Talking About Suicide

Because it's not a taboo

More about Lawrence Egbert

I posted this weekend about a profile by The Washington Post of Lawrence Egbert, the former medical director of the Final Exit Network. It turns out that the Post later held an online chat for Egbert and readers, who asked many good questions about assisted suicide and suicide. You can read it here.

There’s a range of opinions, and it’s not clear whether or how the questions were edited or selected. In a way, the big question can be boiled down to this one from the chat: “What troubles me about allowing assisted suicide is: who is qualified to say when a person really is ready to end their life, and won’t change their mind, and when they’re going through a crisis, or suffering a mental disease that would be treated with therapy? … But who really knows?”

Many conversations about suicide get sticky at the word “rational,” and this one does as well. Egbert agrees that each person has the right to make the decision to end his or her life, but he adds, “I agree as long as they are rational and adult. The question that some people ask is ‘Are they rational?’ I have met people who say that just wanting to hasten death defines one as irrational. Try that for a discussion point!”

On the subject of rationality, I’ll share a few quotes from what so far looks like a good collection of writings, called “Suicide: Right or Wrong?” It pulls together philosophers, researchers and others including, surprisingly, the writer Joyce Carol Oates, who takes a quite critical view of Sylvia Plath. This is from Oates’ essay in the book, “The Art of Suicide:” “But can one freely choose a condition, a state of being, that has never been experienced except in the imagination and, even there, only in metaphor? Rationally one cannot ‘choose’ Death because Death is an unknown experience.”

Next to her essay is another called “On Choosing Death” by Philip Devine, who seems to agree: “I do not want to deny that a suicide can be calmly and deliberately, and in that sense rationally, carried out … But if, as seems plausible, a precondition of rational choice is that one know what one is choosing, either by experience or by the testimony of others who have experienced it or something very like it, then it is not possible to choose death rationally.”

But he goes on to say, “But the decision to kill oneself _ it might be argued _ need not reflect a preference of death over life, but rather of one (shorter) life over aonther, or of one (speedier) death over another.”

Finally, right next to Devine’s essay is one by Richard Brandt called “The Morality and Rationality of Suicide,” and he acknowledges the argument about not knowing what you’re choosing. “But we always have to live by probabilities and make our estimates as best we can. As soon as it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt not only that death is now preferable to life, but also that it will be every day from now until the end, the rational thing is to act promptly.”

He does caution about depression. “Since knowing that the machinery is out of order will not tell us what results it would give if it were working, the best recourse might be to refrain from making any decision in a stressful frame of mind.”


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