V. Bradley LewisApril 01, 2014
Stayby Jennifer Michael Hecht

Yale University Press. 280p $26

More people now die in the United States by suicide than in automobile accidents. There were 28,364 deaths by suicide in 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available) and, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the rate is rising, particularly among middle-aged adults. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book is a plea directed to both those who are considering taking their own lives and those who may be in a position to intervene. In writing it, she was motivated by bitter personal experience: in 2007, a graduate school friend and fellow poet killed herself; and in 2009 a mutual friend—also a poet—did the same. Hecht wrote an impassioned open letter posted on a poetry website forbidding anyone else from committing suicide, which was later printed in the Boston Globe. The large response prompted Hecht to expand the letter into the present book. In doing her research, Hecht was particularly surprised that so few secular thinkers have argued against suicide; and she was therefore explicitly concerned to offer nonreligious arguments to this effect.

While the word philosophies is in its subtitle, Stay is not a philosophical book in any technical sense. It is cast in three parts: the first four chapters are historical, canvassing arguments about suicide from ancient times through the Enlightenment; the next three offer distinct arguments against suicide; finally, there are three chapters that offer additional reflection on recent thinkers and arguments.

The first section is something of a cook’s tour and, alas, much the least edifying part of the book. A couple of millennia are traversed and many arguments are clipped out of their contexts and drastically summarized, sometimes in ways that deprive them of coherence. There are also rather odd judgments about who counts as a suicide: should Samson really be thought of this way? Sometimes Socrates is treated as a suicide and at other times he is not. “Aquinas,” Hecht writes, “agreed that Jesus had essentially taken his own life, but Christians were not permitted to follow his example.” Aquinas, however, did not say this: he argued that Jesus allowed his life to be taken by others. The distinction is critical. A later summary of Kant is also confusing.

The historical chapters, however, also contain some items that are worthy of emphasis. The Christian condemnation of suicide did lead to needless malice toward the sinner, who was both perpetrator and victim, and to cruelty toward the families of suicides. Similarly, Hecht’s repeated emphasis on the extent to which arguments for the moral tolerance of suicide were often aimed more at the church than at the prohibition on suicide itself, is revealing.

The three chapters that follow the historical part of the book are its real center: they make three arguments against suicide grounded in community, one’s responsibility to others and one’s responsibility to oneself. First, suicide is wrong because it damages the community; second, suicide is wrong because of contagion effects; and third, one owes it to one’s possible future self not to commit suicide.

Hecht appeals to a number of ancient and modern philosophers in support of the first argument, but not in ways that, on reflection, are likely to prove very appealing to modern people. Here again, the lack of context is important. Plato and Aristotle both hold suicide to be damaging to the community, as did Aquinas. All three however, had considerably more robust accounts of the moral status of the community than we do or than many people would now accept. Aristotle, for example, held that an individual citizen is to the political community as a part is to a whole. Medieval thinkers developed a whole political theology of the common good out of this and, to my mind, it deserves a hearing today, but I would be surprised if Hecht thought so.

Without this background, however, the appeal to community becomes little more than a gesture. The same problem exists for some modern thinkers. Hecht appeals to Rousseau, who has a character in his novel Julie argue against suicide on the basis of one’s usefulness to the community. She does not mention Rousseau’s rather less appetizing statement (in his own voice in On the Social Contract), that the citizen should consider her life a “conditional gift of the state.” The argument from community, then, seems to require a much thicker notion of community than Hecht allows.

The second argument is compelling—as far as it goes. Hecht summarizes a good bit of psychological literature to the effect that one suicide often leads to others, even suicide clusters. This seems like strong evidence that suicide is not, as it were, a victimless crime; it has consequences beyond one’s own actions. This is serious and worth knowing, but morally less powerful than it may at first seem. It is most relevant where those with less developed judgment, adolescents mainly, may be particularly vulnerable to the influence of another’s suicide. But such considerations are not dispositive by themselves. Many acts licitly done by confident and reasonable adults would be wrong if done by the young or unthinking. The contagion effects are of more concern to one who already considers suicide wrong and less weighty to one who does not. At most (and it is far from nothing) this is an argument for much better intervention with persons in high risk categories.

The third argument is simply that one’s feelings and judgments change over time and that one owes it to one’s future self to, as it were, give it a chance. This is certainly true, but, again, it does not seem to be as strong as may initially appear. One imagines it is also possible for a person to say at some point, “I should have died.” The problem here is that this is an argument from one’s felt preferences and so it fails to transcend one’s own desires. Only a moral theory that gave primacy to the satisfaction of one’s preferences could underwrite this argument in a sufficiently strong form, nor would such a theory necessarily preclude suicide always, but only much of the time.

This last consideration is relevant to Hecht’s whole project. She notes at the beginning of the book that her argument is really restricted to despair suicide and at the end distinguishes her view from the “extreme position of those who would prohibit all suicide.” Those facing death from a dread disease constitute a separate category, she argues, one that we should perhaps not even call suicide. I fear this may be trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. Both cases involve the moral issue of deciding when one’s life is or isn’t worth living, and the step from giving individuals the right—morally or legally—to make this decision in limited cases to making it more broadly is a short one, as is the step to giving others that power, again first in restricted cases and later in broader ones. How slippery this slope is we will soon know better. Still, Hecht’s overriding purpose is to move those considering suicide to think again, and in that we should all join her.

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