Many philosophers believe that suicide is permissible in at least some circumstances. Others go further and claim that there are circumstances in which suicide is morally obligatory — that there’s sometimes a "duty to die." While I accept that suicide may be morally permissible in some circumstances, I have reservations that there is a ever a duty to commit suicide. Here I’d like to explore these reservations, framing them in terms of self-defense, and enlist your help in trying to make sense of these matters.
Perhaps the best-known defense of there being a moral obligation to commit suicide is John Hardwig’s "Is there a duty to die?". Though there are some consequentialist moves in Hardwig’s article, I think his main claim is that there can be a duty to die when a person’s continuing to live would impose unfair or unreasonable burdens on others. So a patient with a debilitating long term illness requiring expensive and time-consuming care from her family may have a duty to die so as not to bankrupt her family, damage their relationships, derail their careers, etc. I interpret Hardwig to mean only that there *can* be a duty to die in order to avoid imposing unfair or unreasonable burdens on others because other factors, most obviously the burdensomeness to the person in question of continuing to live, also seem relevant to the question of whether she has a duty to die. However, one factor that Hardwig denies is morally relevant to the duty to die is whether a person wants to live. This suggests that whether a person has a duty to die is a moral fact unconnected to agent’s autonomy, choices, etc.
Suppose that a woman, Sylvia, meets Hardwig’s conditions for having a duty to die. Now what exactly is meant by a "duty to die"? In his article, the question Hardwig initially poses is ‘is there a duty to die?’, but much of the rest of his article seems focused on a slightly different question: do I have a duty to die? These questions imply different interpretations of the duty to die. An affirmative answer to the second question implies that Sylvia has a duty to take her own life, i.e., a duty to commit suicide. This interpretation holds that her duty is a kind of agent-centered imperative: Assuming that death is the only way to ensure that Sylvia will not impose the unfair or unreasonable burdens on her family that Hardwig’s argument invokes, Sylvia then has a duty to intentionally act so as to bring about her death, but it is not the case that others have any such duty, or are even morally permitted to kill her.
But it’s not clear what forces this interpretation of a "duty to die" on us, nor is it clear that this interpretation best fits Hardwig’s reasoning. An alternative interpretation takes her ‘duty to die’ not as the agent-centered imperative that she kill herself, but a duty, falling on at least some others besides herself, that she die. On this interpretation, ‘is there a duty to die?’ is answered in the affirmative, for there is such a duty and it does not fall on Sylvia exclusively. One reason to accept this interpretation is that Hardwig’s reasoning seems to suggest that those on whom Sylvia’s continued existence imposes unfair burdens would at least be morally permitted to kill Sylvia. So Sylvia’s family would not violate any duties to her by killing her. We might even envision situations in which family members might be obligated to kill Sylvia: Her son Joe might be obligated to kill Sylvia if her continuing to live imposes unfair burdens on Joe’s children, depriving them of education, necessary medical care, etc. (So perhaps there’s a duty not to permit unfair burdens on be imposed on others but only a permission not to suffer unfair burdens oneself.)
Yet this second reading runs up against what I perceive as a possible problem: Suppose (just for the sake of vividness — the example’s force doesn’t turn on it) that Sylvia doesn’t want to die. But given that she has a duty to die, then if we interpret that duty in the second way, then Joe is permitted to kill her. Yet I believe Sylvia retains a right to defend herself against Joe’s efforts to kill her. In this case, we cannot appeal to the claim that Sylvia deserves to die by virtue of some past action of hers. That is, we can’t claim that she has forfeited her right to self-defense. The result here is somewhat awkward: Sylvia is morally required to take her own life; Joe is at least permitted, and maybe even required, to kill Sylvia; and Sylvia is permitted to defend herself against Joe’s attempts to kill her. Note ‘awkward,’ not contradictory: Perhaps there’s a duty that Sylvia die (on the second interpretation of that phrase) that licenses or even demands that someone else kill her but Sylvia retains a right to self-defense nonetheless. That could be the case if Sylvia’s right to self-defense is inalienable, wholly independent of any duties others might have toward her. I don’t know if that’s true. I wonder if instead there’s a conceptual relation between the permissibility of self-defense and others’ duty to kill such that if Sylvia retains her right of self-defense then others have no duty to kill her (the weaker implication) or even violate a duty to her by killing her (the stronger implication). But either implication might suggest that Sylvia herself has no duty to die (on the second interpretation of that phrase).
Of course, all of these worries could be forestalled if the duty to die is understood in the first way, as an agent-centered imperative that carries no moral implications about others’ behavior. That seems implausible, and of course, the notion of agent-centered imperatives face theoretical hurdles as well.