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chad's avatar

Do you feel that Kant would "O.K." the act of suicide, or disprove of it (details inside...)

Asked by chad (694 points ) November 19th, 2008

Today in my ethics (philosophy) class, we discussed the debate over euthanasia. The class seemed to be divided 50/50 in terms of whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

In our readings for the class, we have found and learned that Kant holds the belief that suicide is immoral (so it seems he would be against euthanasia). However, he has also said that in terms of anatomy, we control our own life. This seems to completely contradict himself, and now I am completely confused over what to think and take from how he thinks and what he believes.

Basically what I am wondering is how you interpret the opinion/mind of Kant? And what do you think he really thinks about euthanasia and suicide?

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16 Answers

trumi's avatar

What an excellent question! Props!

I don’t know a ton about Kant, but I know that medical science has changed quite a lot since his day. Euthanasia is a complicated issue, where right and wrong are often blurred. I think he would probably agree with that, anyway.

answerjill's avatar

Central to Kant’s philosophy is the idea that one should “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” This maxim, which is known as the “categorical imperative,” can be found in his “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.” Basically, it means that you should not do things that you could not recommend that everyone do. Probably, it would not be good for the entire population to commit suicide. So, suicide would be not be ethical. It has been a long time since my college days as a philosophy major. If I have made any mistakes here, folks, please point them out to me, thanks. Also, if you can explain the CI in a better way, please do!

Zuma's avatar

I see no reason why the categorical imperative should inhibit you from committing suicide. Presumably, you are not advocating immediate suicide for no reason, but for some rational and possibly even altruistic reason, such as wishing to spare yourself and your loved ones the pain and indignity of losing control over your faculties in hastening an otherwise impending death.

Depending on whether you call heroic self-sacrifice in war an act of suicide, or when the Emperor sends you a dagger (with the implicit message that your family will be able to keep its property if you do the deed) all of these things could be judged honorable by people in like circumstances.

chad's avatar

Sorry that it has taken me a little while to return back here, but I will try and explain a little further and add more details and things into the overall ‘question’ I had asked:

What we were to do is discuss the moral permissibility or impermissibility of a contemporary ethical issue (which was euthanasia), and then to ‘adopt’ the perspective of Kant that argues for the moral permissibility or impermissibility.

I hope this makes things easier to understand! And if you have anything else to add, please do so! Thank you!

Comedian's avatar

DUDE! I’M STUDING HIM TOO!!!! Him and Nietzsche.

jasonjackson's avatar

@answerjill: good answer. I think you’ve nailed how Kant would approach the situation.

I don’t necessarily agree with the logic (I do plenty of ethical things every day which would have terrible consequences if everyone did them, especially all at once), but I think you’re correct in stating that it’s how Kant would approach the topic.

But as @MontyZuma astutely points out: who’s really to say that mass suicide would always be unethical? Kant would probably say that it’s an a priori good, but he’d more or less just making that up.. and really, it’s more complicated than that. Before most of us would be willing to say whether any act (including suicide) is ethical, we’d want to know the circumstances and details, like why the act is being committed, the results it is likely to have on those around us, etc.

So regardless of what Kant would say, I believe the best answer to the question of whether suicide is ethical is, as with most things relating to ethics, “it depends”.

fireside's avatar

I’m not an expert, but I think that Kant alluded to the fact that we are imperfect judges of ourselves. If that’s the case, then I think suicide would be out because we would never know if it was actually the right choice for ourselves.

Not that that helps with the euthanasia part of the question.

answerjill's avatar

Monty and Jason – You both make good points, but from what I can recall, Kant does not take consequences into account in the same way that you do when making judgments as to what is ethical/moral. Rather, for Kant, an action is “moral” only in so far as one is making decisions in accordance with the categorical imperative. I am too tired to explain this in full right now, but maybe I will flesh it out more tomorrow.

elchoopanebre's avatar

This is quite the esoteric thread.

(I have nothing to contribute)

chad's avatar

Thank you very much for your help guys and girls!

@answerjill, I look forward to hearing the rest of your explanation! Sleep well, haha!

BoyWonder's avatar

Perhaps Kant meant that it is immoral to intentionally kill yourself (ie: Stabbing yourself, ODing on drugs, shooting yourself, etc) but it’s not immoral to die from lung cancer caused by your own smoking habit. In terms of anatomy, I control my own life. I can pick that bottle up and drink or pick that cigarette up and smoke it if I choose. But to willfully pick up a gun and turn it on myself with the intention of ending my life is immoral. That’s my interpretation. Hope that helps.

wundayatta's avatar

Wouldn’t it be a catergorical imperative, as Monty suggested, to kill yourself for good reason? Like to get out of pain that was scientifically projected to be never-ending? This is an imperative that could be applied to everyone.

Frankly, I don’t think the categorical imperative, as described so far, adds much to the conversation, since you can always qualify it to the extent that your choice (which you would apply to everyone) applies only in the unique circumstances you find yourself in (and that no one else could ever be in).

BoyWonder's avatar

I highly doubt that a suicidal person would approve of the whole world committing suicide along with them unless it were a mass suicide. Isn’t that the point of suicide? To be rid of the cruel world that plagues them? Why would I want to commit suicide and take with me the very thing that made me want to commit suicide in the first place?? Doesn’t make much sense. A mother who kills herself because she can’t seem to make ends meet, probably has good intentions in mind and probably would not (and most certainly should not) want to take her children with her.

BoyWonder's avatar

In addition, think about a female rape victim who kills herself due to the stress caused by the rape that is hard for her to endure. Do you really think that this woman would suggest the same outcome for all women in her predicament? And, is she immoral for not doing so?

BoyWonder's avatar

This is exactly what’s wrong with American society…u have all these old-timer ass people who come up with these “justifications” to generalize a specific group of people, they use samples of people in one small corner of the country, one small piece of one level of class of people and try to apply that to the rest of the nation. They get these biased findings, report them, and fuck up the minds of the people, same way they “discovered” ADHD and propose Ritalin as treatment for “hyperactive” kids. Horrible.

Zuma's avatar

@BoyWonder,
The question is about Kant, not so much about about suicide. Kant’s categorical imperative holds that each person should act as though his actions were legislating for all of humanity. In other words, I do as I wish everyone else would do.

Where we are stuck at the moment is whether Kant meant this in a strict literal sense as answerjill suggests, or in the looser more contextual sense I have suggested above. I personally don’t know, but what I remember from that lecture is that it might be in the strict literal sense, because Kant was looking for categories of behavior that could be taken as moral absolutes and universally applied on their face.

For example, he identifies promise keeping as a categorical imperative. This is something that one would do in all situations where there are promises, because it is right in and of itself. In the case of suicide, that is more of a hypothetical imperative because it is not a desirable end in itself, but a means to an end (i.e., reduced suffering).

The idea was to place morality on a rational foundation. There was some criticism that these a priori principles didn’t hold up, which opened the door to a second rational criterion; namely, the utilitarian principle, or “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

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