DEBATING SUICIDE ALL OVER AGAIN. BEYOND LEGALITY INTO THE REALMS OF MORALITY BY DONKOR SELIKEM TIMOTHY

The criminality of suicide is today a conventional opinioncommon to any active social media user within Ghana’s web-space. Each and every day when issues of suicide crop up on the web, a major part of the debate is not about its criminality rather about what moral justification we can accord to its criminalization. This question of whether an action is right or wrong is not a question about whether an action is merely a crime or not instead, if it is a crime, what justification can we aver for its criminality. In a more succinct way, is suicide morally wrong? As the common dictum of legal luminaries’echo, ‘the court is not a sphere of morality nor the field of ethics but a conference of laws. This dictum settles the issue that for us to resolve our issues of morality and ethics, our answers can never be in legal codes nor from decisions of the court. Where then shall our answers lie? This is what we shall attempt to discover in this essay.

Before we begin, by starting from the start, there is the need for the term ‘suicide’ to be explicated. As an attempt, the lexical meaning accorded to it in the Oxford dictionary shall here be employed. That meaning is stipulated as ‘the willful exercise of taking one’s own life’. 

Illustratively, if a person by any means whatsoever administers to himself a drug or applies to himself any instrument which takes his life yet there is the absence of the element of ‘willful’ exercise, such an act which caused the ‘self-death’ does not constitute suicide. Consider a man who drinks poison under the belief that it is water. The act in that instance is not one of suicide since there is the lack of the element of known-willful exercise. The man did not take the water with the intention to take his own life. This I think is congruent with the conventional and legal position on what suicide is. But there is a more complex and rather theoretically confusing example about what really is suicide.

 

Consider a situation where a man takes in food with the intention to kill himself. Imagine in this instance that the food so to be consumed lacked the ability to kill the man (The man was under misapprehension that excess pepper in the food could kill him instantly). Imagine also that at the time of taking the food,another person coincidentally exchanged his food for another food which could actually kill the man. Now should the man consume the food and die, is that a case of suicide? Or it is only a case of attempted suicide?  This hypothetical situation is raised purposely just to engage the author into a thinking process on what really is suicide and what could be the purpose of its criminalization and whether that will point us to some basisupon which suicide can be justified.

 

I will approach the debate on whether suicide is immoral or otherwise by first stating the arguments justifying suicide. The arguments will derive its foundation from theories of right, utility and deontology. From there I will proceed to offer arguments to counter the earlier position and conclude by stating that, there is a more valid and consistent position in ethics and right theory for the criminalization of suicide and thus, its implied immorality. 

 

Justifying Suicide- the utilitarian conception

 

From a purely utilitarian conception, Humans exist in furtherance of one ultimate end. The end here is to secure their self-happiness. Thus, all acts done by humans are in furtherance of their happiness (utility).  The utilitarian view suggests that, an act is justified if that act is in furtherance of the happiness of the actor. But in order for utilitarianism to avoid the individualistic absurdity which their theory will create, they suggested that, since humans exist in society and actions by actors affect others, actions which affect others are morally justified if they further the general interest of society (general happiness of all). Thus, an act is justified if it contributes to the general happiness of all. Based on the utilitarian position, advocates for suicide have argued that, since the act of taking one’s own life only affects the actor, then if the act of taking one’s own life contributes to the happiness of the actor then it is justified. Suicide then is justified if it contributes to the happiness of the actor. By way ofanalogy, a person who is suffering on earth and is out of options as to eliminating the suffering, could take his own life since the choice of ending one’s own life will terminate ultimately the suffering and that choice of death leads to a happier outcome than the choice of living in the life of suffering. Then per the utilitarian justification, a man who terminates his own life for reason alone of avoiding suffering in life, chooses a choice which avoids suffering and leads to a happier outcome, thusjustified in committing suicide.  This set of argument shall be deemed as P1– the utilitarian justification for suicide.

 

Justifying suicide- a defense from Human right theory

 

Another basis upon which people justify suicide, is on grounds of Human rights– Right to life. The proponents suggest that, since the right to life places positive obligation only on the state to prevent others from terminating the life of others and also places negative rights on the state and other citizens not to take away another’s life, then the right to life allows for a person by himself, to be the only legitimate actor to terminate his own life.  Per this reasoning, the right to life is an absolute right enjoyed by a person and can only be terminated on condition that either the possessor of the right to life violates the foundational conditions which uphold this right is made to be enjoyed (Under Art 13 of 1992 constitution, the right to life is subject to certain limitations) or by the possessor of the right herself. The Rights-Argument reduces rights to properties. They treat rights as possessions of the holder. And thus, arguing, that a possession can only be legitimately alienated by the owner. And since rights are owned, then they can legitimately and justifiably be alienated by the owner. By necessary implication, since the right to life is owned, then the owner of that right to life can legitimately terminate it without limitation from society since the only limitation on the right to life are from its inviolability by others (other citizens and government). The right-Argument thus concludes by suggesting that, there is no ethical, legal or moral justification in preventing the owner of right to life to terminate this right since the right belongs to her and her alone can abruptly end it without violating the positive and negative obligations attached to rights. I shall name this argument as –P2.

 

In the coming paragraphs, I shall attempt to criticize the arguments made by P1 and P2. I shall attempt first by proving that there is an implied logical inconsistency in the positions of P1 and P2, secondly, by showing that P1 and P2 are based on a rather fallacious assumptions utilitarianism and Right theoryrespectively. And I shall conclude by showing that, the ‘African society’ (Or rather the Ghanaian society) is hinged on some communitarian philosophies, which ultimately limit rights and create obligations thus making suicide untenable within the ideological frameworks of these societies.

 

On the rejection of P1 

 

It is an undeniable fact that all humans exist in furtherance of happiness against the elimination and suppression of suffering. It is also undeniable that humans are by nature self-interested and that in pursuance of their life goals, a goal which furthers the interest of each human is what will be preferred by each independent actor. Thus, among a list of choices, the most preferred choice by any human actor will be a choice which both preserves his personal interest and furthers his well-being and happiness. But these presumptions apply in the natural state of humans. What Hobbes will call the state of nature. Society, a civil society alike, is different from the state of nature. Society per the Kantian construct should be seen as an association of persons with antisocial nature but with social interest, who have come together as a union to ensure their own preservation with due regard to the preservation of others. Per this construct of what society is, then the pursuance of self-interest and happiness is limited by the self-interest and happiness of others. This is implied in the meaning ART 12 of the 1992 constitution, whichlimits the enjoyment of human rights to public interest and to rights enjoyed by others. It is the same genus of limitation that is being applied here. Per this reasoning, it is absolutely impossible for a person in a society to pursue his happiness at the disregard of the happiness of others since the foundational presumptive goal of society is an association of persons to further each’s happiness with due regard to the happiness of another. From this reasoning, even if suicide can be shown from a purely utilitarian conception to be an act in furtherance of the happiness of the actor, it will still be unjustifiable if any element of proof can be shown that , that same act of suicide affects the happiness or well-being of another person negatively. Consider a mother who has a newly born baby which is only 3 weeks old. Consider also that, the said mother is suffering and can only end this state of suffering by dying. Consider also that a choice which endssuffering is a choice that favors happiness since happiness is the opposite of suffering. From this we can reason that, per P1, if the choice of suicide by the mother will lead to a happier outcome which is actually the case, then she is justified to commit suicide (this is per the position of P1). But consider also that the existence of a 3-weeksold baby is contingent on the life of the mother. Consider also that if the mother is allowed to commit suicide, the right to life of the baby will be threatened. From what we defined society as above, the happiness of the mother cannot be allowed to override the happiness of others and society at large since society is an association to further each’s goal without unduly violating the goals of others. If child bearing is a crucial factor to the survival of society and the survival of the baby is crucial to the continuity of society then if the death of the mother will imply a threat to the life and happiness of the 3-weeksold baby , then the choice to die by the mother even though it will lead to her self-happiness will be inconsistent with the foundational ethic upon which society is built – to ensure the furtherance of the happiness of each without undermining that of others unduly.  Thus, P1 cannot be allowed to apply in society as we have defined. P1 then has failed in offering a justification for suicide absolutely.  From this it has been pointed out that P1 operates on a fallacious presumption by implying that it is possible for a choice of suicide to be made without affecting the happiness of others but only of the actor. From the above illustration, we have shown how complex and entangled human relation is, such that, the choice of suicide even if it furthers the self-interest and happiness of the actor,may affect negatively the happiness and self-interest of others.The author agrees that hypothetically there is a possibility that suicide can be committed where it does not affect the happiness of another or the well-being of another, but the author is of the view that, the argument offered in the next paragraph will render that instance also unjustifiable.

On the rejection of P2  

 

‘Today’s world is a rights-world’ (Atupare 2016, P.35). There is no conversation in politics, health, economy or culture which absolutely excludes discussions about human rights and what they are. It is then not surprising that the conversation today about suicide is entangled in theories of Human Rights. Human Rights are a difficult concept to define but as operational here, we shall use the definition Reissman which defines Human rights as inalienable privileges and entitlements which persons can claim against society and other humans by virtue of law and their ontology (Reissman, 1990). In today’s society, the right to life is deemed a jus cogens norm, whose observance is not just mandatory but its violation comes with an obligation of universal enforcement by all states in the international community. Per the claim of P2, since Human rights give either positive and negative obligation, and the right to life places limitation on the actions of others (both citizens and state actors) but not the possessor of the right, then the right to life can thus be ended by the possessor without any violation on the part of the possessor. Thus, according to P2, a person who commits suicide is not in breach of any Right doctrine since him alone has the moral authority to end his own life and him only is the authority to alienate or demand the observance of the right to life guaranteed in law and morality. In rejection of P2, I shall first start by stating that rights are a corollary of duty and obligations thus anyone who enjoys rights implicitly has certain obligations attached to the enjoyment of such rights. In Art 41 of the 1992 constitution of Ghana, it is stated that, ‘the exercise and the enjoyment of rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of duties and obligations and accordingly, it shall be the duty of every citizen to ……’. The society of Ghana recognizes the fact that, a communitarian society such as ours comes with duties attached to rights. Per the general customary law on succession according to Sarbah in ‘Fanti Customary laws” , the right to inherit a person comes with the duty to settle the debts and perform obligations attached to the said right to inherit. Thus, the Communitarian ethos of Ghana’s society (at large Africa), recognizes the inextricable symbiotic relation between rights and duties. It can then be said that, society in return for protecting the individual rights and freedoms of citizens has the right to place upon these individuals’ certain duties which shall be necessary for both the protection of the society at large and its continuity. One fundamental and foundational function necessary for the continuity of society is the existence of its individuals since there cannot be any society without indigents.  If this is so, then it is necessary for society to place mechanisms necessary for ensuring the sustenance of life and its preservation. It becomes clear that, the right to life even though it is a right enjoyed by the individual only, is also of a fundamental essence to society and by extension its observance is not only necessary to ensure the well-being and existence of the individual but also for the society it lives in. This being so, then it is obviously counter intuitive for the advocates of suicide to argue that the right to end one’s own life can be exercised by the possessor without any restriction, since it has been shown that, the right to life is of fundamental essence to not just the possessor but also to society thus, its observance is necessary forthe existence of society. Thus the right to life is of such essence that society cannot allow it to be abruptly ended by the possessor since its essence and existence is not to just the possessor but to the society which guarantees and protects it. 

 

Also, if everyone is allowed to have a right to end his lifeabruptly, then society can at any point come to an end. But since individuals owe some duty to societies they live in, in return for their preservation, protection and care, the fulfillment of their duty is as important as the enjoyment of their rights. Societythen cannot allow individuals to enjoy their rights at the expense of performing their duties. In that regard, the choice to end one’s own life has a limitation. A limitation necessary for the continuity of society and also subject to the pre-performance or post-performance of certain duties owed to society.  Illustratively, consider a society where the educational needs and health needs of citizens are catered for by society. Consider also that society has expended millions of Cedis in ensuring the education and welfare of a citizen and in return that citizen is to perform certain duties to society. Consider that society after expending these millions of Cedis, the citizens then after gaining the skills decided to suddenly end their lives for whichever reason. What benefit then will society derive from expending its money on those citizens? None at all. And can any society survive where it spends without return of benefits? Not at all. To truncate the radicality in the absurdity created above, society then needs to put a restrain on the extent to which persons can willfully end their life so as to ensure that persons do not unjustly benefit from society without holding their end of the bargain- performing certain duties. Thus, from a purely communitarian ground, it has been shown that members of society are both ends and means for why society exist. Their existence is a means for society’s existence and society’s existence is means for their existence. This relation between society and individuals is such that each owes each a duty thus individuals cannot enjoy their rights without owing certain duties to the society. Thus, their right to live must be preserved by society not just against violation from others, but also from violation by himself. 

 

Suicide then is shown to be unjustifiable on grounds that it violates the communitarian doctrine of duties and rights in society. Secondly, it operates on a faculty presumption that rights are properties which are only absolutely alienable by their possessors and that, a person by killing himself has only legitimately alienated his right to life which him alone has a moral authority over. Thirdly, it fails to recognize the inextricable link between self-happiness and other happiness. And failed the utilitarian test of society. Lastly, it failed to appreciate that humans are not only properties of themselves but are also a property of societies they come from. Thus, their being is in the being of society (I am because we are) and the choice to live is not only a self-choice but also a choice sustained by society, its alienation is impossible without the consent or authorization of society.

 

 

 

The above work was written purposefully as award, of a little kind, to all LEVEL 200- WASSCE STUDENTS in the school of law– University of Ghana, who as their class project decided to work on suicide, through creating awareness and countering suicide by informing people about ways of curtailing depression which is the major cause of suicide. As an add up to their work, this paper took the view that, the only way to end suicide or to curtail it to its minimal level is to convince people about its moral implausibility and logical absurdity. Which was why the paper attempted to show that suicide is not in anyway justifiable. Kuddos to all LEVEL 200 – WASSCE STUDENTS for giving your all to your class Project.