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I came across a story about a kid who committed suicide after carefully calculating the benefits of life and deciding it was not worth living.

I am wondering if any philosopher has considered the rationality of suicide and wrote in great detail about it. I understand Albert Camus said that, Suicide was the only true philosophical question and he did put suicide as one of the responses to Absurdism.

Eventually I hope to get a sense of the logic that made the kid to commit suicide.

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    How a young boy 20 years-old, knows all the pros and const of the life ? And this boy say that is calculate "the benefits of life", how they calculate them at that age ? and also did he have learn logic ? because logic is something that you must learn. So wrong input and wrong calculations. Socrates speaks about the soul and the suicide at faidona. – Aristos May 29 '12 at 8:03
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    I hope his diary will be published. – Raskolnikov May 29 '12 at 16:18
  • @Aristos The suposed impossibility of knowing worth another discution, isn't it? – Billy Rubina May 31 '12 at 5:16
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    @GustavoBandeira Yes of course, everything worth another discution. – Aristos May 31 '12 at 6:53
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    Shelly Kagan, a Yale professor, has a series of lectures on death. Here he discusses the rationality of suicide: youtube.com/watch?v=MajfZIyHP8U – yousuf soliman Dec 31 '13 at 2:45

12 Answers 12

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I am wondering if any philosopher has considered the rationality of suicide and wrote in great detail about it.

Suicide is a theme, explicitly, for some philosophers. For others, it is implied by their other statements.

For example: if one is a Christian or Buddhist philosopher, then suicide is explicitly rejected in advance according to be doctrine, and may not need to be discussed in other philosophical works.

Alternatively, if one is a Hedonist, one is attempting to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. And, under these circumstances, suicide could be a rational act.

For example: Imagine that you are a prisoner of war who has been captured by a brutal enemy. The enemy knows that you are in possession of important, secret information which can be used against your country, and you know that they know this. You know that they will torture you to get the information, and then kill you. You have in your possession a hidden cyanide tablet, which will kill you painlessly and instantly.

If these facts are known, with an extremely high degree of certainty, to be the case, then suicide would appear to be a rational act for a Hedonist in these circumstances.

Where this case differs from that of the teenager in the article mentioned in the question is largely a matter of evaluation: the amount of pleasure expected in the future, the amount of pain expected, and the certainty of the estimates-- but the logic remains the same.

Generally speaking, suicide has been more explicitly treated in the sociological literature; Emile Durkheim's book on the subject is the canonical starting point.

I understand Albert Camus said that, Suicide was the only true philosophical question and he did put suicide as one of the responses to Absurdism.

That is true, but remember that Camus is not recommending suicide. For Camus, the fact that the universe is absurd means that there is no meaning to life which precedes our existence; in such a situation, one of the most important philosophical questions to grapple with, in fact, perhaps the only philosophical question, is whether to go on living. To continue to live (i.e., not not commit suicide) is a choice-- the question then becomes, what is that choice based upon? This constitutes the meaning of one's life.

Eventually I hope to get a sense of the logic that made the kid to commit suicide.

The logic is clear-- he felt that the pain he was enduring was too great to be offset by any possible future circumstances. Clearly, his evaluative skills were impaired, most likely be depression. But there's little point in psychoanalyzing at a distance.

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    Why is it "clear" that his evaluative skills were impaired? – Quinn Culver Jun 13 '12 at 16:57
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    Because it seems supremely unlikely that the amount of pain he was in significantly outweighed the possible pleasure that he would be likely to enjoy in the roughly 65 years he had left on this earth. It is very unfortunate that he was bullied in school, but as Dan Savage points out, "It Gets Better." – Michael Dorfman Jun 13 '12 at 20:00
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    @QuinnCulver because he believed that he could predict the future state of a fundamentally incomputable function. He was certain that his math was correct, but he failed to account for a new medication that he would have been prescribed in 2020 and that amazing girl (or guy) who would fall in love with him in 2022. He would have written in his journal around Christmas of that year that just the last six months had made everything worth it. – philosodad Jul 11 '12 at 14:31
  • What's this "fundamentally incomputable function" of which you speak? Why is it incomputable? How do you know that he didn't account for those things? – Quinn Culver Jul 11 '12 at 21:19
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    @QuinnCulver the potential number and of interactions of future events is not countable, hence you cannot compute the future trajectory of your life past a very, very narrow horizon line. It's similar to predicting the weather, only massively more complicated--it would be like predicting the weather for years ahead on a planet with an aperiodic orbit around an unstable star. It's also worth mentioning that modern science has concluded that happiness is something you can achieve, not something you have, so he was scientifically wrong about the nature of happiness itself. – philosodad Jul 11 '12 at 22:06
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Logic alone can neither prove that god exists, nor that you should commit suicide. Perhaps he realized that logic can't prove that he shouldn't commit suicide, and drew the wrong conclusion. But seriously, this is more a psychological question than a philosophical one. For one thing, his age (15) indicates that he reached puberty. But it might generally be a good idea to not speculate too much about the reasons for a specific suicide, especially if you don't need it to appease yourself (for whatever reasons). This doesn't mean that you won't find understandable reasons for a specific suicide, if you really want to know.

Regarding Albert Camus, he hasn't committed suicide, neither did Meursault in "The Stranger", Sisyphus in "The Myth of Sisyphus", or Dr. Bernard Rieux in "The Plague". Camus decided against publishing "A Happy Death", and even there he didn't describe an explicit suicide. And even if he did, you should view this in the context of the time in which he lived.

  • "Logic alone can neither prove that god exists, nor that you should commit suicide." Blanket statements like these without any sort of justification aren't very useful. I can easily imagine situations where suicide should not only be acceptable, but a moral duty. – stoicfury Jul 11 '12 at 14:51
  • @stoicfury Both the concept of moral duty and the act to imagine situations put you into a context different from logic alone. The cited blanket statement is a reasonable response to somebody claiming that "... carefully calculating the benefits of life and deciding it was not worth living" might be a consequence of intellectual brilliance. – Thomas Klimpel Jul 11 '12 at 21:42
  • So, because he did it you can do it? >_> – stoicfury Jul 11 '12 at 21:51
  • @stoicfury: considering that logic alone --- unsupplemented by a large body of axioms, that is --- cannot even engage in discourse about apples, it seems as reasonable to claim that logical alone cannot prove that you should commit suicide (or proposition of the existence of gods, whatever those might be) as to claim that the sky is often a bluish colour. – Niel de Beaudrap Jul 11 '12 at 23:54
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    @stoicfury: all of scientific progress is also predicated on empirical evidence, which cannot be incorporated into a logical model by any means that I have seen except as a multitude of separate axioms, and of a sort that Bertrand Russell (for instance) would not admit as being "axioms of logic". This is what I mean: that logic is essentially an operator on ideas, and that logical conclusions can only touch on subject matters which have been defined from an extralogical source. And precisely what that extralogical content is, is crucial. – Niel de Beaudrap Jul 12 '12 at 11:07
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People almost always have "rational explanations" for the things they do. Two important, related points: 1) the reasoning may be flawed and the person is not able to perceive it 2) many things cannot be decided on purely rational means (e.g. they involve moral and emotional issues as well) Usually, the person is not aware of these other factors and may be convinced that s/he cannot be wrong. I guess the nazis were pretty convinced that they were completely rational in performing the holocaust.

The thing is, many of our thoughts and actions involve subjective issues. The idea of being able to make pure rational choices leave us blind to the irrational in us. Considering ourselves to be flawless is a recipe for disaster.

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I agree with everything Thomas Klimpel said and have just one more thing to add. An act such as this is a case of believing that the knowledge in possession of mankind which in turn is based on thought framework and limits of rationalism (and by extension humanism) is solid and beyond reproach and has no more room for improvement.

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I don't think we can say anything about this case. We'd have to read his diary and only then could we decide. I think I can agree though with Klimpel that 15 is a very young age to think you have already enough knowledge and maturity to decide such matters.

What strikes me in the journal article is that his parents were not at home. His father in Switzerland, his mother at a course. Now, it's preposterous to draw any conclusion from such scant information, but did he receive enough love? Being cherished and cherishing other people is often what drives us in life. In my darkest periods, I have discovered that simple things like good sex, being with friends or listening to music can pull me back together. That is in itself not proving life is worth living, but these things pep me up enough to have the will to move on.

On the whole though, I have often sat down and thought about the worth of it all and I must say that while I have never written down a coherent argument, I always come to the conclusion that life is not worth living. I admire Camus, but I just can't bring up the strength necessary to live like his (anti-)heroes. Though, I often feel like leading the life of the Stranger, just moving on despite everything. But not like the revolted man of Camus' later writings. More like accepting the absurdity of my condition. So, like a defeated man. Definitely not what Camus had in mind.

Anyway, to seriously answer this question requires the boy's writings. Otherwise, this thread is gonna degenerate into a debate.

  • It actually doesn't require reading his writings. Life is so complicated (in a mathematical sense) that, absent some certain event (like an asteroid hitting the earth or an incurable disease that will kill you in a period of months) it is literally impossible to predict the future with any specificity. His math and logic were flawed by virtue of the system he was analyzing, regardless of the contents of his journal. – philosodad Jul 11 '12 at 14:37
  • You don't need to be able to predict the future with any specificity at all. It could be a purely probabilistic calculus. I don't see how YOU can actually make such a definite conclusion. – Raskolnikov Jul 11 '12 at 20:55
  • Because I know what kind of system we're dealing with. First, the trajectory of happiness in a human life is a non-computable function. We can't know all the variables or how they interact. Second, for the life trajectory of an affluent white kid with good grades in western society, the number of possible variables in play and their potential interactions is incalculably large, so even if the function were solvable it couldn't be written down in a notebook. It is certain that whatever his calculation was, it was not actually relevant to his future happiness. – philosodad Jul 11 '12 at 21:56
  • @philosodad: your claim about life being uncomputable is fatally undermined by your attempt to project positive trajectories for a (typical) affluent white kid with good grades etc. In principal anyone could claim that the boy had more precise information about the ensemble of his likely prospects than you do; while you may know more about the space of life-trajectories and its complexity, you can't presume to know more about his life than him. Any argument from the uncomputability of life requires that the universe be utterly incompehensible, which I think we can reject out of hand. – Niel de Beaudrap Jul 12 '12 at 0:02
  • @NieldeBeaudrap No, my claim is not undermined by your insertion of the word "positive" into my argument. The argument from uncomputability of life does not require that the universe be "utterly incomprehensible", it requires that some functions be incomputable, which is an objectively true fact about functions and computability. The boy's projection into the future was flawed by design, regardless of his knowledge. Life is not incomprehensible, it is simply unpredictable past a short horizon. – philosodad Jul 12 '12 at 0:53
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I would also like to know his philosophical and especially his mathematical reasoning for suicide. I suppose after reading many things about the state of the world in crisis (ecological, financial), he might consider suicide might be better than a potentially long period of suffering to come. But his logic was probably off. He would have avoided much suffering as his family seemd well off.

  • It is absolutely irrational to kill yourself out of fear of potential long suffering to come, since it would be much better to wait until just before the suffering actually arrives. – gnasher729 Sep 30 '14 at 9:01
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Have you read Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It?

Personally, I justify (or maybe I am rationalizing) to continue living though the deontology branch. This comes from Peter Singer's (preference utilitarian) Effective Altruism and what Thomas Pogge (a political philosopher) describes as the negative duty.

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The rationality of suicide is going to hinge on two main features. First, it will hinge on the basic moral framework that we operate under. Second, it will hinge on (assuming such a framework allows suicide) whether or not the person in question actually did "carefully calculate" whether their action was licit under the framework. The former is a question of moral metaphysics. The latter is a question of moral epistemology.

In traditional Christian morality and Kantianism, suicide is wrong. For Kant, this is because that is the willful end of rationality in yourself -- a decision which could not be universalized without the loss of the only thing that has value, i.e. rationality. What is somewhat interesting is that Kant does have some understanding that there are borderline cases where it's not clear that this is the maxim willed even if it leads to one's death. These are covered in Metaphysical Principles of Virtue. There, he wonders about when you know you will lose your rationality with rabies and dying in a heroic act to protect others among others.

For traditional Christian morality, it's considered a grave sin to take the life that God gave you. This arises because a created being does not have total freedom in terms of what it can do with itself.

Virtue ethics and communitarian views will differ depending on the community in question, but there will be rules about what counts as vicious and virtuous in these instances. Thus, the idea of dying rather than experiencing shame appears to motivate at least some samurai (at least in fictional accounts). Similarly, it seems clear that bravery would make forfeiting one's life for others acceptable in warrior cultures.

Probably the most accepting of suicide is going to be a utilitarian account (or more broadly consequentialist). This seems to be implicitly what the original question asks about. Here, the question would be whether it can ever be possible that dying is more able to maximize or minimize the desired unit than continuing to live.


This takes us to the epistemological problem. As mentioned in a few other answers, people who fail to commit suicide often discover joy in life again later. This suggests that the analysis of the depressed individual who decides to kill herself is not as sound as one might believe. In other words, even if a moral framework admits suicides, it's still hard to see how the analysis of someone interested in suicide will be level enough to make the commission of suicide sensible.

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There is some statistics readily available that shows quite clearly that suicide will in most cases be irrational.

At the San Francisco Golden Gate bridge, many people commit suicide every year. Many jump off the bridge and die. Many are stopped before jumping. And a small but significant number jump and survive. And if you wait long enough, obviously the survivors will die at some point in the future as we will all do.

Someone took it upon themselves to examine how the survivors died. Just 7% of them died from suicide, plus 3% that might have been suicide (like car accidents without a logical reason for the accident to happen). If all these survivors had acted rationally when trying to commit suicide, obviously they would have left hospital as soon as possible and gone straight back to the bridge, but they didn't. The huge majority regretted what they did; many on the way down.

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One of the funny statements is when I hear someone saying "I understand Life" or based on mathematical research I reached to the conclusion that "life is not good".

People who lived more than 100 years can't say so, and people who have gone through many many experiences of traveling, prison, cultures, family, disaster, crimes and all kinds of sufferings don't claim to know Life. Why would anyone claim so, and in the first place he wasn't given the choice to enter life.

I would ask a different question,

If you were not given the right to decide whether to come to life, do you think you have the right to take yourself away from life (excluding the self sacrifice to give life to others). I mean for example if your child needs your heart to live etc., that's a different case, am just taking about a pure self act of ending its existence without a cause.

In my opinion I don't think there is any rationality in suicide at all, it's basically telling whoever created you, you made the wrong decision and that you are not justice. And that's a big claim if you can't prove it.

Am not talking about parents, because parents do make wrong decisions, e.g if two parents who are infected by sickle cell anemia mate and bring an infected child who live most of his life suffering, I would call that a crime, but I wouldn't question that the creator is not justice.

Hopelessness & despair are not enough to take own life.

I read a nice book "Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl" and I saw a nice standup comedy show "by George Carlin: Life Is Worth Losing "

I recommend anyone who thinks about suicide or tries to justify it or rationalise it to read this book because it's amazing and watch this clip because it's better than good.

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I have no references, but have thought about suicide a lot.

  • Clearly suicide can deprive of us goods.
  • So by extension it should also be a means to avoid (further) harm.
  • It seems much easier to claim that harms are rationally motivating, than the good is.

Then suicide is potentially always rational.

I do actually think that this should be far less obvious for the young, who may not have the full catalogue of 'goods'.


From my own perspective, ditching questions of traditional rationality, I have two competing claims. The 1st is from Sade

Consider the capacity of the human body for pleasure. Sometimes, it is pleasant to eat, to drink, to see, to touch, to smell, to hear, to make love... Consider pain. Give me a cubic centimeter of your flesh and I could give you pain that would swallow you as the ocean swallows a grain of salt. And you would always be ripe for it, from before the time of your birth to the moment of your death, we are always in season for the embrace of pain.

On the other hand, I think that any absolute value lies in existing things; hence, life.

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Thomas Szasz has written about suicide and the policies currently in place for dealing with it (see "Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide" and "Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine"). There are institutional problems that get in the way of rational discussion of suicide.

First, people who commit suicide are often labelled retrospectively as mentally ill. This is an implicit way of saying that they had no reason for committing suicide. Rather there was something wrong with the person's brain that made him commit suicide. This is a bizarre idea. It postulates the existence of a fault in your brain that has detailed about how to perform a difficult task - killing yourself. If we adopted this explanation in the case of Dario Iacoponi (the person in the story you linked) we would have to say that the disease somehow knew how to operate a shotgun. So in many cases where a person commits suicide his reasons for doing so are not discussed and criticised.

Second, we have institutions dedicated to seeking out and punishing people who want to commit suicide. The punishment involves stuff like imprisoning a person in a mental hospital without trial and with no hope of release except with the consent of psychiatrists. A person who tries and fails to commit suicide or claims that he wants to commit suicide may also be ordered to take drugs and threatened with imprisonment if he doesn't. This threat may take the form of saying the person has to take the drugs or go back to the hospital. This only works if the person fears and hates being in the hospital and so it is a threat to impose something the person finds hateful and fearful. This is not an argument to explain to a person why he shouldn't commit suicide and so nobody could rationally decide not to commit suicide as a result of such treatment. And threatening a person who wants to commit suicide with incarceration and forced drugging may dissuade him from discussing suicide with anyone. This could result in him being less clear about suicide than he would be if he had to explain his position to somebody else.

Third, a person can get certain drugs or accommodation if he lies about wanting to commit suicide. Some people who say they want to commit suicide may be lying to get drugs and housing. So a lot of stuff about why people attempt or commit suicide may be lies. Questioning such accounts is not considered acceptable because it might cast doubt on whether we should be providing such "services" with tax money and that would not be "compassionate".

There may be reasons why a person should not commit suicide even though he currently wants to, e.g. - obligations to his children. The solution in such a case would be to help the person concerned change his preferences so that he no longer wants to kill himself. But if you're going to threaten people who want to commit suicide with incarceration and drugging and deny their moral agency, then it is almost impossible to rationally discuss the issue.

As for Iacoponi he did not choose to share his reasons for killing himself with other people. It would be a step in the direction of rationality if people were more willing to respect his privacy.

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