by Brian Tomasik
First written: 19 Jun. 2017; last update: 19 Jun. 2017


Society's laws and prevailing views on suicide are understandable but are ultimately too paternalistic and focused on life preservation. We should maintain social structures and soft incentives to discourage suicide, but committing and assisting with suicide should be legal, whether you're terminally ill or not.

The Michelle Carter case

Bever and Phillips (2017) reported: "Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter on June 16 for sending her boyfriend text messages encouraging him to commit suicide." As a result, Carter "could face up to 20 years in prison".

This ruling is outrageous for a number of reasons. For example:

  1. Slippery slopes: French (2017): "It’s still an act of self-murder, and while Carter undoubtedly played a persuasive role, I can’t imagine where we will draw the line. Will we prosecute mean people for manslaughter when troubled teens kill themselves?"
  2. Free speech: French (2017): "Carter’s actions were reprehensible, but she was sharing with him thoughts and opinions that he may have found persuasive but had the capacity to reject. A legal argument that renders otherwise-protected speech unlawful because it actually persuades would blast a hole in First Amendment jurisprudence."
  3. A chilling effect on end-of-life discussions: "If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved ones across the Commonwealth." (Matthew Segal, qtd. in Bever and Phillips (2017)).

However, I think there's a further moral problem with this ruling—namely, that suicide itself should not be illegal and should be an option available to people to choose for themselves.

Most commenters on the Carter case stress that her actions were obviously reprehensible. For example, French (2017) says: "There is no question that Carter behaved terribly. In fact, her conduct was unconscionable". Filipovic (2017): "Carter seems like a young woman without a moral compass, a depraved and cruel person who acted appallingly". But from what little I know about the case, I get a different impression—that Carter was sincerely trying to help her boyfriend as best she could. Carter said: "You’re finally going to be happy in heaven. No more pain." It is unfortunate that Carter pushed her boyfriend when he had hesitations: "You keep pushing it off and you say you’ll do it but u never do. Its always gonna be that way if u don’t take action." But in most other contexts, we would welcome such encouragement of someone to follow through with what they plan to do for their own long-run benefit but are too scared to do in the moment.

Obviously, Carter should have done better. She and her boyfriend should have sought professional mental-health guidance to get more perspective on their situations (although, as Filipovic (2017) notes: "Carter’s defense team emphasized that she initially encouraged Roy to get help"). Suicide causes significant harm to family, friends, and society, and we should generally nudge people away from it.

But ultimately, suicide should be a right that anyone can exercise at any time. And encouraging someone to exercise one of their rights—especially when you sincerely believe that doing so will be best for them and will not violate the rights of others—should not be criminal.

EDITED TO ADD: Apparently Carter held a fundraiser for her boyfriend following his death. McGovern (2017):

When Thomas Gammell, Roy’s best friend, asked her about this, Carter got frustrated and wanted to be sure he wasn’t moving in on her event, Flynn said.

“You’re not taking credit for my idea, right?” she said in a message to him that was shown in court.

This suggests the possibility of a more self-serving motive or maybe Munchausen syndrome by proxy. If so, then some punishment (though certainly not 20 years in prison) could be warranted. It seems difficult to prove these motives, though, and I wonder whether there was enough evidence to demonstrate them beyond a reasonable doubt.

Why would suicide not be a right?

From the perspective of John Stuart Mill's harm principle, it seems almost obvious that suicide should be a human right. The main exception would be if suicide caused immense amounts of distress to survivors. While this might sometimes be the case, utilitarian calculations of this tradeoff are slippery, and I think it's a safer social Schelling point for society to err on the side of personal autonomy. (Thanks to a friend for this observation.)

The main other argument I can see for prohibitions on suicide and its assistance is that people generally prefer paternalism because it prevents them from doing things they'll regret in a moment of weakness. Maybe so, but there ought to be ways to accomplish this without infringing on the right to die of those who never signed up for this paternalism. For example, there could be an "opt-in" system for those who want to be prevented from committing suicide if they try to kill themselves in the future.

Suicide prohibition is tyrannical

Most people are generally positive about their lives at any given moment, or if they feel negatively, they realize that these feelings are temporary or otherwise tolerable. These sentiments give rise to an idea in society that "Life is good" and that it's in a person's best interest to be kept alive. The majority's sentiments on this point lead to prohibitions on suicide and suicide assistance.

But for a minority of people, life is horrible, sometimes temporarily and sometimes indefinitely. I would guess that most of us cannot fathom how much some people are suffering—whether because most of us have never endured such extreme suffering or because most of us are in good moods most of the time and have an empathy gap with respect to people who are enduring horrors. Who are the happy people to say that someone's suffering "isn't bad enough" to warrant suicide? Why do happy people get to impose their standards for when life is worth living on the suffering minority?

No one consents to being born, and the least we can do is allow people to choose to be "unborn" if life becomes unbearable. Without the possibility of suicide, life for a small number of people would be unending torment.

Critics say: "But you'll eventually recover and be glad to be alive." Often this is true, and combined with the toll that suicide takes on society, this provides a reason to nudge people away from suicide. But forcing this "suffer now, happy later" tradeoff upon people who don't agree is wrong in a similar way as it's wrong to torture one person for the happiness of others.

Clearly these are complicated moral questions, which people should reflect on, by themselves and with friends. But the ruling in the Michelle Carter case transforms what should be a matter of philosophical reflection and discussion regarding the value and future of one's own life into a crime.