News footage of the 9/11 disaster shows some people jumping to their death from a burning building, since they obviously preferred to die a minute sooner by hitting the ground rather than living a minute longer at the price of experiencing the horror of burning to death. If we all recognize those actions as a rational choice those people had the right to make, then we have already accepted in principle that suicide can be a reasonable choice people should make for themselves. Other cases of suicide differ from this example only in degree, since longer periods of potential future life are given up, or lesser horrors are avoided, but in principle the issue is the same: People may rationally prefer death rather than living longer at the cost of enduring future suffering they can’t avoid.
But even though suicide is legal almost everywhere in the Western world, we still see governments conducting public campaigns to prevent it. While the government can certainly legitimately try to influence the public to make better choices even where the alternatives to those better options are legal, such as when the state runs tv ads to persuade teenagers not to exercise their legal right to leave school at 16, in such cases government only tries to persuade, not prevent. But everywhere we see people deemed to be ‘a danger to themselves’ because of suicidal tendencies – that is, the tendency to do something legal – being detained against their will or committed to an insane asylum. Where I live there is a bridge which people have used to commit suicide but now the government has erected barriers along the edges so that people can no longer jump off. Similarly, in nursing homes, where there has always been a high suicide rate – for obvious reasons! – wall hooks are now being designed so that they collapse if the weight of a human body is attached to them, just to prevent old people, who may be sick, lonely, and suffering, from escaping their misery.
But since suicide can be a rational choice, since it is not illegal, and since it is obviously infinitely more important to the person planning suicide that he die than it is to society that he live, why do we still try to prevent suicide, as though we could somehow always know for certain that it is always preferable for everyone to continue living, which the 9/11 example proves is false?
Some critics object that since suicide is permanent, people should be prevented from possibly making the wrong decision, but few major decisions in life are without permanent effects – such as marrying the wrong person, having a child when you shouldn’t have, investing your money in the wrong enterprise, joining the army during a war, picking the wrong major in college, etc. – yet we are left free to make all these mistakes which leave permanent marks even if we later struggle to get out of them.
Exceptions might have to be made for a few extreme cases, such as temporarily insane or intoxicated people who would quite likely regret their choice to die later, and for young teenagers who are ready to throw themselves into the river because the captain of the football team didn’t ask them to the prom. But generally people should be allowed to act on their own decision.