The Ethics of Suicide | Eurozine

by The Insights

In Samtiden, Per Arne Kallbakk describes changing attitudes towards suicide in the Norwegian media. The editor-in-chief of the public service television channel NRK, Kallbakk, recalls that until the early 1990s suicide was a taboo: article 4.9 of the Vær varsom-plakaten – the ethical guidelines for the Norwegian press – explicitly stated that “suicide and attempted suicide should not, as a rule, be mentioned”.

However, mentalities have changed. The catalyst was the suicide of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s son, Norway’s Prime Minister, in 1992. Her grief forced Harlem Brundtland to resign as leader of the Labor Party, although she remained Prime Minister until the end of his mandate. Although it had a direct effect on the government and was clearly a matter of public interest, the suicide was not even condemned in the Norwegian press.

It wasn’t until Harlem Brundtland spoke about it in a TV interview that the need for transparency became apparent. Section 4.9 has been reworded, with input from Kallbakk. The new guideline took into account the public interest, so that suicide was no longer a subject to be simply avoided. This marked a significant shift in the public debate about suicide in Norway, writes Kallbakk.

suicide and men

In 2009, author Oddvar Vignes was deeply depressed and attempted suicide. In an interview with Bård Andersson, he reflects on the importance of letting the voices of darkness be heard. Men make up the majority of suicides and the numbers have risen dramatically among young men.

But the prognosis isn’t entirely bleak: “In the past, it was harder for a man to be open about things like depression,” Vignes writes. Recent research also shows that emotional barriers are being overcome. May Vatne, who has conducted groundbreaking research on suicide and attempted suicide, said she was surprised by the openness shown by respondents. The men were particularly transparent when describing their desire to speak out, leading her to conclude that attitudes towards men’s mental health have changed. Change has changed the life of Oddvar Vignes and will continue to save others.

Suicide and care

Anniken Fleisje describes today’s dominant approach as an “ethics of care” that derives from the feminist philosophical tradition. She pleads for the importance of the collective in the event of suicide: the relatives of the victim are considered both as concerned and as responsible for the assistance.

As obvious as it may seem, “the ethics of care” differs substantially from ancient attitudes: Plato considered suicide as an act of rebellion against the gods, while Aristotle thought that only the sovereign had the right to decide the dead. The Stoic tradition took a more “liberal” approach: if a person did not have a good life, suicide was justified.

With Christian influence, suicide came to be seen as a violation of the laws of society, as it reflected moral decay. When Kant entered the discussion of suicide, he laid the groundwork for the “autonomous defense of suicide” that underlies the current debate on voluntary euthanasia. For those who subscribe to the latter, the act is rational and therefore justified as long as the decision is not clouded by mental illness.

But although this intellectual legacy continues to resonate in our ethical perceptions of suicide, Fleisje suggests that one might “think of loved ones rather than old philosophers.”

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