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Given the following situation as an example:

"Mr. XY has experienced a lot of misery in his life. A lot of misfortunes and strokes of fate have left their marks in his biography. He has become weary of his life and has decided to end his life".

As a maxim I formed the following: "My life was full of suffering, therefore I should end my life" and the universal law: "Everybody that experiences immense suffering in his life should end his life".

Now my question is, what Kant probably would say to this situation as an imperative?

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Kant explicitly writes on suicide in his Metaphysics of Morals, Part Two, Ak. 421-24.

As I have no translation in English at hand, I will paraphrase the main point:

Suicide is a crime (murder). It is a violation of a perfect duty against oneself (First Part, First Book is named "Perfect duties against oneself").

So there can be no categorical imperative commanding suicide, no matter how casuisticly sophisticated the situation may be. Because duties are imposed by the categorical imperative (singular!).

For further arguments on this, feel free to read by yourself, especially the casuistic questions 423-24.

In German, the text can be found here.

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Kant does explicitly address the question of suffering and suicide, rejecting such conditional applications of morality, but unfortunately I have no books presently at hand, so can't provide a reference or details of his reasoning.

Even without the details, we can appeal to one basic aspect of Kant's transcendental and "deontic" morality. The case for "ending suffering" is clearly a personal and "consequentialist" approach to moral acts. The act is based not in the universal structure of rational being itself, but in the perceived consequences.

Kant argues that such justifications presume we can predict the outcome, which we cannot. The limits of "pure reason" deny us this very knowledge. Here is precisely the slippery slope of secular, utilitarian ethics he was keen to avoid. In the case of personal suffering, two considerations intercede.

First, we cannot know the outcome for others of our willed death... or of our reluctantly continued life. Second, we cannot even know the outcome for ourselves, since we must accept, as Kant did, both the limits of our knowledge and the a priori assumption of the immortality of the soul.

Moreover, the structure of the "categorical" imperative as the "willing of a universal law" is meant to transcend personal, contingent circumstances, especially those guided by mere physical pleasure or suffering. By responding to such contingent determinants, we slip from the realm of "rational freedom" into the natural realm of mere physical reaction amid brute cause and effect.

To justify suicide, we would have to assume that somehow bodily suffering is itself inherent to "rational free" existence, leading "rationally and freely" to self-termination, which obviously cannot be universally compatible with such "rational being." (It is worth noting that without Kant's Christian assumptions, existentialists might hold similar views, yet extend human freedom to the uniquely human act of suicide.)

However, I have not addressed the vexed question of how exactly one is to judge various specific "actual" conditions in applying the categorical imperative, which has been criticized on precisely such grounds as an "empty formalism." I hope others can provide more detail, and the suicide citation. While most people would not accept Kant's pseudo-Lutheran strictures today, there is a great deal of wisdom in his concerns about the plasticity of "consequentialist" ethics.

  • The main point for Kant is in fact that there can be no such thing as "riational and free self-termination", because it is negating the dignity and humanity in yourself and by this dignity and humanity per se. It is the ultimate non-moral action and not by accident the first perfect duty against oneself mentioned in MM. – Philip Klöcking Nov 17 '15 at 16:23
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Kant is very clear, as @PhilipKlocking indicates. But he deals with this in a way that is perhaps too mathematically clean and rigorous, and may not easily generalize for pedagogical purposes.

Let me point out a specific place where people trying to apply Kant often skip to the end. We focus on universalizability, often relying upon empathy and autonomy. But we skip the idea that universal moral laws are meant to be laws, which means they have a meaning that can be clearly expressed to others outside your own head.

From a modern perspective, we know depression is a disease, a mere accident of our animal nature, which artificially amplifies suffering. So the degree of suffering is easily and often seen to be illusory. So any maxim we want to make a universal law should not depend entirely upon this degree. Another person in your place (including you, at a different time) should be able to agree with you about the applicability of your maxim.

We do not wish for everyone who is depressed enough to kill themselves, knowing they might often see things differently in other circumstances. (One standard example is a mother of a young child with post-partum depression. Her obligation to the child should keep her alive. The child's later viewpoint on her relative importance is very different from her own estimation in the moment.)

But the failure here is more basic: We fail to be able to make this maxim into a moral law, whether or not we would see it as universalizable.

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    I think that this failure is one of the two failures possible described in GMM. There, the difference between a incoherence of a maxim as general law (propositional or thelological contradiction one could name it from a modern point of view) and more fundamental incoherence as not even being able to be thought as a moral law at all. The notion of a general law is often reduced to universalizability, but I think this is reductionalistic. All three forms have to be taken into consideration for a full understanding of the notion (that is forumla of natural law, humanity and realm of ends). – Philip Klöcking Nov 18 '15 at 9:08

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