Creating a life is (normally) a perfectly voluntary action with well known consequences, and hence the people involved are morally responsible for the result. But, what are the arguments for that the act of "remaining alive" is a voluntary action (and hence something you are responsible for) or an involuntary action (you can fall back on your instincts and you will survive) and therefore not something you are responsible for?

I tend to the latter, mainly because we are "biologically programmed" to survive: heights make most people uncomfortable, breathing is handled by the autonomous nervous system, you have a lot of defence mechanisms against e.g. food poisoning (vomiting), there is a high mental threshold to commit suicide etc. Our biology is not neutral between die and survive.

  • Clarification needed: What is it you call instinct ? If it is our reflects, like breathing or vomiting, I can see why one would not hold people responsible for having them, but survival goes far beyond having reflects. Is getting up and finding food to eat part of what you call instinct? It is certainly not an involuntary action.
    – armand
    Apr 17, 2021 at 22:25
  • @armand It is a gray zone with breathing (very hard to control more than briefly) at one end of the spectrum and eating and visiting the toilet at the other end (easy to control for hours but after a while it is going to be the only thing you think about. And if you start hallucinating from hunger - do you really control what you are doing?)
    – d-b
    Apr 18, 2021 at 8:12
  • 3
    Many philosophers accept the doctrine of acts and omissions:"it makes an ethical difference whether an agent actively intervenes to bring about a result, or omits to act in circumstances in which it is foreseen that as a result of the omission the same result occurs", a.k.a. the doctrine of double effect. Since in most circumstances it is ending the life that requires action, not ending it is an omission. Most living runs on autopilot, but at times the choice is openly confronted, so it is a voluntary omission.
    – Conifold
    Apr 18, 2021 at 8:39
  • What about reckless driving, a favorite pastime of our youth these days? That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how some of us utterly disregard our safety and well-being - courting death has become a fashion if you ask me. Dec 26, 2022 at 19:12
  • Agreeing that one can voluntary end one's life (eg by jumping off a tall building), then remaining alive, in the sense of not ending one's life is also a voluntary act (at least indirectly)
    – Nikos M.
    Apr 26 at 17:26

3 Answers 3


morally responsible for the result

What does that mean though? Responsible for all they do? They are property? What, are parents morally responsible for?

"Your children are not your children They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself They come through you but not from you And though they are with you yet they belong not to you You may give them your love but not your thoughts For they have their own thoughts You may house their bodies but not their souls For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them But seek not to make them like you For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday"

-from 'On Children', by Kahlil Gibran

It is certainly a philosophical and a moral question, whether to continue.

"Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee? But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself." - Camus

Camus gets at how it is a deeply personal, an existential question.

But then again, there is something very selfish, even solipsistic, about not considering the effects your passing would have on others. In 'The Outsider' I think Camus is discussing that, it is easy to act in the moment like an Absurdist, but to actually be one means being reconciled with whatever the consequences turn out to be, not ignoring them or wishing them away or wishing to have been different or acted differently.

Assisted dying in the face of serious illness & suffering has to be allowed by almost anyone, unless they have a religious objection. There was a fairly recent case in Canada, about allowing euthenasia for mental illness, for someone in enduring severe mental anguish. One issue was that funding hadn't been available to explore all treatment options, so there is a risk of this being financially motivated, as there can be around encouraging the elderly to die whether or not they truly wish it. But based on the idea euthanasia can be ok, those arguments require admitting death can be an acceptable choice, in the face of suffering.

One of the biggest issues with choosing early death, is that it closes off possibilities. Deathbed revelations, or insights, or generally how we die, have lasting repercussions. It's very intetesting what is being discovered about psychaedelics and end-of-life care, eg The Potential of Psychedelics for End of Life and Palliative Care. A shift in perspective for the dying person doesn't just affect them, but the whole circle of people around them. As long as we are alive, we can change perspective, end feuds, undo harms, redeem unfinished projects or broken promises. It is widely reported that dying people find new significance and importance to such an area.


Your question is in part rather like asking whether the world's population of humans is biologically male or female. The population consists of billions of people, most of whom are individually biologically male or female, with millions fitting outside either category. Your life is a set of billions of actions. Many- such as the beating of your heart, breathing, peristalsis in your gut, the triggering of your immune system- are entirely involuntary. Others seem entirely voluntary (if free will can be assumed), such as whether to go for a walk, what TV channel to watch, whether to waste thirty minutes typing an answer on a philosophy forum, which you know will be received by universal disdain and ridicule. And you might well puzzle over how to categorise certain borderline actions, such as paying taxes, wearing clothes in public, unconscious decisions performed on auto-pilot, and so on.

And if the foregoing were not already a sufficient handicap, your question is also burdened by the ambiguity of the word responsible. Am I responsible for everything I do? It depends what you mean by responsible. If you make a rather arbitrary stipulation that one is responsible for one's voluntary actions but not for the involuntary, then you are responsible for some aspects of your life and not for others. If we limit the focus of enquiry to staying alive, rather than living, then most of the relevant actions are either entirely involuntary (such as digestion) or largely performed on auto-pilot. Yes, we all have a choice, in principle at least, to top ourselves, but we have no end of choices in principle. In principle, I could choose to try to become a rock star, in principle I could choose to sell my house and start any of n new lives anywhere in the world, in principle I could choose to study Derrida or do any number of other ridiculous things. Am I 'responsible' for not doing any of those things? Am I 'responsible' for decisions I never get round to taking? If I never get round to thinking about suicide, am I 'responsible' for staying alive?

In short, you seem to be seeking and black or white answer to a decidedly grey question.


YES, but in a larger context (you ask as if it would be an isolated cause, and it is not, it is a consequence of a global mechanism):

  1. IDEALLY, the final goals of reason and instinct must be logically consistent, because inconsistency leads to gradual self-destruction.

  2. Survival is one (if not the most important) goal of instinct, and therefore, reason needs to be consistent (again: if they are inconsistent, self-destruction level increments).

From another point of view, still YES, it is voluntary, because living or dying is a permanent decision.

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