April 25, 2005

Why is suicide avoidance a perfect duty?

I've been grading undergraduate papers on Kant and euthanasia for the last few days, and in making comments, I've come to realize that there's something that I don't get about Kant's argument for the immorality of suicide. I'm far from a Kant scholar, so I might just be misunderstanding Kant's view. (Luckily, my concern hasn't gotten in the way of my grading at all.)

In the Groundwork, Kant argues that suicide is immoral because it rests on the following maxim, which cannot be universalized without contradiction: "From self-love I adopt it as a principle to shorten my life when its longer duration is likely to bring more evil than satisfaction."

Something that genuinely loves itself, Kant tells us, cannot desire its own destruction; thus, the maxim results in contradiction. Now, I think it's debatable whether something that loves itself cannot desire its own destruction, but that's not the issue I want to raise. Kant says that suicide avoidance is a perfect duty, which would mean that this maxim results in a contradiction in conception. I think it looks more like a contradiction in the will, which would render suicide avoidance an imperfect duty.

I can see why the contradiction looks like a contradiction in conception. One cannot attempt to kill oneself if one is acting out of desire to preserve oneself. There is a clear contradiction there. But what makes this issue tricky is that it looks like someone who acts out of self-love could not will their own death. Isn't Kant's prohibition on suicide from self-love a case of an imperfect duty then? One can imagine the consequence of everyone killing themselves. That's not inherently contradictory. The problem stems from the willing.

One might try to make the following counterargument: imperfect duties are those that generate fully consistent perverted worlds when their maxims are universalized, but that have maxims that cannot be willed because the perverted world results in one's ends not being met. In other words, imperfect duties come about when there's a breach in a hypothetical imperative. The contradiction in the self-love maxim does not necessarily come about from a person's ends not being satisfied. But I think this is wrong. Self-love, Kant tells us, impels the improvement of life. It looks like the contradiction occurs because death ceases all improvement in life, thus one's ends are not being met.

Moreover, if we don't interpret "from self-love" as making a claim about hypothetical ends, then the maxim Kant offers does not correspond to the traditional "In situation X, I will do Y in order to achieve Z" template. Normally, if a maxim is contradictory simply in virtue of the "in situation X, I will do Y" portion (as maxims condoning lying or promise-breaking are), then it forms a perfect duty. If this is not the case, but the maxim becomes contradictory when Z is taken into account (in other words, the perverted world is consistent but does not achieve the ends of the hypothetical imperative), then the maxim forms the basis of an imperfect duty. "From self-love" seems to fit squarely into variable slot Z. If we insist that it does not but that it still generates the contradiction, then we give up on the standard maxim template, and we have to tell some sort of story about what sort of work "from self-love" is doing and why it's permissible to include in our maxim.

There is one other unique aspect of this maxim that may be relevant. It results in contradiction whether universalized or not. However, I don't know if this influences the perfection or imperfection of our duty, nor do I know why it should.

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Blogger Blakely said...

I'm no Kant scholar either; but how about this for the contradiction in conception:

Descartes cannot doubt himself out of existence because he is required for the doubting.

Perhaps our willing is something else we're required for. So when we think of willing our own nonexistence, we have ourselves-existing (insofar as we will something) standing over against ourselves-not existing (the thing we will).

The problem with this is that what we will to happen, in the future, doesn't need to be completely constrained by what's the case. So one might ask whether, say, that I'm tired and I will that I not be tired is also a contradiction. That something that loves itself cannot will its own destruction is this kind of contradiction. So we might clarify my initial proposal by saying that, if anything is a precondition of willing at all, we cannot will its opposite. And that I'm alive to will is such a precondition.

Not that Kant actually talks about preconditions in the Groundwork... But it seems like such a Kantian thing to be concerned with.

Does that work?

4/26/2005 03:07:00 PM  
Blogger Dub! said...

I'm not sure, Blakely. Your transcendental argument against Descartes doesn't have much to do with practical reason, so I worry that the analogy doesn't carry over. I don't think that being tired and willing that one not be tired (what would that mean? Drinking coffee?) is contradictory. It's perfectly fine for us to will that we be different than we currently are. Actually, Kant thinks this too. Your argument here:

if anything is a precondition of willing at all, we cannot will its opposite. And that I'm alive to will is such a precondition.

seems to disallow any sort of suicide whatsoever. But, (and maybe I should have made this clear) Kant thinks some forms of suicide are permissible. In The Metaphysics of Morals, for instance, he thinks it OK to kill oneself out of honour. One can will oneself dead without contradiction. The problem with the suicide maxim I was discussing comes from the "self-love" aspect. He who loves himself impels the improvement of his life, but death ceases improvement. It still looks like a contradiction in the will to me.

4/26/2005 06:44:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

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4/26/2005 07:49:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

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4/26/2005 07:57:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

1. It's Descartes's argument, not my argument against him.

2. I was just trying to think of a way suicide would be contradictory. (I tend to have a hard time taking Kant's framework of duties seriously.)

3. There are various things a "contradiction in the will" could mean. I have no idea which is at issue:
(a) willing opposite things at the same time.
(b) willing that something come about that is the opposite of what's currently the case (my tiredness example, which wasn't supposed to be plausible; it was supposed to be a counterexample to one, general, form of contradiction "in the will."
(c) not being able to successfully "will" the thing (could be another characterization of (a))

4. I don't really see how the alleged contradictions in conception differ from contradictions in will. (Whether we perceive a contradiction will depend on what we think, and we have to imagine someone willing in each case.) The fact that something is inconsistent (with what?) doesn't mean we can't will it. That doesn't help, either.

5. I just don't see how casting it as an imperfect duty makes the contradiction more evident. I think there is an obvious contradiction (in the will?) with willing one's death and loving oneself. It's like the inconsistency of (non whole-hearted) masochism, which does seem to have something fishy about it--not the least the resistance to willing it. (If one killed oneself out of honor one would have fewer reservations.)

4/26/2005 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger Blakely said...

But Kant does say the contradiction results from universalization:

"There only remains the question whether this principle of self-love can become a universal law of nature. One sees at once a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would destroy life by means of the very same feeling that acts so as to stimulate the furtherance of life, and hence there could be no existence as a system of nature"

This suggests that the "system of nature" wouldn't be a system of nature if we always willed that things kill themselves from self-love. That seems unproblematic to me. But it does, interestingly, leave out the "when my life's continued duration would cause more evil" bit. This seems just like the lying case, where in the maxim I'm forbidden to make also includes some other details of my situation that Kant excludes in the universalization. I guess you could dispute whether "universal law of nature" says anything explicitly about willing that everyone do the same; but they do seem interchangeable--at least in this context. A law of nature is something that everything obeys.

4/26/2005 09:50:00 PM  
Blogger Dub! said...


1, You're right, it's Descartes' argument. Whoops, sorry.

2. Here's what I understand to be the difference between a contradiction in conception and a contradiction in the will: a contradiction in conception occurs when the world that would result from universalizing the maxim is inconsistent. A contradiction in the will occurs when the resulting world does not satisfy the ends one is trying to achieve. Worlds in which everyone acted on maxims of lying or promise-breaking are genuinely inconceivable, because lying and promise-breaking couldn't possibly exist in those worlds. On the other hand, a world in which no one offered help to anyone else is conceivable, but given people's ends, no one could will that world into existence. Everyone would be worse off in such a world, and the reason people might be tempted to not help others is so that they could be better off. Acting on the maxim doesn't meet one's ends. So, I think (c) idenitifes a contradiction in the will, but I don't think (b) qualifies. I don't know about (a): my impression is that Kant thinks our actions have single maxims, which means we only will one thing at a time.

But back to suicide. If everyone killed themselves, there'd be no one alive, but that's not contradictory or inconsistent in itself. So, I don't see the contradiction in conception. A contradiction nonetheless exists because there'd no no room for improvement, which was the reason that the maxim was acted upon. Maybe I'm wrong about the difference between the types of contradictions? Or what "self-love" consists of?

3. Life, for Kant, has no intrinsic moral worth. Neither, I think, does self-love. I don't think it would be contradictory for someone to love themselves and to kill themself if rationality demanded it. Self-love in this case would be an inclination strongly pushing for us not to kill ourselves, but inclinations aren't supposed to inpinge upon our moral decisions. The contradiction in suicide comes out when someone kills themself out of self-love. But that doesn't mean it's contradictory for someone to harbor self-love and yet kill themselves. It would be akin to someone really wanting not to help someone but doing so anyway out of duty.

4. I think the quote you posted is in Kant's discussion of the "Law of Nature" formulation of the CI. Not sure though. If so, I wonder if Kant's just going through the motions of showing that the maxim fails on that formulation too. The maxim is definitely contradictory if universalized, but I think I want to say that, even so, it's also contradictory even if not universalized (so it should not be surprising that universalizing it leads to contradiciton).

5. I agree that I don't know the upshot of the no-suicide duty turning out to be imperfect instead of perfect. It's probably not that important. I just can't figure out why Kant called it a perfect duty.

4/27/2005 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger Blakely said...

The quote is from the section on suicide, right after the line you quoted initially.

2.But wait a minute: lots of transgressive practices would cease to exist if everyone took part in them! Most of them, in fact. And killing onself out of self-love is one of them. But so is anything else that involves killing; or any crime for which it would conceivably cease to matter if everyone did it (jaywalking, running red lights...). If that's what a contradiction in conception is, then there are more perfect duties than I thought.

3-4. The "law of nature" passage gave me the impression that self-love is what impels us to live at all, something like a survival instinct. Maybe that's overly charitable. But, yeah, it's not entirely clear even from the passage I quoted whether the contradiction is between self-love and a situation in which self-love would cease to exist, or between self-love and suicide, full stop.

I think I see the problem now.

4/27/2005 01:52:00 AM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

Interesting thread.

I had always thought the suicide prohibition came from a different expression of the categorical imperative:

In committing suicide, you are, to a certain extent, treating yourself as a means to an end rather than an end itself (though perhaps suicide is the most literal way of making an end of one's self!)

4/28/2005 11:17:00 AM  
Blogger Dub! said...


Yeah, you're right that the second formulation of the CI definitely prohibits suicide, but AFAIK, the second formulation doesn't give any way of distinguishing between perfect and imperfect duties. Am I wrong about this?

Actually, now that I think of it, I'm not sure how Kant justifies suicide-in-the-name-of-honour through the second formulation. Hmmm. I suppose it is because you are killing yourself, but not disrespecting your humanity or rationality. This is kinda funny. It means that, against appearances, respecting humanity does not necessarily mean respecting life. Killing isn't bad because it kills, it's bad because it violates reason.

Anyway, I learned a new word today. Seemed appropriate to share:

Main Entry: felo–de–se
Pronunciation: "fel-Od-&-'sA, -'sE
Function: noun
Inflected Form: plural fe·lo·nes–de–se /f&-"lO-(")nEz-d&-/ or felos–de–se /"fel-Oz-d&-/
1 : one who commits suicide or who dies from the effects of having committed an unlawful malicious act
2 : an act of deliberate self-destruction : SUICIDE

4/28/2005 05:48:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

"Killing isn't bad because it kills, it's bad because it violates reason."

An absurdity that shows that ethics is not a place where one should follow an argument wherever it leads.

4/29/2005 01:45:00 AM  
Blogger AJPJ said...

Try looking at: Autonomy and Self-Respect by Thomas E. Hill, Jr (sort of quasi-applied Kantian approach). He has a section on suicide.


4/29/2005 10:30:00 AM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

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4/29/2005 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger Dub! said...

I don't think I understand that quote, Ignacio. Does he mean that, depending on the situation one is in, what one considers 'improvement' will change, so self-love could demand killing oneself if it leads to the situationally correct type of improvement? That sounds plausible to me - Kant's use of the term 'improvement' is pretty mysterious. But then, I might be misinterpreting Paton's argument and spinning it into my own. It's not clear to me what he means from the quotation you give alone. Does he say anything more?

4/29/2005 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger AJPJ said...

You had Paton's book on the CI (pretty good by the way) just lying around? So you ARE a Kantian! (knew it)


(ever feel like your posts should have more substance? then decide that no one wants to talk about robot reference?)

4/30/2005 01:06:00 AM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...


You pretty much nailed it (I will post the rest of the quote when I get home). And Andrew--I actually just bought the book yesterday, for $4, from my favorite place to shop for philosophy books: http://www.mcintyreandmoore.com/

4/30/2005 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5/02/2005 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio Prado said...

[Edit--cleaned out the typos]

Prelude to quote above:

"When Kant considers duties towards oneself, he does not test maxims by their fitness to produce a systematic harmony of purposes among men if they were to become universal laws of nature. He does, however, test them by reference to harmony of purpose, a harmony between the ends proposed by the maxim, when universalized as a law of nature, and what he calls 'purpose of nature.'

In the case of suicide, when Kant says that the 'determination' of self-love is the furtherance of life, he means that this is its purpose or function and not merely its effect. If I conceive of myself as having created man and given him self-love with this end in view, can I will, or even conceive, it to be a law of nature that this self-love should in certain circumstances aim at producing death? Kant's answer is 'No'; but it may be conjectured that he gives the answer because he already assumes suicide to be wrong. Why should it not be a merciful instinct of Providence that the same instinct which oridnarily leads to life might lead to death when life offered nothing but continuous pain?

[. . . Then the bit I quoted, then . . .]

Kant here calls it a 'sensation,' meaning by that presumably some sort of instinct of self-preservation. But this is not one of the powers which distinguish man from the brutes, where Kant's method of argument is more plausible; and unless we have an exaggerated idea of the perfection of teleology in nature, unless indeed we commit ourselves to some theory of the working of divine Providence, this argument can carry little conviction except to those already convinced.

The argument would be more plausible if we were to maintain that to commit suicide only because life offered more pain than pleasure is at variance with the function of reason as aiming at absolute good; for it is to withdraw oneself in the interests of comfort from the duty of leading the moral life. The essential thing for our present purposes is, however, not the plausibility of the particular argument, but rather the general principle on which the argument is based."

5/08/2005 12:41:00 PM  

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