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Hume and Kant on Suicide

2021-05-20 来源: 51Due教员组 类别: Essay范文

    Suicide has long been considered a way for people to escape from life. This understanding of suicide makes it the target of criticism in different cultures and philosophical systems. People assume suicide to be immoral or unethical because this action may have negative implications on the society. Different philosophers have also voiced their opinions on suicide. Some philosophers believe that life has the ultimate value for human beings, and taking the life of human beings, even the life of one’s own, is a violation of the ultimate ethical rules and a total disrespect for life. Others consider suicide as an extension to the autonomy of life, and argue that people should have the control over their own deaths. Two representatives of these two opposing views are Immanuel Kant and David Hume. Hume offers a more compelling view of suicide because he celebrates human autonomy and freedom, liberating people from the suffocating moral imperatives advocated by Kant.

Kant adheres to the nobleness of human nature, and resolutely opposes any form of suicide with any motivation. In Kant ’s point of view, people have absolute value in their mere existence. “Persons, therefore, are not merely subjective ends whose existence as an object of our actions has a value for us: they are objective ends—that is, things whose existence is in itself an end, and indeed an end such that in its place we can put no other end to which they should serve simply as means; for unless this is so, nothing at all of absolute value would be found anywhere” (Kant, 1992, Ak. 4:429). In other words, human life is not a means of serving any purpose of the subjective consciousness, nor is it a tool for realizing one's own dreams and ambitions. No matter how noble the subjective purposes or ambitions are, they are no higher than the absolute value of human beings. This compelling view of life is arbitrary because it completely depreciates the subjective consciousness of human beings. If the mere survival and extension of life is the ultimate value for human beings, then we are reduced to nothing more than animals by Kant.

Kant considers the respect human life to be a categorical imperative as opposed to a hypothetical imperative. The rule of life is summarized as: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (Kant, 1992, Ak. 4:422). People who commit suicide often find themselves in unbearable situations to continue living. Therefore, death becomes a preferable option to them and they choose to commit suicide. In Kant's view, however, the dignity of life is not in a certain way of survival, not in decent living, not in a healthy body, but in the humanity and absolute value it has, in the will to comply with moral commandments of the law of nature. One problem with this claim is the failure to define a universal law of nature. Contradiction emerges when different people act differently in defining their own laws of nature. However, such laws are no longer universal because of the free will of the people. For the sake of the universal laws, the free will of the human beings are sacrificed under the categorical imperative.

As an extension of Kant’s moral imperative on the human life, euthanasia becomes immoral because the right to death is not acknowledged. According to the traditional views of medicine, doctors have the responsibility of saving lives. Such an imperative prevents doctors from shortening the lives of patients even for helping them to reduce the pain and suffering. Once more, such views completely neglect the autonomy of the patients and the responsibility of the doctors to respect the will of the patients and reducing the suffering of the patients. In addition, there is also the slippery slope argument derived from Kant’s moral imperative, suggesting that permitting euthanasia will eventually lead to a decline in social morality. However, such objections are only hypothetical. They offer more meaningful contributions to the policy implementation process, but very little to the philosophical discussion.

In "Of Suicide", Hume examines all common arguments against suicide and rejects the treatment of suicide as a guilty conviction, in an effort to restore the inherent freedom of human beings. According to Kant, “Killing oneself is a crime (murder). It can also be regarded as a violation of one's duty to other people” (Kant, 1996, Ak. 6:423). In response, Hume argues that in the operation of the universe, “The lives of men depend upon the same laws as the lives of all other animals; and these are subjected to the general laws of matter and motion” (Hume, 1987, III.IX.8). Within the scope of their ability, they are fully entitled to change all operations of nature. If they do not exercise this right, they will not survive for even a moment. Every activity of man must have reformed some part of the order of material and changed the general operation process of the universal law of movement. Therefore, summing up these conclusions, suicide should not be reduced to a blasphemous, it is the result of free choice of self-will no different from every other action ever performed by human beings. If humans were to be deprived of the right to death, they may as well be deprived of the right to do anything.

Hume believes that a person who has given up his life does no harm to society. Doing something for public welfare means expecting some kind of social reward, but if a person plans to completely withdraw from society, they will no longer bear any social responsibility. “A man, who retires from life, does no harm to society. He only ceases to do good” (Hume, 1987, III.IX.22). Even though our responsibility to society is permanent, it must have certain limits. The obligations to the society should not be based on prolonging the suffering of individual members. Based on the considerations of social wellbeing, it is even commendable to give up one’s life under special circumstances, when they are unable to promote the interests of the public, when they become a burden of public interest, and when their life has no more benefit to the public. Most of those who have given up their thoughts of living are in such situations. People with health, wealth, and power usually have more reasons to live well. Therefore, suicide is not a betrayal of social obligations, either.

Finally, suicide is not a renunciation of one's obligations. Kant argues that “setting aside all those relations, a human being is still bound to preserve his life simply by virtue of his quality as a person and whether he must acknowledge in this a duty to himself (Kant, 1996, Ak. 6:423). In response, Hume believes that the taboo of suicide in religion is unnecessary. Suicide is regarded as an option for individuals to voluntarily get rid of their miserable lives, and thus is even a symbol of freedom and courage. At the end of "Of Suicide", Hume even quoted Pliny's famous quote to praise suicide: “Deus non sibi potest mortem consciscere, si velit, quod homini dedit optimum in tantis vitæ poenis” (Hume, 1987, III.IX.29). In summary, Hume believes that religion has no morally binding power over human autonomy and the right to death.

Hume’s arguments on the right to death shed light on the supporting views of euthanasia. Since the action of suicide is reduced to be no different from all other actions performed by human beings, people have the autonomy to determine their death under the right circumstances. For example, if the patients of some incurable disease are suffering tremendously every day and want to be relieved from the painful life, they are fully entitled to do so because it will preserve their dignity as a human being. Hume’s argument has also give rise to the arguments for the quality of life rather than the length of life. In these arguments, life itself no longer has the ultimate value as advocated by Kant. Instead, the subjective consciousness and dignity of the individuals matter more than life itself. Hume’s view supports a much more humanistic view of life and death, as individuals should have more freedom in choosing their own path of life.

In conclusion, the categorical imperative proposed by Kant is arbitrary because it does not recognize the subjective consciousness of individual human beings. Instead, Kant places human beings under a coercive responsibility system for the God, the society, and the self. In response, Hume successfully rejects Kant’s argument in all three aspects. He argues that the action of committing suicide has no essential difference from all other activities of human beings, which are a reflection of the free will of people. Such free will should not be easily deprived. Otherwise, people become slaves to the universal laws of nature and are no longer allowed to fight against their own fate. In this sense, euthanasia is considered morally permissible because it is the true reflection of people’s subjective consciousness. It also allows a much more humanistic and respectful view of life and freedom.

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