A true case :

Suppose a student is feeling helpless, alone because he has just shifted to a new city in a foreign country and is unable to find a place to live because rents are too high. Also, he is late by two weeks in his studies and fears that he won't be able to catch up if he doesn't get settled soon.

He is very ambitious but at the same time extremely afraid of failure. He constantly feels bad about this for a day and two and feels like giving up on his life. (He has had such suicidal feelings in past as well but somehow he was fortunate enough that he had people around). He tried to jump in front of metro but couldn't muster up the courage to act. Three metros went but he didn't jump in the end, soon he went back and contacted a person (met a day before) for help; he described what happened with him and the contacted person offered him to stay in his house. Now, one day after, the student seemed better and able to go to classes and eat properly.

Is the thing unethical/wrong/immoral? Did he use the "niceness" of a human being?

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    I don't see why there would be anything wrong with giving and receiving aid. Is there some philosopher you are reading or know of who would think this situation represents something unethical? Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 20:01
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    Such questions can not be answered without context. If this is for a class we'd have to know what ethical systems are covered and how. If not, you'll have to pick one, people disagree on what "unethical/wrong/immoral" is in many cases. It is not even clear what is supposed to be immoral exactly, and if the suicide attempt is at all relevant. Is "using the niceness" supposed to refer to Kant's maxim of not using people only as a means? Even if so, it is unclear how "only" would apply here.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 20:08
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    Do you suspect that your suicide attempt was not sincere, perhaps subconsciously, and only a means to get someone to take pity and help you? Otherwise, what you are feeling is not guilt but gratitude, people naturally feel obliged to give back somehow after they are helped in a major way. Perhaps, there is a place for guilt, but not for accepting help, but rather for not seeking it sooner, for letting things deteriorate to a point of attempting suicide. We are ethically obligated to take care of ourselves, and seeking/taking help of others when struggling is part of it, the right thing to do.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 22:38
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    Get professional help. Now. Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 1:43
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    I strongly advise you to get in touch with the Samaritans and/ or to talk to your physician. Every sympathy : Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 7:25

6 Answers 6


Whenever you ask "is X ethical", you can try to see whether the opposite of X would be ethical. Let's look at one opposite:

You thought hard about killing yourself. You decide to not do it, but ask me for help. But at the last second you think you would be imposing on me, and refrain. You write a letter to me explaining all this, post the letter, walk to the train station and kill yourself.

Would that be ethical? What do you think how that would make me feel? I might feel guilty about not having saved you for the rest of my life. In the worst case, your actions could ruin my life. At the very least, I'll have to see and pay a psychiatrist or counsellor. People might find out and blame me, never forgiving me for my failure, even though I'm completely innocent in all this.

But if I put you up in my home until the next day, we have a good talk and you clear your mind, and never go close to any trains again, that will make me feel really good about myself - 100 times worth more than the wear and tear on my sofa and the cost of a breakfast.

So what is more ethical now, asking for my help or not?


If there is no room for failure, then ambition and guilt can make you want to escape the situation. I know that in the city where I work there are a lot of Asian students who are ambiguous too and get stuck in their study, have people at home with high expectations that with the other isolating factors can lead to suicide. If you are looking for justification for your actions, well you are still among us and you harmed no other person or yourself. Is it unethical to ask for help? Never. I would advise you to councel a general practisioner about this and create circumstances and a social network that can support you. And at the same time you become part of social network where you can either return the favour or be of help to others when they are in need. Reciprocal relations are healthy. It means we can depend on fellow humans even on the other side of the planet and even in our deepest despair. Moral could be understood as ‘from(M) rise (R) high(L)’ thus what Ethics you put on a pedestal. You have risen high or overcome the situation, your suicidal thoughts and this shows you have moral and ethics that help you make such decisions. You did not ‘use’ niceness. In this case it was offered to you. The best thing you can do in return is make sure you learn to accept failure as a part of life. Our problems are relative to situations and circumstances. Some you can change and others you can influence and again others will stay the same. You influenced a circumstance for the good by talking about the problem you faced. The contact offered to help change the situation. Maybe try to find help with what causes you to want to almost escape life instead of applying survival strategies. Ancient wise men said: “γνῶθι σεαυτόν“


What you describe, particularly the moments at the metro, must have been an emotionally burdensome situation I cannot easily imagine. It is not only very understandable that you asked someone for help, but seen from the other one's perspective, it might also be that he was glad you did not stay alone.

My view is that there is nothing to feel bad about!

I worry however that you could encounter a similar situation again; you also mention that you suicidal thoughts in the past. To make sure, I feel urged to suggest to seek help from a therapist or institution. The suicide prevention lifeline certainly is a good place in an acute situation; apart from that I think that there are important possibilities of strengthening coping strategies and increasing ones well-being that a therapy could provide.

I don't think you should feel a need to 'pay something back' for the kindness of your acquaintance; it was given freely.

I wish you all best,



The usual take on 'using' another humam being, when this is morally wrong, is that it involves action initiated by oneself in order to secure one's own ends. I use someone, treat them as a mere means, if (say) I lie to them purely in order to get their consent to something that is for my own benefit.

But the case described is nothing like this. The person who was prevented from committing suicide initiated nothing. He merely consented to stay in someone's house. There is not enough description to say whether he hoped this would deflect or just delay his suicidal intention or proclivity. It appears that his role was passive throughout.


The student seems timid, and uncertain of his immediate future. It is a good start for him to have approached someone to lean on, even though that person is someone he had just met the previous day. It shows that he values his life and, though he chooses suicide, the act of jumping in front of a metro and the momentary pain from it terrifies him. In fact it is unlikely he would commit suicide at all. It is this hesitation that drove him to seek solace.

There is absolutely nothing unethical or wrong or immoral about his approaching someone, anyone, for assistance in his moment of desperation. There is this goodness in us to.be helpful to someone in distress. Call it benevolence or basic respect for fellow humans. The victim has indeed used the "niceness" in the person of recent acquaintance. I am sure the next day, when he felt better, he would have thanked the benefactor and expressed his gratitude / indebtedness.

I am reminded here of how, in Atlas Shrugged, Cherryl Brooks approaches Dagny Taggart on that final day of her own life. Dagny suddenly senses a certain change in Cherryl and offers a helping hand in total sincerity, even though there was this loss of intimacy between them from their earlier exchanges. Dagny even tells her to stay back that night. Dagny's offer to help was not any 'humanitarian' act, but her sudden realization that Cherryl didn't deserve to suffer.

  • Hi Bridventure, welcome to Phil.SE. This answer doesn't give a professional philosophical take on the subject, which makes it less than adequate for the site. I'd advice you next time to base your answer on (philosophical) sources. It's best if your answer will be based on credible philosophers, and not self-philosophizing. Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 9:15

Yes he did. But that is totally appropriate. Because the alternative is impossible to maintain.

The alternative (another true story): The police catch you trying to muster the nerve to step in front of a train because you have been unemployed for almost a year and you feel like a waste of oxygen. They call an ambulance and have you committed and detained until your head clears. That obligates you to pay for it. It seems obvious that all you needed was a slap in the face, not thousands of dollars worth of professional intervention. But the former is frowned upon, so the latter is what the system imposes. And that is the debt you are now going to pay. Of course, you can't, for several years. So every month of those several years you get a reminder in the mail that you were temporarily weak. This does not help the associated depression any, and you are therefore less productive for the same money than you otherwise would have been for a long time.

The point (other than we whining) is that accounting this kind of debt so personally is almost always bad for everyone. In a high-honor culture, or a very capitalist one, everyone is expected to pull their own weight. But the result is a counterproductive accounting that is wasteful, and particularly demands more resources out of individuals less likely to have them.

It encourages formalistic actions (like those of the police here) that are often overkill and become bizarrely inefficient. And it encourages people (like the debt managers here) to extract whatever they can manage in terms of money or privileges from human suffering, generally at the expense of increasing it.

That seems immoral, even though it is the very heart of a certain kind of ethical system. To naturalize this, any other ethical framework needs to be bound up with a good dose of the "ethics of care", either through honoring responsible charity, or through subjectively deciding to individually intervene in other people's situations.

Our cultures are not designed to work with clinical precision and enforce rigid balance. We see historically that those accounting-driven cultures always existed alongside extensive 'commons', or have had large institutions that work in the opposite direction (religions orders, for instance.) But when we are devising moral accounting systems, we forget all of that.

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