Suicide and the moral law in Fichte’s System of Ethics

When I am animated by the moral disposition, I consider myself simply to be a tool of the moral law; and therefore I will to continue to exist, and the only reason I will to continue to exist is so that I can continue to act. This is why self-preservation is a duty.” (Fichte, The System of Ethics, p.250)
This section occurs within the division of the text entitled “Systematic application of the principle of morality”

Section 20: Universal Conditioned Duties: ‘universal’ insofar as these duties apply to all rational beings; ‘conditioned’ insofar as they apply to all (sensibly) finite rational beings.

“I am a tool of the moral law in the sensible world.”(p.248) All actions, if they are to be morally justified, must be consistent with the truth of this statement. Note that this statement does not contradict my being, at the same time, an end in myself insofar as I am a rational being. In fact, the merely instrumental value to which I grant my sensible existence is a condition of my respecting my unconditional value as an intellect.

The proximate end of all moral action in the sensible realm must be my own continuous capacity to act morally, since my duty is never complete; there is always work to be done to bring the sensible world in closer harmony with the ideal of reason. The most basic condition of my continued capacity to act morally is my continued existence, that is to say, my life.

Hence, we have a duty toward self-preservation: both positively and negatively construed.

For Fichte, the duty of self-preservation is determined negatively, in terms of prohibition, and positively, in terms of commandment.

“[T]he prohibition of the moral law is this: do not expose yourself needlessly to dangers to your health, your body, and your life.” (Fichte, p. 251)

Prohibition: internal endangerment and external endangerment.
Internal endangerment occurs whenever our natural course of development is hindered both with respect to the body and the mind. E.g. fasting, intemperance, sexual depravity (i.e. non-reproductive sex), one-sided cultivation (i.e. specialization).
External endangerment occurs whenever our self-preservation is jeopardized by some external force or threat. In addition to having a duty to avoid putting ourselves in harm’s way, we also have a duty to refrain from harming ourselves, unless duty requires us to perform some action whose only means of accomplishment involves risking our own self-harm.

Duty can demand that we expose ourselves to danger; but it does not follow that duty can demand that we take our own lives.

If we want to ask if an action is sanctioned by the moral law, we must ask if that action promotes or hinders our capacity to act as tools of the moral law. Insofar as a self-harming action is morally sanctioned, it must meet two criteria: i) the self-harm involved must be “indirect”, that is to say, it must be the means and never the end of the action (e.g. ambulance driver vs. joy-rider) ii) the self-harm sustained must not be so great as to prevent the agent from continuing to act as a tool of the moral law. (E.g. Brain surgery to cure epilepsy vs. lobotomy)

With these criteria in mind, we are now in a position to ask: can the moral law ever command us to take our own lives?

Fichte considers what he takes to be an exhaustive list of the possible motives one might have for committing suicide and judges, in every case, that the above criteria are not met and thus, that suicide, no matter the reason, is never permitted.

Species of Suicide:
“Despair” – Dereliction of Duty, ‘cop-out’, shirking responsibility, avoiding the demands of virtue: fear of guilt  this person says “I can’t do this anymore!” E.g. A sinner who would rather die than atone for his sins.

“Disgrace” – “Saving face”; protestation of vicious treatment; preservation of pride: fear of shame this person says “I won’t put up with this anymore!” E.g. A soldier who takes his own life rather than being taking prisoner by the enemy.

“Fanatical Enthusiasm” – “Reset-button”, reincarnation, duty in the after-life trumps my earthly duties, unwillingness to work today for the future state: fear of meaninglessness  this person says “I am destined for something much nobler than this.” E.g. Suicide bomber, religious mystic

All of these motives, Fichte says, stem from the same principle, which is the desire to avoid suffering. Put another way, all suicide is action for the sake of one’s happiness and enjoyment (which just is, in certain unfortunate circumstances merely the cessation of pain).

If I commit suicide, I am no longer the tool of the moral law in the sensible world. Therefore, if I commit suicide, I fail to do my duty.

The suicide gives the intellect merely instrumental status.

The suicide can exemplify courage (when compared to an agent who forfeits his duty in order to extend his own life) or he can exemplify cowardice (when compared to an agent who, faced with the same degree of suffering, endures the unendurable in order to do his duty).

Self-preservation as an end in itself is only a principle of nature. Self-preservation as a means to an end (namely, that of duty) is a principle of morality.

Suicide for a rational agent is self-contradictory.


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