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StayReview - Stay
A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It
by Jennifer Michael Hecht
Yale University Press, 2013
Review by Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D.
Oct 21st 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 43)

Suicide has become alarmingly common. As Hecht reports from a recent World Health Organization study, suicide rates have risen 60% worldwide in the past 45 years; in 2010, 32,000 Americans committed suicide with terrible increases particularly amongst the young, women, soldiers and veterans (4).  The impetus for Stay derives in part from these statistics and especially from the suicides of two of Hecht’s friends and colleagues. In response to these, she writes:  “So I want to say this, and forgive me the strangeness of it. Don’t kill yourself. Life has always been almost too hard to bear, for a lot of the people, a lot of the time. It’s awful. But it isn’t too hard to bear; it’s only almost too hard to bear” (x). This is a wonderful passage: it is a heartfelt plea that displays a deep empathy for the people who are in terrible pain, and contemplating suicide as their only relief from that pain. Hecht does not, however, simply offer a plea to those in pain and despair not to kill themselves; she also offers a moral edict: “I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that suicide is also delayed homicide. You have to stay” (x -- emphasis added).  

A plea and a moral command are obviously two quite different things, and I wish Hecht had stuck with her plea,  because, as I will argue, her arguments that we must not commit suicide are rather weak and display, unfortunately, a lack of empathy that made her plea so moving. 

Hecht presents us with two arguments in support of her moral conclusion, both of which, she says, she is “rescuing” from history.  One is a consequentialist argument:  “Whether you call it contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling, our social sciences demonstrate that suicide causes more suicide, both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim. If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence:  it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world” (5). Her second argument is rights based and focuses on what we owe our future self, who “might feel better and be more grateful that the person who he or she once was fought through the terrible times to make it something better” (5). These arguments, Hecht says, are to be used in the contemporary, mostly secular setting, to replace the arguments based in Abrahamic religions, which maintain that suicide is immoral because (i) God has forbidden suicide, and (ii) we belong to God and it is up to Him to decide when we shall die.

Much of Stay is devoted to a history of views regarding suicide and the arguments that have been put forth about it from the Ancient World to the present. This history is, unfortunately, rather shallow and insubstantial, and lacks a focused theme. Too often, we are confronted with what seem like endless quotations where we are told that x said this about suicide, y said that, etc., etc. To the extent that there is a theme, it is that the Ancient world was rather mixed with respect to the morality of suicide, the medieval period was dead set against it, and the modern period has shown a greater tolerance toward it as we have given increasing priority to autonomy and the rights of individuals to choose what they perceive to be the good for them.  (Note that this tolerance is not endorsement. Hecht often conflates the two.)

Hecht would have done well in her historical discussion to refer to Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. For Taylor’s communitarian position would have helped Hecht to make her argument that we owe it to others in our communities not to commit suicide lest we somehow lead them to follow suit. And Taylor’s history would have shown how the modern self is greatly reduced as it struggles, impossibly in his view,  to pursue individual choices about human good outside any teleological and community shared vision of that good. This isn’t to say that Taylor’s communitarianism is unproblematic. The fact of the matter is that most modern states, particularly in the developed world, are amazingly heterogeneous -- far too much so to adopt a single substantive, teleological view of the good.  Even so, without help from such a position, Hecht’s argument comes across as a bit of a superficial hodgepodge of what various quite disparate thinkers have thought about the wrongness of suicide.  Consider her consequentialist argument against suicide, which appears to depend on some sort of utilitarianism because it claims that suicide is wrong because of what she perceives as a disastrous loss of utility in lost life as others follow the suicide’s lead and kill themselves. But her analysis here is meager since a utilitarian must engage in an actual calculus of the costs and benefits of suicide, even if we accept the ‘contagion’ hypothesis.  We can’t assume, as Hecht appears to do, that suicidal ideation is transitory and that suicidal persons will always or even usually feel better in time. There will surely be a great deal of variance in these figures because people who commit suicide, or contemplate it, exist within a wide spectrum of life circumstances.  Consider, as Hecht does not, the issues of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. The last fifty years have seen a vast increase in arguments proposed on the legitimacy of these practices and an increasing number of jurisdictions are beginning to follow suit. Hecht doesn’t consider these arguments, or does so very briefly on p. 30, but it is unclear why because these practices overlap in many ways.

Given my comments, I cannot recommend Stay, which is unfortunate because suicide is both an important and timely issue.  For a much more empathetic look at suicide, I urge folks to read Miriam Toews’ recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows, where the protagonist must deal with the suicide of her beloved sister.  It’s witty and heartbreaking and offers a wonderful window into the lives of those who struggle in the face of the suicides of their loved ones.


© 2014 Robert Scott Stewart


Robert Scott Stewart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy and Chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Cape Breton University on the east coast of Canada. He is editor of and a contributor to Talk About Sex: A Multidisciplinary Discussion (2013) and, with Laurie Shrage, is currently finishing Philosophizing About Sex, due to be published in 2014.


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