The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options -- By: J. P. Moreland

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 148:590 (Apr 1991)
Article: The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options
Author: J. P. Moreland


The Morality of Suicide: Issues and Options

J. P. Moreland

Professor of Philosophy of Religion
Talbot School of Theology, LaMirada, California

On December 2, 1982, 62-year-old Barney Clark became the first human to receive a permanent artificial heart. In addition he was given a key that could be used to turn off his compressor, if he wanted to die. One of the physicians, Dr. Willem Kolff, justified the key by stating that if Clark suffered and felt that life was not enjoyable or worth enduring anymore, he had the right to end his life. Clark never used the key. He died 15 weeks after the operation.

This case illustrates the growing importance of ethical reflection regarding suicide. Today it is the 10th leading cause of death in the general population, and the suicide rate is on the rise in groups ranging from teenagers to the elderly. The purpose of this article is to clarify important issues and options involved in the ethical aspects of suicide.

It is crucial that pastors and other Christian leaders understand how these issues are being argued, apart from reference to the biblical text. This will enable the Christian community to argue in a pluralistic culture for positions consistent with the Bible and to understand how others are framing the debate. This article focuses on three issues: the definition of suicide, the moral justifiability of suicide, and moral problems involved in paternalist state intervention to prevent people coercively from committing suicide.

The Definition of Suicide

Before discussing the morality of suicide, two preliminary issues must be examined. First is whether the term “suicide” should be used

in a purely conceptual, descriptive manner or in a normative, evaluative manner. Second is the need to define suicide to show how suicidal acts differ from other self-destructive acts.

Is Suicide a Descriptive or an Evaluative Term?

Should suicide be defined in a purely conceptual, descriptive manner or in normative, evaluative terms? Suppose one person said suicide is sometimes morally permissible and another said suicide is always wrong. It would be possible for these two people to agree over substantive moral issues regarding suicide and differ merely in their definition of what counts as suicide. For example two people could agree that a Jehovah’s Witness who refuses a blood transfusion (see case six discussed on pp. 216-17) was morally justified in his action, one arguing that it was a morally justifiable suicide, the other that it was not a suicide at all but a case of martyrdom. Thus definitions are important in clarifying where agreement and disagreemen...

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