being made the same
offer, with the same cash prize. The only difference between each person
is the machine with which they are being tortured. Each machine is
different in construct, and each is better or worse than the other. Some
only make the person entrapped squeak a little every so often, others
have them screaming in agony, begging for an end to their living hell.
Each is asked the same question after 5 minutes, whether to end or to
endure the pain. Some withstand it and soldier on, some opt out and
In this situation, the thing that matters most is not whether you should
continue or fold, but whether it is your choice to do so.
The issue of
whether you choose to endure the pain, knowing the prize at the end and
knowing the experience of how much it hurts, is totally yours to make,
but what if the rules changed and suddenly you were forced to continue
with the process? This is equivalent to being preventing a person from
committing suicide, or not allowing someone to have the assisted suicide
they desire. Of course there will be those saying 'but it can get
better for those with things like depression' but that isn't the point.
It could be argued whether it will get better, and by what means
you attest to know this, but even if we just assume that the person will
recover, why should this be a reason for them not to end the suffering
they experience now? How is this different to your torture operator
saying, 'but why would you want to end it now, when you'll win a
million?' Because the pain you will have to endure is so much that you
do not care for any prize at the end, even being better off than when
you started, because it is the experience of suffering which you wish to
cease. Even if he increased the prize to 2 million, or 10, or 100
million every year for the rest of your life, there is a level of
suffering, in principle, to which you would wish to end no matter what
the gains come its conclusion. It could be that there are possible gains
that are worth a certain level of suffering, but that the gain is too
small relative to the suffering you would have to endure, or it could
simply be that you deem the suffering so great that no potential gain
would be sufficient for its endurance. This would undoubtedly differ
from person to person, but that would not matter, for it is the choice
of the individual who has experienced and will continue to experience
that level of suffering as to whether it be ended or not.
But what if they make the wrong decision, you say? Well, how would you
know? No two torture devices are the same, and we cannot know the pain
experienced of another. It may be that George in the corner, after 5
minutes of his machine, can stand no more and chooses to quit, while Ben
chooses to endure the whole hour even though we may look at his machine
and see that it is clearly more intense and wicked in its infliction of
agony. We can judge that we may be able to withstand the torment of
George's machine, we are free to make such a statement if we wish, but
that does not mean that George should have to. George should be free to
opt out, whatever the pain or the prize, because it is his body, his
suffering, and his potential experiences in question.
'But there are people who have been forcefully prevented from committing
suicide who have been grateful for people preventing them!'
there are children who have been beaten who will recommend the practice
as adults, so it can't always be bad, can it? There are people who have
come to be conscious after years on life support, so we shouldn't switch
anyone off, should we? There are babies that have been born prematurely
at an age when abortion would be permitted, so we shouldn't abort at
that precise number of weeks? There are people who say they choose to be
straight after being gay, so it's a choice, right?
It may be that some people are now thankful for intervention in their
own attempted suicide, but there are also many people who are not
thankful, and who's suffering is either prolonged or made worse because
of such intervention. And we will never know about the suicides of whom
are now grateful that they could take their own life, because they are
dead and so cannot tell us. The only suicidal people alive are those who
have either been prevented from committing suicide and are grateful, or
those who still wish to end their lives and are simply 'still in the
process of receiving treatment'. They will either continue such suicide
attempts until they succeed, or eventually be convinced that life is
worth living and will be the show-piece of 'treating' suicidal
tendencies. A bit like pointing to the disproportionately low number of
women raped in city centres while wearing burqas, and asserting that
burqas are therefore an effective preventative measure against rape and empowers women,
while ignoring the countless women forced into wearing burqas, and the
oppression of women that the burqa symbolises and promotes.
Should the possibility of people eventually being grateful for the
intervention of suicide attempts, outweigh the prolonged suffering of
those who wish to end their pain, or the possibility of increased
suffering when suicide is prevented? If so, on what grounds? If you are
to take away a persons human right to be in control of their own body
and to end their own suffering if they choose to do so, then you must
surely have reasonable grounds to take these sort of actions. People
should be able to take their own life if they choose to do so, and if
you force them to continue living - not 'help' - but force them into
prolonged suffering, then you should have specific reasons relating
either to that individual expressing a wish for intervention when
suicide is to be attempted, or have grounds to believe that they are
acting impulsively. However, if they discuss the issue with you and
clearly express their desire to end their life, then to proceed to
forcefully prevent the fulfilment of such a desire would be nothing less
than selfish and unethical. It would show wilful disregard for the
experience of suffering and a true lack of concern for the person's
ultimate well-being in favour of ones own desires for that person.
The fact that there is a chance that some people may be thankful for
being prevented from taking their own life, does not justify the
prolonging of suffering of those who still wish to die and are forced to
endure yet more suffering, nor does it justify the acts of intervention
that have actually increased the suffering of individuals with suicidal
To fail to recognise the validity of mental suffering as a reason for a
person wishing to end their life, is to be wilfully ignorant of current
scientific knowledge about the brain and the experience of suffering,
and to callously ignore the desires of those most desperate to escape
such suffering, and to instead be motivated by the selfish desires of
the individual at the expense of another. To do this while claiming to
be of benefit to the same individual is to fool oneself about what is
truly of benefit to a person experiencing suffering, and to employ the
tactic of 'guilt-tripping' i.e. to explain that family members would
rather the person be alive and in a state of pain so as to avoid the
loss of a loved one, is a grotesque act of emotionally kicking a person
while he's down, where there is already barely further room to fall.
I invite those who disagree with my admittedly controversial view
regarding allowing suicide for both mental reasons as well as physical,
to state what their objections are and why, on any media platform they
wish. I enjoy discussion and debate. As of writing I can see no flaws
with my argument, but would be happy to be made aware of such flaws if
they do indeed exist.