Many philosophers believe that suicide is permissible in at least some circumstances.  Others go further and claim that there are circumstances in which suicide is morally obligatory — that there’s sometimes a "duty to die."  While I accept that suicide may be morally permissible in some circumstances, I have reservations that there is a ever a duty to commit suicide. Here I’d like to explore these reservations, framing them in terms of self-defense, and enlist your help in trying to make sense of these matters.

Perhaps the best-known defense of there being a moral obligation to commit suicide is John Hardwig’s "Is there a duty to die?".  Though there are some consequentialist moves in Hardwig’s article, I think his main claim is that there can be a duty to die when a person’s continuing to live would impose unfair or unreasonable burdens on others.  So a patient with a debilitating long term illness requiring expensive and time-consuming care from her family may have a duty to die so as not to bankrupt her family, damage their relationships, derail their careers, etc.  I interpret Hardwig to mean only that there *can* be a duty to die in order to avoid imposing unfair or unreasonable burdens on others because other factors, most obviously the burdensomeness to the person in question of continuing to live, also seem relevant to the question of whether she has a duty to die.  However, one factor that Hardwig denies is morally relevant to the duty to die is whether a person wants to live.  This suggests that whether a person has a duty to die is a moral fact unconnected to agent’s autonomy, choices, etc.

Suppose that a woman, Sylvia, meets Hardwig’s conditions for having a duty to die.  Now what exactly is meant by a "duty to die"?  In his article, the question Hardwig initially poses is ‘is there a duty to die?’, but much of the rest of his article seems focused on a slightly different question: do I have a duty to die? These questions imply different interpretations of the duty to die.  An affirmative answer to the second question implies that Sylvia has a duty to take her own life, i.e., a duty to commit suicide.  This interpretation holds that her duty is a kind of agent-centered imperative: Assuming that death is the only way to ensure that Sylvia will not impose the unfair or unreasonable burdens on her family that Hardwig’s argument invokes, Sylvia then has a duty to intentionally act so as to bring about her death, but it is not the case that others have any such duty, or are even morally permitted to kill her.

But it’s not clear what forces this interpretation of a "duty to die" on us, nor is it clear that this interpretation best fits Hardwig’s reasoning.  An alternative interpretation takes her ‘duty to die’ not as the agent-centered imperative that she kill herself, but a duty, falling on at least some others besides herself, that she die. On this interpretation, ‘is there a duty to die?’ is answered in the affirmative, for there is such a duty and it does not fall on Sylvia exclusively.  One reason to accept this interpretation is that Hardwig’s reasoning seems to suggest that those on whom Sylvia’s continued existence imposes unfair burdens would at least be morally permitted to kill Sylvia.  So Sylvia’s family would not violate any duties to her by killing her.  We might even envision situations in which family members might be obligated to kill Sylvia: Her son Joe might be obligated to kill Sylvia if her continuing to live imposes unfair burdens on Joe’s children, depriving them of education, necessary medical care, etc.  (So perhaps there’s a duty not to permit unfair burdens on be imposed on others but only a permission not to suffer unfair burdens oneself.)

Yet this second reading runs up against what I perceive as a possible problem: Suppose (just for the sake of vividness — the example’s force doesn’t turn on it) that Sylvia doesn’t want to die. But given that she has a duty to die, then if we interpret that duty in the second way, then Joe is permitted to kill her.  Yet I believe Sylvia retains a right to defend herself against Joe’s efforts to kill her.  In this case, we cannot appeal to the claim that Sylvia deserves to die by virtue of some past action of hers.  That is, we can’t claim that she has forfeited her right to self-defense.  The result here is somewhat awkward: Sylvia is morally required to take her own life; Joe is at least permitted, and maybe even required, to kill Sylvia; and Sylvia is permitted to defend herself against Joe’s attempts to kill her.  Note ‘awkward,’ not contradictory: Perhaps there’s a duty that Sylvia die (on the second interpretation of that phrase) that licenses or even demands that someone else kill her but Sylvia retains a right to self-defense nonetheless.  That could be the case if Sylvia’s right to self-defense is inalienable, wholly independent of any duties others might have toward her.  I don’t know if that’s true.  I wonder if instead there’s a conceptual relation between the permissibility of self-defense and others’ duty to kill such that if Sylvia retains her right of self-defense then others have no duty to kill her (the weaker implication) or even violate a duty to her by killing her (the stronger implication).  But either implication might suggest that Sylvia herself has no duty to die (on the second interpretation of that phrase).

Of course, all of these worries could be forestalled if the duty to die is understood in the first way, as an agent-centered imperative that carries no moral implications about others’ behavior.  That seems implausible, and of course, the notion of agent-centered imperatives face theoretical hurdles as well.

9 Replies to “The duty to die and the right of self-defense

  1. This is an interesting post; I thought for sure it would use the case of the three Chernobyl workers who donned wetsuits and went into the super-contaminated coolant pipes in order to manually open the sluice valves and vent the contaminated water, so as to avoid heat buildup which would cause an explosion and an ensuing chain reaction in the other 3 reactors at the facility.
    Descriptions are sketchy, but I have read accounts that emphatically state two of the three were volunteers, whereas the third was induced by means of offers of financial benefits to his family.

  2. Michael,
    You write that “all of these worries could be forestalled if the duty to die is understood in the first way, as an agent-centered imperative that carries no moral implications about others’ behavior,” but reject this understanding on the grounds that it is “implausible.”
    I’m not convinced that it is so implausible, even as it stands. But I also think it can be weakened a bit: we need not think that the agent-centered duty to die carries NO moral implications about others’ behavior, but only that the implications are not completely straightforward: for instance, that my having a duty to die does not imply that anyone else has the permission to kill me. (Just as my duty to keep my promise to give you five dollars does not give anyone else permission to steal five dollars from me to give to you.)
    Now it’s not immediately apparent at all, to me, why this understanding of ‘duty to die’ should be implausible. What am I missing?

  3. Troy,
    I appreciate your remarks; I was careless in my post with my language about “no implications.” The agent-centered picture of the duty to die that you outline isn’t crazy, I agree. I’m simply curious as to how to make it fit with Hardwig’s defense of the duty to die.
    It seems to me that the promising example is disanalogous with the duty to die in two respects (which actually clarifies some issues here): First, the promising example is a three-party context rather than a two-party one: A makes a promise to B, but C acts to fulfill that duty (in the agent-neutral sense that C makes it such that the material conditions stipulated in A’s promise to B are met). The duty to die situation is two-place: Even though Sylvia’s duty to die is a duty regarding herself, it is rooted in a duty owed to her family. So the implications in question are not third-party implications, but implications about those to whom the duty is owed. And what I think is a little puzzling is why those others to whom the duties are owed can’t act to fulfill Sylvia’s duty. If my neighbor is imposing some unfair burden on me, am I not permitted to act so as to stop him from doing so? If so, then what’s distinctive about the duty to die situation is the fact that one has to kill in order to avoid further burdens (at which point my concerns about self-defense appear relevant). This points to a second disanalogy with the promising example: that C stealing from A to pay B violates a duty to A. But whether Sylvia’s family violates a duty to Sylvia by killing her is (I think) more controversial.

  4. I’m very uneasy about the case. I cannot see how it could establish that Sylvia has a duty to kill herself. The big assumption, as you point out, is that Sylvia killing herself is the only way to ensure that the family will not be burdened. I wonder if this could ever be true. Of course, one would first want to believe that there is a society or an insurance system that picks some of the burdens of families in these situations. At least, a just society could be arranged in this way.
    But, failing that, there is also another way for the family not to be burdened in the mentioned ways. This is to ignore Sylvia and to leave her to die. This would help to avoid getting bankrupt, ruining careers, relationships and so on. I don’t see why they would have to necessarily bear the burdens if Sylvia doesn’t kill herself. Of course, Sylvia might die as a result but she wouldn’t have to kill herself.
    You might think that in this case living in the knowledge that Sylvia is suffering is a burden for the family. But, it seems quite obnoxious that Sylvia would be required to kill herself so that the family would avoid this burden. It’s not that a suicide of a family member is any easier.
    That said, I think there might be cases where there is a duty to kill oneself. Say you are exploring the jungle. You are infected with a rare deadly virus which spreads easily and cannot be cured. You know it will kill the rest of humanity (including yourself) if you get in touch with anyone else. In this situation, I think I would accept that you ought to kill yourself. I think this would be a much better case for Hardwig. And, in this case, I don’t think you have the right to self-defend if someone else tried to kill you.

  5. Just for starters, I do not think Sylvia has a duty to die in any sense. But going with the example:
    Just because A has a duty to B, does not give B the right to force A to perform her duty. If I owe you $50 and am not paying, this may be unfair and bad of me, but you still can’t take it out of my wallet by force.
    I think the best analogy for Hardwig’s preferred interpretation of his case would be something like this: Sylvia, just remaining alive, is in effect attacking her family, and they have a right (duty?) of self-defense, to protect their livelihood, wealth, feelings, or whatever. So she has the obligation to stop this attack, which she can only do by dying, and her family has the right or duty of self-defense, which amounts to the right or duty to kill her.

  6. This is a very interesting question and while I am still in the process of reading Hardwig’s paper, the following question arise and I would like some of your ideas on it before I cement it in my mind. Is it possible that one can construct a duty to die out of a social contract theory where one of the guiding principles that the members to that cntract agree upon is that they will be contributing members of that society and that if they cease to be so, then they will leave the community? My intuiton at this point is that this is very plausible. If so, can one then argue that the duty to die is a special case of ‘leaving the community upon failing to be a contributing member’ where the likehood of one becoming a contributing member in this, or any, community is deemed highly unlikely?
    Maybe Hardwig deals with this later in his paper, but I wanted to get it out while it is still fresh in my mind.

  7. I’m commenting on this since I’ve written a short paper on this topic. It’s fun. In any case, Michael, it seems to me we can have a duty to die, both in Jussi’s case of the individual with the humanity-killing virus and in Hardwig’s case when suitably modified so as to avoid certain alternatives.
    Now, I don’t share Heath’s feeling that it would be wrong to take $50 from someone who owes you the money, if they are reasonably to be expected not to pay. Though that condition was left open.
    I do have the feeling that we are permitted to help others satisfy their obligations, so that we are permitted to kill Sylvia. And I’m completely unclear why we should think she has a right to defend herself. That is, she should be able to choose how she dies, though if we reasonably think she is going to flout her duty, then we are permitted to knock her off.
    We can explain away intuitions, I suspect, by distinguishing character and act appraisals. We wouldn’t blame Sylvia for defending herself since that is only human, though she would be doing wrong. I think we mistakenly, though understandably, take wrong acts to be coextensive with acts for the which the performer deserves blame. This is a response to you, when you said:
    “Yet I believe Sylvia retains a right to defend herself against Joe’s efforts to kill her. In this case, we cannot appeal to the claim that Sylvia deserves to die by virtue of some past action of hers. That is, we can’t claim that she has forfeited her right to self-defense.”
    I don’t want to suggest that she has forfeited a right by some past action. But I do want to suggest that she has no right to self-defense, that we mistakenly think she does since would not blame her for defending herself (assuming we have a right to do whatever it is not wrong for us to do). Now, I suppose one can deny this explanation, claim their intuition is not about blame but wrongness per se, but then I need a theory that captures this intuition nicely. But then the case alone will not establish anything independent of the theory, or so it seems to me.

  8. Jussi: Regrettably, in the not-so-just-with-respect-to-health-care U.S., examples akin to the Sylvia situation are not that uncommon. I think your remarks about the family simply foregoing further support for Sylvia show that cases in which a person (arguably) has a duty to die are a subset of the cases wherein removal of treatment is justified. It’s a further question whether they are also cases where euthanasia is justified. Indeed, that’s perhaps the central worry in my worries about self-defense.
    Your last example about the jungle explorer implies a kind of symmetry with respect to the duty to die: that such a duty exists only when dying is necessary to avoid killing others, but not when it’s necessary of fulfill other duties (such as the duty not to impose unfair burdens). Does that seem plausible? (Sylvia’s situation isn’t like that, of course.)
    John, I’m not sure what you mean by speaking of individuals as ‘contributing’ to society, but one obvious reservation about the social contract approach you describe is that many other people besides people like Sylvia are no longer contributing members. Indeed, some people are likely to be ‘takers’ rather than contributors their whole lives (the severely handicapped, e.g.) but it’s troubling to think they can be killed because of it. And all of us will be takers for long stretches of life (childhood, retirement, etc.). On top of that, for those who have contributed, aren’t their elder years the time when they get to enjoy a lot of the benefit of having contributed, thus making killing them (or asking them to kill themselves) a kind of unjust taking? Indeed, it seems to me one of the challenges to social contract theories is how, if morality is a mechanism to facilitate shared benefit, cooperation, etc., those who cannot contribute to the cooperative scheme get their moral standing.
    Thanks for reviving this thread; I had meant to respond some time ago. I’m not sure where to stand on the issue of the permissibility of assisting someone in fulfilling obligations owed to oneself. (As I said in response to Troy, assisting third parties in fulfilling obligations does strike me as objectionable.) In Heath’s example, my suspicion is that force is doing a lot of the work: A would not be permitted to rob B at knifepoint to get the $50 that B owes A. But that violates a duty, oh, I don’t know, not to use coercion in the pursuit of one’s goals. But suppose that A finds B’s wallet, removes the $50 and returns the wallet to B. Is that wrong? In that case, I think I’m on your side: that it’s not wrong for A to ‘assist’ B in fulfilling B’s obligations to A.
    But that just puts off the question of whether, supposing Sylvia owes her family a duty to die, if their killing her violates some other duty to her. What duty would it be?
    Lastly, is your thought that these two claims are incompatible?
    (a) Sylvia has a duty to die.
    (b) Sylvia has a right to self-defense.
    Not sure what to say about the character appraisal/act appraisal move … but it’s a good move.
    Oh… and I noticed that Hardwig seems to address some of my concerns about who may kill those who have a duty to die in this article:
    I’ve not read it yet, but will return to this post if he addresses these issues.

  9. Michael, about your comments on Heath’s example, agreed. You did also say “assisting third parties in fulfilling obligations does strike me as objectionable” but I’m unsure what you have in mind. It would be nice of me to loan you fifty dollars to pay Heath back, and permissible, right?
    And I suppose Sylvia’s family has a prima facie duty not to kill her and perhaps to respect her wishes. But supposing Sylvia has a duty to commit suicide, it’s hard for me to see how her family would not also have a prima facie duty of beneficence; one which would override their duty not to kill her.
    Are these claims incompatible (a) Sylvia has a duty to die.
    (b) Sylvia has a right to self-defense? No, since she is permitted to satisfy her duty as she sees fit, so long as she is isn’t violating other’s right. Is she violating her family’s rights to knock her off? No. Not if they have no duty. No even if they do since her right outweighs theirs. And interference with her exercise of that right, as far as I can tell, would justify self-defense.
    It seems to me a thought behind your post might be that, agent centered duties and rights, all else equal, outweigh agent neutral duties and rights. Supposing that’s right I could see why you might think Sylvia has a right that outweighs her family’s right; how she might have a right to exercise her duty whereas her family wouldn’t have a right to interfere with Sylvia jumping into a vat of cement…for example. We could accommodate all of this by building degrees of strength into rights and duties, assigning greater strength to agenct-centered duties and rights.

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