Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hume on Suicide

It's not a violation of a duty to God:
It is impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course, or invade the prerogatives of nature. It is impious says the French superstition, to inoculate for the smallpox, or usurp the business of providence by voluntarily producing distemper and maladies. It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life and thereby rebel against our Creator; and why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions we employ our powers of mind and body, to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in none of them do we any more. They are all of them, therefore, equally innocent or equally criminal. [Citations omitted; bolded emphasis mine; italics in original.]

Nor to one's neighbors or society:

A man who retires from life does no harm to society: he only ceases to do good, which, if it is an injury, is of the lowest kind. All our obligations to do good to society seem to imply something reciprocal. I receive the benefits of society, and therefore ought to promote its interests; but when I withdraw myself altogether from society, can I be bound any longer? But allowing that our obligations to do good were perpetual, they have certainly some bounds. I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expense of a great harm to myself. Why then should I prolong a miserable existence because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me? [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Nor even to oneself:

That suicide may often be consistent with interest and with our duty to ourselves, no one can question, who allows that age, sickness, or misfortune, may render life a burden, and make it worse even than annihilation. I believe that no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it; and though perhaps the situation of a man’s health or fortune did not seem to require this remedy, we may at least be assured that any one who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to it, was cursed with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortunes. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

David Hume, "Of Suicide," c. 1755

1 comment:

  1. Hume's connection with suicide was not merely philosophical. While serving as a Judge Advocate in General St. Clair's rather abortive 1746 military expedition, he actually saw a man kill himself.

    Nervous and physical exhaustion had induced Major Forbes, an officer of parts and some learning, who had become Hume's friend, to believe that he had violated the military code of honor by dereliction of duty. Hume comforted him and put him to bed. On returning to see his friend in the morning, Hume relates in the letter to his brother, "I found him with small Remains of Life, wallowing in his own Blood, with the Arteries of his Arm cut asunder." Despite surgical assistance, it was clear he would not live. "Never," avers Hume, "a man exprest a more steady Contempt of Life, nor more determined philosophical Principles, suitable to his Exit. He beg'd of me to unloosen his Bandage & hasten his Death, as the last Act of Friendship I could show him. But Alas ! We live not in Greek or Roman times."

    From E.C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980). pp. 202-3.


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