10
Suicide, Self-Sacrifice,
and Coercion

William E. Tolhurst

That not all self-caused deaths are suicides is obvious, but what is not so clear is how the line should be drawn to distinguish those which are from those which are not. In many cases the difficulty in determining whether a self-caused death is suicide does not stem from a lack of empirical evidence but rather from the lack of a clear account of what makes a particular self-caused death a case of suicide. It is the aim of this paper to provide and defend a definition of suicide which will clarify what is at issue in these cases. In the process I shall consider the relevance of altruistic motivation and of coercion to the determination of whether a person has committed suicide.

After a brief discussion of the relevance of particular cases to the assessment of possible definitions, I shall begin by showing that any definition, such as Durkheim's or Brandt's, which implies that the mere foreknowledge that one's death will result from one's actions is a sufficient condition for suicide must be rejected. Then I shall go on to consider what, in addition to this foreknowledge, is required if a self-caused death is to be properly classed as a suicide. The definitions offered by Margolis and Beauchamp will be examined, and it will be argued that they are inadequate and that the absence of altruistic motivation and coercion are not necessary conditions for a person's death to be a suicide. Having shown that these alternatives should be rejected, I shall defend the view that suicide is a matter of successfully implementing a course of action in order to bring about one's death.

Any attempt to provide a definition for a term in a natural language must take as its basis the linguistic intuitions of native speakers about the proper application of this term to particular cases, both actual and possible. With respect to the con

____________________
From The Southern Journal of Philosophy 21 ( 1983): 109-21. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

-105-

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