Suicide and the Harm Principle

Topics: Morality, Suffering, Immanuel Kant Pages: 9 (2891 words) Published: November 29, 2012
The Right to Suicide and Harm

Suicide under circumstances of extreme suffering is the morally right action as opposed to the alternative, living in pain. J.S. Mill’s Utilitarian ideals provide strong reasoning to support suicide in instances of severe pain, while Kant’s moral theory of the categorical imperative provides reasoning against taking one’s own life. Mill’s principle of utility is the maximization of pleasure and the reduction of pain. Mill regards happiness as the greatest good in life and all actions should be performed as long as they have the tendency to produce pleasure. Mill also introduces the Harm Principle. The Harm Principle is used to determine whether coercion is justifiable based on the impact of individual actions. Stated, the Harm Principle is “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant” (On Liberty, I, 9). Mill believe that individuals have the right to autonomy in order to produce pleasure for themselves, but the right to autonomy must be controlled to allow equal exercise of this right by all individuals.

To understand the application of Mill’s principles, harm must be defined. Harm is damage to another individual against their will. Mill introduces two types of harm: direct and indirect. Direct harm is when an individual performs an action that directly harms another person, such as murder. Indirect harm is when the individual performs an action that causes damage to others through performing an action on one’s self. (On Liberty, I, 11) The distinction between indirect and direct harm determines whether the individual who performed the action resulting in the harm is morally responsible for the harm inflicted. Mill offers little towards the definition of harm and the distinction between direct and indirect harm. He writes: “Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law” (On Liberty, IV, 10) Mill states that when individual actions pose a risk of “definite” damage, the individual is responsible to society for those actions. Therefore, “definite” harm is direct harm to others and all other harms are either (1) indirect harm to others or (2) direct harm to oneself and undeserving of legal or moral sanctions. However, the word “definite” is vague, leaving the definitions of indirect and direct harm unclear.

To determine responsibility and appropriate sanctions to punish and deter, Mill employs a central idea of his theory: personal autonomy. Personal autonomy is an individual’s ability to pursue “their own good in their own way”, one of Mill’s four absolute rights (On Liberty, I, 14). Each individual has the absolute right to exercise this autonomy, unless their actions impact the autonomy of another person. In cases where autonomous actions result in direct harm to others, either the government is justified in imposing legal sanctions such as jail time, or society is justified in imposing moral sanctions, such as shaming. Therefore, to determine whether direct harm was committed, one looks at whether one individual caused the abridgment of another individual’s absolute rights.

In this section, a case will be presented to prompt discussion about the morally validity of suicide. Mill’s reasoning will include a utility calculation and an evaluation of direct and indirect harm.

Consider the following case. A young woman named Jane, aged 29, finds out she has the Parkinson’s gene. Jane watched her mother die from the disease and does not want to die the way her mother did. When the symptoms begin to set in and worsen, she decides to commit suicide. She knows that she can live many more years with the disease but she knows that her quality of...

Cited: Kant. “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals .” (1785).
Mill, J.S. "On Liberty." (1859).
Mill, J.S. "Utilitarianism." (1861).
Prevention, American Foundation for Suicide. Facts and Figures. 2012. 2012 <>.
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