Hedonism and Suicide

In June 2018, The New York Times ran a story called “How Suicide Quietly morphed into a public health crisis”. The high-profile suicides of Robin Williams, and more recently Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, has provoked a great deal of discussion about depression and mental health. Ben Shapiro has pointed out that there are some legitimate concerns to be raised about the romanticization of suicide in popular culture and the media. People who commit suicide are automatically seen as victims, helplessly forced into the act by depression, rather than moral agents who choose an immoral way to resolve their problems. As usual, consistent with the “therapeutic nihilism” that reigns among our elites, the act of suicide is seen primarily as a symptom of a disease rather than a manifestation of moral agency. Calling suicide immoral may no doubt be seen as counter-productive, because these people should not have to deal with guilt in addition to their troubles. But I called it that because I believe it to be true and I think it’s important especially for those who have attempted or seriously contemplated it, to believe this themselves. They should believe not so that they feel guilty or engage in self-hatred, but so that they can realize the extent and the character of its immorality. You may say that these people know it is wrong. I don’t think so. Given the popularity of assisted suicide, I think it’s often not the case that people know its wrong, but see it as a personal decision that is justified or almost justified by great suffering, and that an individual has the right to make it. If it is believed to be immoral, it is not seen as severely immoral, or its badness is primarily constituted by a failure of therapy or psychiatric treatment, rather than a failure of moral agency. You may think it is obvious that suicide is wrong, but if you never state the obvious, especially in moral issues, it will cease to be the obvious. We must say that suicide is immoral, so that when people become overwhelmed by negative emotion, they will believe the truth and not comforting lies. Committing suicide is not just wrong but horrifically wrong, because you always leave behind people who love you and who will be devastated not merely by the fact that you died, but by the fact that you chose to end your own life. They will struggle not merely with grief but also with guilt. To commit suicide is to brush this aside, because your own emotions are regarded by you as far more important. And in the cases of adults with children who commit suicide, this is even worse, because those children depend on them for financial and other support. It is clearly imperative for one to be sympathetic to people who contemplate suicide or who’ve attempted suicide, but this sympathy and gentleness should be complemented by moral disapproval as well. It should be made clear that suicide is not merely “bad” in some vague sense, but is a gravely immoral act. We must treat people as agents with a sovereign will, rather than victims of their own emotions. If you treat people and think of people as slaves of their emotions and desires and create a culture where this is standard, then that is eventually how people will of think of themselves. This will result in more suicides, not fewer.

I think an important cause of suicide in general and of the rise of suicide today is a particular moral theory, or set of moral theories known as philosophical hedonism. A form of philosophical hedonism seems to have replaced traditional morality in our society. There are many forms of philosophical hedonism, but the basic idea is that maximizing the happiness of people is always the most important ( or even the only) moral concern. Happiness takes priority over any other thing. An implication of this is that the most important thing about a person is whether they are happy or not. Proponents of philosophical hedonism may dispute this, but if the happiness of a person is the thing that should be maximized above any other attribute of that person, then it follows that their happiness is the most valuable thing about them.

This is not to say that people’s happiness is unimportant from a Christian point of view. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14). To make sure someone is clothed and has daily food are partly “hedonistic” concerns. Apart from preserving someone’s life, they clearly are functioning to increase someone’s level of comfort, their physical pleasure. This affirms that true benevolence will always have great concern for the happiness of its objects. However, the Bible is also clear that there are things that are more important than our happiness in this life, and that God is ready to sacrifice our present happiness for our eternal happiness with Him. And He is ready to sacrifice our present happiness for the sake of our moral character and the state of our souls. Thus, the Christian knows that if I suffer, it is because there are things more important than my happiness here and now. And the Christian also knows that my suffering has meaning, that God is using it to shape me into a better person. We can say with Job, “When he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). And we can say with Paul, that “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-5). There are many other examples the Bible gives us of this wonderful purpose that God provides us in suffering, such as James 1:2-5, 1 Peter 4:12, Romans 8:28.

The young person in our own society has inherited few of these insights, or they have simply been crowded out by hedonistic thinking. He has been taught to regard his happiness as the most important thing about his life. His parents tell him to do what will make him happy and to see his future as a way to gain happiness for himself. He has no eternal happiness to look forward to. He does not know that there are more important things than the happiness of people in general, or than his own happiness in particular. He also has no reason to think that his suffering has any meaning, apart from gaining more happiness for himself in the future. His suffering will therefore be harder to bear, and significantly, his consideration of suicide will be entirely rational. Hedonism makes suicide rational, or at least, suicide is more rational given hedonism than it is given Christianity. If happiness is the most valuable thing in your life, then the loss of happiness means that your life plummets in value. You no longer have good reason to value your own life. Perhaps your life retains value through the hope or the conviction that happiness will return. Depending on what is causing the suffering, that hope might not seem very realistic, especially in a world without a God who notices your suffering. We can never know what the future will bring. It may bring happiness yes, but perhaps it brings even more sorrow, or perhaps neither. The problem with the “awareness-raising” around mental health as a way to combat suicide is that one does not need to be mentally ill in order to to think about suicide or commit suicide.  You merely need to be in a culture that devalues life, or that encourages suicide for certain reasons. Japan has long had a problem with a high suicide rate. This is because suicide has a long cultural history in Japan as something that is honourable to do following military defeat or some other public disgrace.

Hedonism then is a life-denying idea, a philosophy of death. It underlies so much anti-life ideology in our day, such as abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide. All of these practices derive the strength of their cases from the prevalence of hedonistic and sentimentalist thinking. These practices derive their ideological and rhetorical force from the fact that people believe that ending the suffering of people in those situations override any other moral concern. Their happiness or lack thereof is the most important thing about their lives and therefore we must treat ending their suffering as the highest priority, even if that means killing. Very important and influential people think it is “compassionate” to reduce a person to his or her emotions and desires. Personhood then equals how you feel, not your moral character, not your soul, not the fact that you are created and loved by Almighty God. Seeing someone in such a way is not compassion. It is dehumanization. And consistent with this dehumanization, it results in the death of the poor soul who is the recipient of this “compassion.” The value of your life is not determined by how happy you are, but by the fact that you are loved by God.

To regard one’s own happiness as being the most important thing in one’s life, is the default position everyone takes. One needs to be pushed, by society or by one’s own will, to look at things beyond one’s own happiness to live for. One must be pushed to see that one exists to love and give glory to God, not to be happy. And this is what ultimately makes us most happy.

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