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Kant on Suicide Essay

4. Explain and critically assess Kant’s argument that one has a duty to preserve one’s own life. As rational beings Kant believes we have a categorical duty of self-preservation to not wilfully take our own lives. Kant talks in depth about duty and believes we should act out of respect for the moral law. The will is the only inherent good, as we are only motivated by duty and nothing else. We should act only out of demands of the law, not from inclination, desires or to achieve a particular goal. Duty dictates we should never act or will something if we do not want it to become a universal law.

Kant was against any form of suicide. He strongly believed that: in taking a life you treat humanity merely as a means to an end. Kant wouldn’t be interested in the suffering or pain caused to even a person who was terminally ill and wanted to end their life, nor would he take into consideration the family/friends suffering. In this essay I will be arguing that if we follow the categorical imperative it is immoral to sacrifice a life because it involves treating humanity merely as a means to an end.

I will examine John Hardwig’s counter argument that we should end our own lives if more pain and suffering is caused by prolonging it/living it even if we are no longer a rational being. We must understand that Kant is saying; if I make a maxium e. g. – ‘if I am in unbearable suffering, I should take my own life’ – it must meet the universal law and be applied to everyone. Kant believes we ought to preserve our own lives because it is our moral duty (it is necessary and universal). John Hardwig however, would argue we also have the right to end our lives.

Kant would dismiss this because ultimately humans are the bearers of rational life (e. g. it is too sacred to sacrifice). Suicide fails Kant’s Categorical Imperative on the following grounds: It seeks to shorten a life that promises more troubles than please, this would be killing yourself out of self-love; when in fact the real aim would be to live a life worth living, with more pleasure than difficulties. Kant isn’t claiming that it’s impossible for everyone to commit suicide or for everyone to will it (and therefore it becoming a universal law).

He believes ‘it would not exist as nature; hence the maxim cannot obtain as a law of nature’. (Immanuel Kant, The Groundwork of the methaphysics of morals, Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann, Cambridge University 2012, p45 emphasis added). Here Kant seems to be suggesting that suicide isn’t a natural path of life; that it goes against our purpose and that it’s a contradiction to end your life when your goal would be to have an enjoyable life. The idea that the destruction of life is incompatible with improvement suggests that nature couldn’t/wouldn’t allow self-love to be used in a way that is contrary to its purpose.

There is surely an obviously contradiction here; in ending one’s life to prevent suffering, one is using one’s life mere means to an end, which automatically fails the categorical imperative. Take the case of Maria Von Herbert- she is clearly appealing to Kant, if under any circumstances; suicide is morally acceptable? He isn’t as blatant with her as in his writings, but let us not forget, Kant doesn’t see woman as rational beings. I agree with Rae Langton that Kant totally bypasses the reason Herbert is writing to him.

He doesn’t confront her on suicide but instead reduces her problem to a moral dilemma (regrets lying or telling the truth ), which as an intelligent woman whom has read all his writings; she could work out for herself. Could this have made Kant certain that she did lie and therefore fail the kingdom of ends? Perhaps Kant is being hypocritical; he doesn’t tell Maria the whole truth of suicide merely reducing her to ‘a thing’. He tells Maria she should be ‘ashamed’ for not telling the truth to her former friend but, doesn’t this apply for himself too?

Is he just avoiding the truth (states this is just as bad a lying) by not confronting her about suicide? Most likely he wants her to be autonomous and get to the reason herself. Hardwig disagrees with Kant. Take a different situation; Is a terminally ill person-needing 24/7 care, who is entirely financially reliant- only using their family as a means to an end? You can see this as a ‘two way street’ situation. Kant doesn’t look to consequences of an action; it wouldn’t matter to his philosophy that the ill person’s family suffers because they are preserving their life.

But is there a flaw? (1) I ought to do my duty as long as I am alive; and (2) It is my duty to go on living as long as possible. Kant strongly believes that you can’t affirm life by taking your own. There is only one exception. Kant claims those who die in battle are ‘victims of fate’ (not simply suicide because they chose to fight). He holds the view that it is better to die in battle than to die of a wound in hospital. Kant believes it’s noble to risk our lives for others- nobody uses us as mere means and we follow our own maxium.

We are no longer forced into serving for our country or deceived into joining (if this did happen it would fail the CI because we wouldn’t be treated as rational beings and would be used as mere means and not as ends in ourselves). John Hardwig strongly believes that life should be treated no differently from death. We are free to live in the way we want, so why aren’t we free to die in the way we want (when and how)? He also switches the question but Kant would simply say we have a duty to live. Hardwig has also argued that medical advances eliminate the threats of many terminal illnesses.

He then concludes, if our continued existence creates signi? cant hardship for our loved ones, we have a duty to die. By continuing a live of suffering the burden that this person imposes on others is often great. One may have the duty to die in order to relieve them of these burdens. This argument seems to be based on fairness. Kant would refute this; suffering is a tool of reasoning and it ensures the development of mankind. Kant strongly believes that we should preserve our own lives. The argument though strong is flawed.

1- All duties are absolute- Kant doesn’t advise us on how to resolve conflicting duty (for example: help others vs. never kill). 2- He discounts moral emotions like compassion, sympathy, desire and remorse as appropriate and ethical motives for action. 3- Kant completely ignores the consequences of an action and is purposefully blind to following circumstances. He states that human life is valuable because humans are the bearers of rational life. We have the great capacity to think, organize, plan etc. and Kant holds this as being valuable.

Therefore we should not sacrifice this for anything (as previously discussed autonomous creatures should not be treated merely as a means or for the happiness of another). There are also great issues with Hardwigs counter argument; if we agree that we have the duty to die; who has the duty to die? When do they have they duty to die? Although this argument is strong is some areas (greater burden), it is greatly flawed. It would be extremely difficult to universalize a maxium for everyone to follow so they could decide if at that moment they had the duty to die.

A problem would also occur if the family disagreed with the ill person’s decision, which could cause great problems within society (though Kant would not look to consequences but they are greatly important to Hardwigs argument). I believe –and agree with Kant- that if we follow the categorical imperative it is immoral to sacrifice anyone at all (including yourself) because it involves treating the humanity in that person as merely a means to an end. I also accept and agree with his point that it seems to go against our purpose and is an unnatural path for us to take a life.

I find it interesting that Kant believes suffering is a tool of development and therefore essential to us. Though John Hardwigs argument is partly convincing, if we were all given the choice of when we should die, would we find the right time? This would be very hard to govern, as people would of course take advantage of this right. I’ve found it hard to find a counter argument to Kant’s stance -without suffering there wouldn’t be cures and perhaps less happiness. Therefore I have to agree with Kant that it only allows us to grow and develop. Thus we do have the duty to preserve our own lives even if it is riddled with suffering.


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