Let me state at the outset that I believe a free society should allow the right to end one’s life through suicide. A suicide decision is not made lightly since the great majority of people cling to life even under the most dreadful circumstances. Only people who feel quite hopeless about their future seriously contemplate suicide.
Rational forward–looking persons with good information about their future circumstances would commit suicide only when convinced that they would be worse off by continuing to live. David Hume said (in his Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul) “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 than annihilation.” Schopenhauer was also confident about the rationality of suicide, “It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life” (Parerga and Paralipomena).
Although I support the right to suicide, ideally it is best to have a cooling off period to make sure that a suicide is not attempted in a moment of great agitation that will pass before long. For example, a teenage boy may hang himself because he is bluntly rejected by his girl friend. If his hanging were prevented, he would likely have realized in a few months that he will be attracted to other girls as much or more than to the one who rejected him. He would be ashamed that he was so upset by her rejection.
Anti-depression drugs and stays in psychiatric hospitals are attempts to allow momentary agitations to pass. Many individuals voluntarily seek psychiatric help and go on these drugs when depressed and feel that life is not worth living. A difficult question for persons who support the right to suicide is when, if ever, governments should be given the power to forcibly prevent suicide attempts in order to allow time for less hasty decisions? This is especially a difficult question because individuals who make one attempt at suicide are likely to try again at a later time.
However, momentary feelings of despair are not usually the cause of the desire for assistance in committing suicide. Elderly men and women with painful diseases and terminal illnesses are usually the ones who want help in committing suicide since their pain and suffering are not temporary and are unlikely to pass. They may hope that new medical discoveries will reduce their pain, and perhaps also significantly extend their life expectancy. Such hope is what keeps many elderly persons with serious and painful illnesses upbeat and willing to face the future.
Others give up hope of any significant improvements in their condition, perhaps because of slow progress in combating the diseases they have, such as lung cancer or painful arthritis. Some of them may seek assistance in ending their lives, partly because they are too weak to do that on their own. A more important reason why they seek assistance is a fear of death that prevents them, so to speak, from pulling the trigger on their lives. After the sentence quoted above Hume adds “I believe no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping. For such is our natural horror of death”, and Schopenhauer makes the same observation “But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance…”
Some argue against the right to suicide not on religious grounds, or on libertarian considerations (John Stuart Mill was against suicide because he believed no one has a right to take away the need to make future choices), but because it hurts children, parents, and spouses. Yet an altruistic person takes into account the effects on those he loves in his contemplations about whether to commit suicide. Conversely, they try to convince him to seek medical help instead. Just as modern societies do not prevent a person from marrying someone disliked by his parents, I see little reason why society should interfere on these ground with decisions about suicide.