The Right to Die

“Reading from Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther.” Wilhelm Amberg, 1870.

On 24 February 2022, the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, two Russian warships attacked Snake Island. When the Moskva warship demanded that the crew defending the island surrender or he would bomb them, they responded, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The Russians occupied the island, and two days later the world heard the news that the island’s thirteen defenders had died (in fact, they had been taken prisoner by the Russians, but that was not known until months later). Their defiance became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.But was the sailors’ choice to defy the warship heroic or just a daring form of attempted suicide?

A suicide is not a beneficial event for the community in which it is committed. It can implicitly call into question the shared values of those who choose to live, raise basic philosophical questions about the meaning of life, undermine the existing order and bring other negative consequences. If one parent commits suicide, the burden falls on the survivor. A strong and healthy person who dies by her own hand impoverishes everyone who benefits from her work.

It is not surprising, therefore, that for millennia most human societies have stigmatised suicide.

The early Christians were an initial exception to this tendency. Many of them committed suicide to free themselves from the curse of sin. Some would even ask passers-by whom they met on the road to deliver the fatal blow, on pain of death. Only Saint Augustine found a justification for condemning suicide by interpreting the fifth commandment—Thou shalt not kill—as including an injunction against killing oneself.

As late as 2020, suicide was illegal in Cyprus, Georgia and several other countries. Today, while no European country punishes suicide, there are still countries in which the penalty for attempting suicide is severe.

Read more by clicking HERE.

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2 responses to “The Right to Die

  1. Clicking on Here gives me the wrong link: By most accounts, “Thou shalt not kill” is the 6th commandment, although none of the numbering is biblical. It is actually better translated as “Thou shalt not murder”, meaning “Thou shalt not kill when it is wrong to do so”; pretty useless for solving real world moral dilemmas. Whether the Hebrew Lo tirtzach can bear the extension to self-murder is beyond my expertise. The Commandment occurs, not only in Exodus but in Deuteronomy, which is full of instructions to kill – genocide, and stoning of blasphemers.

    Paul S. Braterman, Professor Emeritus, University of North Texas Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry, University of Glasgow 14 Willoughby Place, Callander FK17 8DH, Scotland, UK

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