Legislators all around the world always showed interest in the end of life. In recent years the debate was concerned about thorny cases of terminal or irreversible illnesses and the opportunity to resort to euthanasia or assisted suicide, like many countries do. But ethics had also been central, throughout history, regarding voluntary suicides of people who wouldn’t be part of euthanasia nor assisted suicide programs, as these practices are restricted to very specific conditions.
A “normal” suicide, for example, was illegal in the United Kingdom until 1961 and in Ireland until 1993. They probably understood, a little bit later than the others, that a dead person can’t be punished. This regulations were affected by a religious view of life as a God’s gift. And it’s surely not polite to throw away a present… But seriously, not only Christianity or the other monotheistic confessions look at suicide with contempt. It’s something worldwide but not univocal, there are many exceptions.
Oriental cults don’t morally accept suicide, but that doesn’t imply a penalty, like burning in hell for the eternity. In Buddhism, karma plays a central role against suicide, but dispensations are allowed. Otherwise all the monks who set themselves on fire would have become krill by now. The Hindus believe that the soul of the suicide victims wanders as a ghost until the date of the “natural” death occurs. It could have been worse.
Other religions gave suicide more nobility though. The Vikings admitted suicide victims into Valhalla, among with those who died of violent death. Norse mythology is full of stories of people who hanged themselves or pierced with a sword. The Mayans even had a specific goddess for suicide, Ixtab, lady of the rope, who welcomed the new arrivals in the exclusive afterlife. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra killed herself to avoid the imprisonment by the Romans, that gesture was sure more respectable than captivity.
The Greeks disagreed, though. They use to cut the right hand from the departed and then bury the body outside the polis. Pythagoreans believed that suicide ruined the corporeal harmony, even if it seems that the very same Pythagoras let himself die – according to many sources. Plato, although adverse to the idea of suicide, consented suicide for diseases, misery or heroism, like Socrates who drank the hemlock after a death sentence. Stoicism on the contrary acknowledged suicide as a natural and rational act and Seneca will commit it.
The Romans will acquire this kind of legitimacy, as long as it didn’t damage the public system or slave owners. Also soldiers and tax payers were forbidden to kill themselves, this economic focus will survive in Middle Ages: authorities confiscated the goods of the victim.
The Japanese culture had been the most scrupulous one to give precise instructions for a ritual suicide. The bushido, known as Samurai code, dictated the way of life of the warriors until the XIX century, when the Meiji Restoration gave birth to modern Japan. Only the Seppuku or Harakiri – there aren’t substantial differences – could wash away the dishonor of a defeat. The blade had to penetrate into the stomach, to purify the soul that resided in there. Women had the Jigai, in which the cut was along the throat.
The most significant study in contemporary sociology was made by Émile Durkheim. In 1897 the French sociologist and anthropologist published Suicide, a scientific research aimed at the insertion of an individual choice in a social context. According his data, suicides raised in number after a social, political, economical or cultural disturbance.
Durkheim identifies three types of suicide: altruistic, in the name of certain values; egoistic, due to exclusion and disenfranchisement; anomic, as the result of intolerance of oppressive rules of a society. His recipe to prevent suicide is a mix of membership, identity and repossess of social norms.
In contemporary philosophy, this topic was especially confronted by Arthur Schopenhauer. Unlike the faith in progress typical of Idealism, Positivism and Marxism, the German philosopher anticipated Durkheim’s anomie, as he found out that events like the Industrial Revolution made lose points of reference and created new problems – savage urbanization, underage work, degradation and so on. Unhappiness came from the lack of an even temporary satisfaction and fulfillment. According to Schopenhauer we are in front of an ethic choice (here we go again) between acceptance and surrender.
To end with some humor, as the comedian Bill Maher said “suicide is man’s way of telling god ‘you can’t fire me – I quit!”