Many Kantians have reservations about Kant’s rather strident view concerning self-killing. In the Lectures on Ethics in particular, Kant’s rhetoric pulls no moral punches. Kant calls suicide "revolting", an act wherein we reduce ourselves to mere "carrion" with "no intrinsic worth." We ought to "shrink in horror" at the very thought of suicide, for "nothing more terrible can be imagined" than to treat our own value like that of a beast.
David Velleman provides one of the few sympathetic defenses of a broadly Kantian view of self-killing. Here I hope everyone might help me put his defense in its most plausible light.
The gist of the Kantian argument against suicide, euthanasia, and self-killing generally is that the rational autonomous self is a source of inherent and unconditioned dignity. Hence, it would be wrong to destroy the physical instrument (the body) through which that autonomous self exercises its rationality. As Velleman expresses it, Kantian agents have an ‘interest-independent’ value that precludes their self-destruction even if the continued existence of that instrument would result in great suffering or unhappiness for that agent.
It seems obvious that the hardest cases for the Kantian view are those where our continued future existence is bereft of hope (in cases of severe and persistent depression, say) or likely to be suffused with a great deal of pain. Part of Velleman’s defense of a broadly Kantian ethic of self-killing focuses on the latter kind of example. He writes:
"Pain is a bad thing, of course, but I doubt whether it can justify
anything close to euthanasia or suicide unless it is unbearable. And
then what justifies death is the unbearableness of the pain rather
than the painfulness.
What do we mean in calling pain unbearable? What is it not to bear
pain? It certainly isn’t a matter of refusing to feel the pain, of
shutting one’s eyes to it, as one might to an unbearable sight, or of
walking away from it, as one might from an unbearable situation. Not
to bear pain is somehow to fall apart in the face of it, to
disintegrate as a person. To find pain unbearable is to find it thus
destructive not just of one’s well-being but of oneself.
But then we make a mistake if we describe the patient in unbearable
pain as if he were his old rational self, weighing the harm of pain
against the benefits of existence. If his pain is truly unbearable,
then he isn’t his rational self any longer: he is falling apart in
pain. Even if he enjoys some moments of relief and clarity, he is
still falling apart diachronically, a temporally scattered person at
best." ("A right to self-termination?", Ethics 109 (1999), 618)
Velleman doesn’t say much by way of explicating this argument, but the line of thought seems to be this:
a) To undergo severe and unbearable pain (over some specified duration) undermines diachronic personhood.
b) Self-killing is wrong only if the conditions for rational agency are met.
c) Diachronic personhood is among those conditions.
So it is not wrong to engage in self-killing if one is undergoing severe and unbearable pain (over some specified duration).
I have a number of thoughts about this apparently valid argument:
1) Is a) a credible claim? Velleman says little in its defense, and my familiarity with the personal identity literature is not sufficient for me to say.
2) Does the argument fail to justify prospective self-killing, i.e., killing oneself in advance of the likely pain? The argument seems to depend on pain already being present to undermine diachronic personhood. It doesn’t claim that a person who, for instance, is diagnosed with a disease that will later prove very painful is not identical to the person who will later suffer the pains. This might seem like a rather cruel conclusion: that one has to suffer great pain in order to justifiably kill oneself, but it would have been wrong to kill oneself in advance of that pain.
3) Suppose that the argument is sound. Is the following rejoinder available, even to Kantians? "The argument succeeds in showing that self-killing is morally permissible in Kantian terms by showing that the self who kills and the self that is killed are not the same self. But such killings are still wrong on the grounds that one is killing someone else."
Observations and interpretations welcome!