I have, as some readers might know, been reading a good deal about death and life beyond death in recent months. In light of what I've read, I've found myself thinking about a philosophical puzzle related to beliefs regarding suicide.
I don't believe anyone I know well has ever committed, or attempted, suicide. But the topic remains of considerable interest (and the subject of vocal debate).
Suicide and New Age Beliefs about Life after Death
A number of New Age thinkers and experients report that someone who has committed suicide can be expected to run into special problems in the afterlife as they conceive it. Sometimes, this is said to be because of the various moral problems putatively attendant on suicide. I am inclined to think that suicide (at least often) is morally problematic, and I have no particular beef, therefore, with those who reason in this way.
But I find interesting and puzzling another account of why suicides might create distinctive afterlife difficulties. On this view, a person who commits suicide runs into difficulties in the afterlife because she or he has died before her appointed time of death. I think it is quite difficult to make sense of this notion.
It seems as if one's time of death might be appointed in four ways—as a product of predetermination, as a matter of fate, as a target set by divine decree, or as a matter of natural teleology. None of these provides a plausible basis for the view that suicides suffer special liabilities after death.
When speaking of predetermination, I have nothing more mysterious in mind than what we ordinarily think of when talking about determinism. The idea would simply be that every event could be seen to have an antecedently sufficient cause. The history of the world could, in principle, once under way, take only one course. If predetermination of this sort obtains, then of course the time and manner of my death, like the time and manner of every other event, is certain, necessary.
But if this is true, it is difficult to see how suicide could bring about death "before one's time." Whenever one dies will be whenever it was necessary, in a fairly strong sense, that one die. However one dies will be however it was necessary, in a fairly strong sense, that one die. The time and manner of one's death will be the appointed time and manner in as robust a sense as seems possible.
To be sure, if one committed suicide, it is possible that one might not be as advanced, as spiritually mature, as one would have been had one lived a much longer life. But this will not be a problem unique to suicides, since all sorts of factors might lead to one's death at a young age, an age such that, had those factors not interfered, one might have lived many years beyond it. So it wouldn't make sense to single out the suicide as specially in difficulty in the afterlife.
Even if it is the case that one should not seek to enter the afterlife before the appointed time and in any other than the appointed manner, one need not worry about running into special difficulties in virtue of committing suicide if one understands the relevant sort of appointment to be predetermination, since when and how one dies by suicide will be appointed. And any difficulties encountered by the suicide will be parallel to, no different from, those encountered by many different sorts of non-suicides.
Fate is a slippery notion, but I take it to involve something like the idea that an outcome or process is inevitable under a certain description, but that surrounding or related circumstances need not be. It may be fated that I die on September 23, but it may be (on the relevant view) up to me whether I die in Damascus or Baghdad.
We may imagine that the time of my death is fated, that the manner is fated, or that both are fated.
Suppose the time is fated—I am, say, due to die on September 23. But the manner is not. As it happens, I commit suicide on this day.
There may, of course, be moral problems with this decision. But it cannot be the case that I have chosen to die before my time, for I have opted to die on the relevantly fated day. So, if the date of my death is fated, there can be no obvious problem with my decision to commit suicide on that day. And, if the day is fated, then it cannot be the case that I succeed in committing suicide, or otherwise dying, on some other day. For, if I could, then my death would not be fated in the relevant sense.
Similarly, the manner of my death, but not the date, might be fated. But either the fated manner is not suicide, in which case I will not, ex hypothesi, be able to commit suicide, or it is suicide, in which case it will not be blameworthy.
But, the objector might reply, it might be that my death by suicide was fated, but that I have chosen to commit suicide early. However, this response seems problematic for at least two reasons. (i) The notion of fate was invoked to give content to the idea of my death's being before its appointed time. But there does not seem to be a notion of an appointed time in play here. (ii) The imagined account provides no reason to think that committing suicide early should yield special difficulties, even if some sense can be made of early death on this account. I might, after all, be fated to die in an automobile accident, without its being the case that the specific circumstances of the accident are fated; and it might turn out that I die in this manner at age two rather than age eight-two.
So the notion of death as fated does not seem to provide a plausible basis for treating suicide as leading to special difficulties in the afterlife.
Many New Age believers and adherents of similar belief-systems affirm the reality of God, though of course others do not. Those who do embrace some sort of theistic belief might seek to explain the idea of special afterlife disabilities for suicides by maintaining that God has established a time for me to die and that suicide brings about my death before this time.
This view seems to run into several difficulties.
(i) There is nothing about the view as stated that explains why my suicide might not bring about my death at just the time decreed as the time of my death by God. It might also take place after the decreed time, meaning that I am , perhaps (assuming spiritual maturation benefits from, or is not, at any rate, impeded by, more experience) even better prepared for the afterlife than I would have been had I died sooner.
(ii) Supposing this is not the case (the view must presuppose some sort of free will vis-a-vis God, so that I can, indeed, choose to violate God's decree, whether knowingly or not), there is no reason to single out the suicide for special liabilities, since murder and accident might also lead to my death in advance of the decreed date.
(iii) The decree as envisioned seems to be quite arbitrary. There is nothing in the position—so far, at any rate—to explain why a given time should be decreed. This is the sort of thing likely to make many New Age believers uncomfortable. And the essential arbitrariness makes it difficult, in any case, to see why any liabilities might attend on the suicide's putatively early death, since the death is early only in relation to an arbitrary divine decree. The liabilities seem likely to obtain only if they involve arbitrarily imposed postmortem divine punishments (for violating a decree of which there is every reason to think the suicide entirely ignorant).
The notion that a suicide's death is early because inconsistent with an arbitrary divine command seems to have little to recommend it.
A final possible explanation for special liabilities for suicides after death associated with the idea that the suicide dies before his or her time might be rooted in the idea that, objectively speaking, I need to reach a certain level of flourishing before I am ready for some sort of postmortem maturation, and that suicide preempts my progress toward this level of flourishing. However, because there is no inevitable link between personal maturation (or any other plausible conception of flourishing) and time of death, it is hard to see why this should, again, pose any particular difficulty for the suicide.
Doubts about Some New Age Critiques of Suicide
In brief, the special, non-moral justifications for avoiding suicide offered by some New Age believers, justifications having to do with special postmortem difficulties for suicides, do not seem plausible. I suspect, without evidence, that some of those who defend these justifications do so because of their moral worries about suicide (worries which, as I have said, seem quite reasonable to me), in tandem with the further worry that belief in life after death in some way makes suicide less problematic. Whether it does is a matter for another post. But, if it does, that seems to me to be a consequence simply to be accepted: it is unlikely that all of our moral intuitions could or should remain untouched by our beliefs about the actual consequences of particular actions.