18
The Ethics of
Suicide Prevention

Victor Cosculluela

Authors from various disciplines have brought forth reasons for preventing all, or at least virtually all, suicide. We will consider these arguments in an attempt to determine whether or not, and in what circumstances, bystanders are morally obliged or permitted to prevent a suicide from realizing his intentions. We shall reach a moderate conclusion: Some suicide may legitimately be prevented, but not all. Arguments for the view that all suicide should be prevented are unacceptable.

I will assume that totally uncoercive suicide prevention measures need no justification. For example, merely presenting the would-be suicide with one's antisuicide position requires no justification. Suggesting a psychotherapist for the person who seeks relief from his suicidal impulses also requires no justification. For the remainder of this paper I will have in mind coercive measures (e.g., involuntary hospitalization, medication, etc.).

The literature on suicide contains several arguments which are thought to justify the coercive prevention of all, or at least almost all, suicide. These arguments can be grouped into three categories: psychological, epistemological, and ethical arguments. All attempt to establish an ethical conclusion, but the first two categories are distinguished by the fact that they appeal to special claims about the psychology of suicide or about the limits of human knowledge. I will first consider psychological arguments; epistemological and ethical arguments will then be discussed.

Psychological arguments: (1) By far the most important psychological argument with respect to suicide prevention is the claim that suicide prevention is justified since suicide is always or virtually always a manifestation of mental illness. We are told that the suicidal option is almost always chosen under "pathological circum-

____________________
Reprinted from the International Journal of Applied Philosophy 9 ( 1994): 35-41 with permission of the editor.

-196-

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