The Sociology and Philosophy of Suicide

The Sociology and Philosophy of Suicide

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Are there situations in which suicide represents a good choice? Are we allowed to take our own lives? Suicide is not just about personal crises and psychology but also about philosophy and sociology.

The Social Theory of Suicide

Suicide has a very strong social component. The field of sociology grew upon the realization that suicide rates vary with sociological components, that suicide is not simply a psychological occurrence (Kearl, Michael C., 2004).

We come to perceive ourselves by the rules and norms that we learn in society, by the morality and roles that the different social groups we belong to mirror for us (Kearl, Michael C., 2005).

Once we have developed a sense of self, we are able to join in the construction of social reality with other people and give meaning to our life and actions (Kearl, Michael C., 2005).

The types of social groups we belong to, the strength of those bonds and the amount of deviance from those norms result in how much social cohesion or solidarity we have with others and how closely or distantly we view ourselves as members of any given group (Kearl, Michael C., 2005).

French sociologist Emile Durkheim was at the root of the sociological perspective of suicide.

Durkheim found that crisis and change (positive or negative) can disrupt social solidarity and increase the rate of suicide. He also purported that these bonds evolve over a long period of time so changes can leave both individuals and groups suffering from the sudden break and period of weak or nonexistent social bonds (Kearl, Michael C., 2005).

An economic boom can disrupt the social order and increase the rate of suicide and war can actually cause people to bond more closely together. Durkheim found that suicide rates were increased in certain social groups: single people, Protestants, and city-dwellers(Kearl, Michael C., 2004).

The lack of strong bonds with other people or groups and sudden changes in groups leave people wrestling with their identity, life-meaning and sense of belonging. Durkeheim said, “No individual is sufficient unto himself, it is from society that he receives all that is needful.” (Kearl, Michael C., 2005).

 

Four types of suicide

This discovery led Durkheim to argue that levels of social integration and regulation impact suicide rates. He believed that there were four types of suicide:

Egoistic: a result of too little social integration, when social bonds are weak or broken

(For example, the suicides of the isolated elderly)

Altruistic: a result of too much integration, when the self is subsumed by the group norms

(For example, the suicides of terrorist suicide bombers)

Anomic: a result of too little integration, when a social group is unable to fully integrate an individual and they suffer from a loss of meaning

(For example, the suicides of those whose ties have been broken with societal groups like retirees and the newly divorced)

Fatalistic: a result of excessive regulation and a need for control, when pressures to fall in with social rules are extreme and the individuating self wrestles with this pressure

(For example, high academic achievers who commit suicide after failing an exam)

Many studies have found evidence to support Durkheim’s social theory of suicide. (Kearl, Michael C., 2004 & 2005)

  • Norway has only 1/3rd the suicide rate that Denmark and Sweden have although residents of the three countries have similarities in genetics, culture and geography. It is argued that tight-knit and supportive family practices in Norway create the disparity.
  • Homosexuals account for 30% of youth suicides.
  • In the 1980’s, the number of suicides in the U.S. increased by 360 cases for every 1% rise in unemployment.
  • Immigrants experience a higher risk of suicide (Värnik, Kõlves,Kairi and Wasserman, 2004).
  • A study of Canadian youths found that those who experience ambiguity about their identity and future life-roles have a higher rate of suicide as compared to those who are entrenched in traditional culture with group involvement and planning (Development and Suicide: A Study of Native and Non-Native North American Adolescents).

 

Philosophical Timeline: Suicide

The right of individuals to commit suicide has long been argued, pro and con, throughout history.

Plato felt that suicide was an act of weakness or cowardice, a sign of an individual’s inability to weather the ups and downs of life. Aristotle felt that suicide was a kind of crime against society. These philosophers defined individuals in terms of their social roles and obligations (Cholbi, 2008).

Stoics such as Cicero believed that our nature depends upon having certain “natural advantages,” and that a wise man can recognize when “natural advantages” such as health and livelihood are lacking. Ending one’s life does not make one immoral, simply wise. The stoic Seneca believed that quality of life was superior to quantity. He said that “mere living is not a good, but living well.” (Cholbi, 2008).

Christianity has condemned suicide as a mortal sin. Thomas Aquinas held that suicide is an enemy of innate self-love, is injurious to the community and violates our duty to God to cherish the life he’s given us (as well as His authority to choose when and whether we live or die.) In Christianity, our bodies and lives are not our own—they’re on loan from God.

The Protestant religion was influenced by ideas of personal liberty during The Enlightenment. This religion lessened the severity of the sin of suicide, choosing to believe in the mercy and possibility of forgiveness from God for such a transgression (Cholbi, 2008)

In 1607, John Donne questioned the nature of suicide as a sin. He held that by Christian reasoning, any type of self-denial could be considered a sin against God and pointed out that Christians have regularly sanctioned the breaking of the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” commandment in terms of martyrdom, capital punishment and war.

David Hume believed strongly in the doctrine of personal liberty and self-determination. He argued that suicide “may be free of imputation of guilt and blame.” (Cholbi, 2008)

A variety of trends in the 19th and early 20th centuries changed the perspective of the arguments about suicide. Rather than arguing about a person’s will versus God’s, suicide came to be viewed as a result of the suffering society placed upon an individual. People that took their own lives were not viewed as weak but as victims who were almost justified in their actions.

Romantic novels in which “suicide was the inevitable response of a misunderstood and anguished soul jilted by love or shunned by society” emerged. Psychiatry emerged as a field and mental illnesses were thought to cause suicide. Sociology put forth that alienation in the modern world gave rise to suicide. (Cholbi, 2008)

Existentialists in the 20th century saw suicide as a response to the “absurdity or meaningless of the world and of human endeavor.”   Camus thought that suicide was still an escape from confronting absurdity in life while Sartre viewed it as an assertion of human will. To these philosophers, the individual is the source of all meaning (Cholbi, 2008)

The morality of the act of suicide has arisen again today. With the advent of suicide bombers and euthanasia, some believe that in some cases suicide may be obligatory or honorable—that it just makes the most sense in some cases. A soldier who sacrifices his life for others, a doctor who supports a terminally ill patient’s wish to end their suffering—questions like these have an assumption of rational choice behind them (Cholbi, 2008).

But how rational is a person who is in pain and depressed? How rational is the person who is so consumed with hopelessness that they cannot consider the possibility of happiness in their future or recognize that perhaps “This too shall pass?”

Suicidal people are often anxious and impulsive. They may consider death an entrance to a new life rather than the end of the old one. Suicidal impulses often dissipate on their own when they’re not acted upon. Depression is often a factor in suicide and depression affects cognition (Cholbi, 2008)

Philip Devine argues that suicide is irrational because without knowledge and experience of death, an individual cannot make comparisons or judge life with the alternative (Cholbi, 2008).

Suicide is too complex a topic to argue for or against based upon singular perspectives. We are all systemic, and a number of factors influence the role and meaning of suicide in our lives. Suicide is a loss, and it is a symptom.   It causes ripples in society and is affected by cultural developments.

In the end, we do not know enough to condemn or support suicide, though it is always something to mourn. Social solidarity does impact the incidence of suicide, and so perhaps the act is a wake-up call for society when it occurs. And who is to say what is one’s own will and what may be God’s as well?

 

Sources

Cholbi, Michael (2008) Suicide. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online]. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/suicide/

Development and Suicide: A Study of Native and Non-Native North American Adolescents. Wiley [online] 68:2. Retrieved from http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1405118792.html

Kearl, Michael C. (2004) Kearl’s Guide to the Sociology of Death: Suicide. Trinity University [online]. Retrieved from http://www.trinity.edu/~MKearl/death-su.html

Keller, Michael C., A Survey of Nanot (2005) Technology: Possibilities and Possible Ramifications. Kellered [online]. Retrieved from http://kellered.blogspot.com/2005/12/social-solidarity.html

Värnik, Airi, Kõlves,Kairi and Wasserman,Danuta (2004, September 14). Suicide among Russians in Estonia: database study before and after independence. BMJ [online]. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC544990/

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