Suicide as an immoral act is typically a viewpoint of the religious — it’s a sin against God, “thou shalt not kill,” and so on. For those free of religion, and of course some who aren’t, ethics are commonly based on what does harm to others, not yourself or deities — under this framework, the conclusion that suicide is immoral in many circumstances is difficult to avoid.
A sensible ethical philosophy considers physical harm and psychological harm. These harms can be actual (known consequences) or potential (possible or unknown consequences). The actual harm of, say, shooting a stranger in the heart is that person’s suffering and death. The potential harm on top of that is wide-ranging: if the stranger had kids it could be their emotional agony, for instance. The shooter simply would not know. Most suicides will entail these sorts of things.
First, most suicides will bring massive psychological harm, lasting many years, to family and friends. Were I to commit suicide, this would be a known consequence, known to me beforehand. Given my personal ethics, aligning with those described above, the act would then necessarily be unethical, would it not? This seems to hold true, in my view, even given my lifelong depression (I am no stranger to visualizations of self-termination and its aftermath, though fortunately with more morbid curiosity than seriousness to date; medication is highly useful and recommended). One can suffer and, by finding relief in nonexistence, cause suffering. As a saying goes, “Suicide doesn’t end the pain, it simply passes it to someone else.” Perhaps the more intense my mental suffering, the less unethical the act (more on this in a moment), but given that the act will cause serious pain to others whether my suffering be mild or extreme, it appears from the outset to be immoral to some degree.
Second, there’s the potential harms, always trickier. There are many unknowns that could result from taking my own life. The potential harms could be more extreme psychological harms, a family member driven to severe depression or madness or alcoholism. (In reality, psychological harms are physical harms — consciousness is a byproduct of brain matter — and vice versa, so stress on one affects the other.) But they could be physical as well. Suicide, we know, is contagious. Taking my own life could inspire others to do the same. Not only could I be responsible for contributing, even indirectly, to the death of another person, I would also have a hand in all the actual and potential harms that result from his or her death! It’s a growing moral burden.
Of course, all ethics are situational. This is accepted by just about everyone — it’s why killing in self-defense seems less wrong than killing in cold blood, or why completely accidental killings seem less unethical than purposeful ones. These things can even seem ethically neutral. So there will always be circumstances that change the moral calculus. One questions if old age alone is enough (one of your parents or grandparents taking their own lives would surely be about as traumatic as anyone else), but intense suffering from age or disease could make the act less unethical, in the same way deeper and deeper levels of depression may do the same. Again, less unethical is used here. Can the act reach an ethically neutral place? The key may simply be the perceptions and emotions of others. Perhaps with worsening disease, decay, or depression, a person’s suicide would be less painful to friends and family. It would be hard to lose someone in that way, but, as we often hear when someone passes away of natural but terrible causes, “She’s not suffering anymore.” Perhaps at some point the scale is tipped, with too much agony for the individual weighing down one side and too much understanding from friends and family lifting up the other. One is certainly able to visualize this — no one wants their loved ones to suffer, and the end of their suffering can be a relief as well as a sorrow, constituting a reduction in actual harm — and this is no doubt reality in various cases. This writing simply posits that not all suicides will fall into that category (many are unexpected), and, while a distinguishing line may be frequently impossible to see or determine, the suicides outside it are morally questionable due to the ensuing harm.
If all this is nonsense, and such sympathetic understanding of intense suffering brings no lesser amount of harm to loved ones, then we’re in trouble, for how else can the act break free from that immoral place, for those operating under the moral framework that causing harm is wrong?
It should also be noted that the rare individuals without any real friends or family seem to have less moral culpability here. And perhaps admitted plans and assisted suicide diminish the immorality of the act, regardless of the extent of your suffering — if you tell your loved ones in advance you are leaving, if they are there by your side in the hospital to say goodbye, isn’t that less traumatizing and painful than a sudden, unexpected event, with your body found cold in your apartment? In these cases, however, the potential harms, while some may be diminished in likelihood alongside the actual, still abound. A news report on your case could still inspire someone else to commit suicide. One simply cannot predict the future, all the effects of your cause.
As a final thought, it’s difficult not to see some contradiction in believing in suicide prevention, encouraging those you know or those you don’t not to end their lives, and believing suicide to be ethically neutral or permissible. If it’s ethically neutral, why bother? If you don’t want someone to commit suicide, it’s because you believe they have value, whether inherent or simply to others (whether one can have inherent value without a deity is for another day). And destroying that value, bringing all that pain to others or eliminating all of the individual’s potential positive experiences and interactions, is considered wrong, undesirable. Immorality and prevention go hand-in-hand. But with folks who are suffering we let go of prevention, even advocating for assisted suicide, because only in those cases do we begin to consider suicide ethically neutral or permissible.
In sum, one finds oneself believing that if causing harm to others is wrong, and suicide causes harm to others, suicide must in some general sense be wrong — but acknowledging that there must be specific cases and circumstances where suicide is less wrong, approaching ethical neutrality, or even breaking into it.