Thursday, November 28, 2013


On occasion I have observed the actual rotation of the earth’s axis.  I’ve done this by sitting quietly and watching the movement of a shadow cast by an object, such as the railing of the deck on the south side of my home, as the sun makes its way across the sky on a cloudless afternoon.  If I look carefully, I can even watch the slow, steady movement of the shadow.  I always find the experience just a little saddening.  It’s a little reminder of the inexorable passage of time and of the fact that my participation will come to a close at some point.  

But in another sense that melancholic feeling is good because it means that life continues to be an enjoyable, exciting experience for me and I regret that at some point it will have to end.  And that brings me to the point of this essay.  A friend recently asked me what, as a secularist, I thought of exit strategies.  Exit strategies?  Yup, that was what he was asking about.  He and his wife have discussed whether it might ever make sense to “leave before the show is over,” so to speak.  A heavy conversation without a doubt.

Many Christian faiths consider suicide to be a most serious sin, perhaps serious enough to block the victim’s opportunity for salvation.  So from a Christian point of view a significant danger in suicide is that the individual has no chance to seek forgiveness.  He commits the sin, dies, and has no chance for redemption.  But my friend wondered if I might have a different view on the acceptability of suicide.  I do.

First a quick point:  Like other atheists I don’t believe in such a thing as sin.  Sin is really a religious concept and means a disobedience to God’s command.  Because, from the atheist point of view, God does not exist, there are no divine commands to be obeyed or disobeyed.  Ergo, no sin.

Just as a Christian’s ethical code is grounded in certain givens, so is mine.  A Christian assumes that there is a God who has set down a set of rules that we are to obey.  I don’t make such an assumption.  Instead, I believe we are part of a godless universe that follows certain basic rules--the laws of physics and chemistry.  Those rules are, well, universal and immutable.  Because we, as part of the universe. are subject to the same rules as is the remainder of the universe, we do not have freedom of choice any more than, say, a tornado has a choice with respect to the path that it follows.  Tornados are very complex systems and their behavior is, to a large extent, still beyond our predictive abilities (though we are getting better).  But no one would contend that tornados have free will or freedom of choice.  Well, it’s the same with humans.  Complex, yes; unpredictable, still; random, perhaps; possessing of free will, absolutely not.

This is ground I have covered before, so why am I bringing it up here?  It’s because suicide is not a personal choice that a person makes.  The individual who commits suicide does so because there are factors--biological, physical, psychological--that have resulted in his or her action.  In that sense, not only is suicide not a sin, it’s not even a bad choice, since, strictly speaking, it is simply not a choice at all.

That could serve as the end of the discussion.  However, I feel compelled (yes, compelled in the sense of a lack of true choice) to add some comments on how suicide should be viewed culturally, that is, how society should treat suicide.  As I said, society generally treats suicide, regardless of circumstances, very negatively.  The families of suicides are usually reluctant to make the fact public, and in many cases friends and family prefer not to discuss the matter at all.

I believe this blanket disapproval is wrong.  I believe in some cases suicide is unfortunate and tragic, but in others it is a blessing, both for the individual and for his loved ones.  Suicide driven by psychological distress, particularly when the person is young and otherwise physically healthy, is often a tragedy.  It is tragic for the individual because he or she has taken irreversible action when the future is largely unpredictable.  The suicide may feel that the situation is hopeless, but that is rarely the case and in time he or she might well have realized that suicide would not have been the best course of action.  And for the suicide’s loved ones the tragedy is in many ways even worse.  For the suicide victim, there is no aftermath.  He or she is no longer around.  But family and friends are left to experience the loss, which can be devastating.

There are other situations, on the other hand, in which suicide can be the best, most rational course of action, both for the individual and for his or her loved ones.  Many individuals find themselves in a situation where quality of life is very poor and, moreover, there is little likelihood that it is going to improve.   Suicide may clearly be a rational choice for many persons with a terminal illness or a mental or physical disability that is so severe and so irreversible that their quality of life is extremely diminished.  And this may be true both for the individual and for her or his loved ones.  An apt example might be someone in the advanced stages of ALS.

In sum, we’re all mortal, so it’s not a question of if but of when.  So if an individual is suffering intensely, the question becomes one of weighing the odds of things getting better.  If the odds are extremely low, suicide may be the most rational, most courageous course of action.  Surely, along with discussion of estate planning and funeral arrangements, we should add the discussion of exit strategies in the appropriate situation, and without the stigma that society currently places on such a course of action.

© 2013 John M. Phillips


  1. (This is the 3rd time I have started a comment on this reflection. You may insist that I have no free will, but my computer certainly seems to want to keep me from posting!) The set up for this reflection is certainly familiar since you and I had the discussion to which you refer. It probably won't surprise you to know that I agree with your analysis with respect to suicide, despite my belief in God. Suicide can be "the most rational, most courageous course of action." Several Western European countries are enacting assisted suicide laws. Other states besides Oregon are also considering the concept, I believe. What I can't get around, though, is your complete rejection of free will. The very terms "rational" and "courageous" seem to imply that one has the ability to think rationally about the factors to be considered and then, perhaps in an act of courage, make a decision to use an "exit strategy." That seems to be using one's will. Your view of life seems to be so fatalistic. I know you believe at the very core of your being that there is no free will, but even your taking the time to express your beliefs seems to imply that you think you can perhaps persuade people to change their minds. I remain unpersuaded.

    1. Thanks, Brent, for commenting on my essay.

      You're right that I completely reject belief in free will--on a rational level. But on a day-to-day basis, I generally conduct my life like everyone else, with a strong sense of personal choice. This is a topic that I covered in more depth in an earlier essay," A Matter of Choice," posted on 8/25/13-- It's a little lengthy, but you might want to visit it. Briefly, though, our sense of free will is a powerful illusion that I believe is associated with consciousness. This illusion is so compelling that I find it difficult to keep my writing "clean" of the language of choice. So in the essay I used terms like "rational," "courageous," and even "choice." Yikes. Beyond laziness, my only excuse is that the structure of our language assumes the existence of free will.

      Fatalistic, yes, but depressing, no. It may seem peculiar, but I often find solace in my lack of freedom of choice.

      And, yes, I believe I am driven to attempt to persuade others to change their beliefs in this regard.