Animals, Humans and Suicide

Animals, Humans and Suicide September 23, 2019

doctor-al: Falling Suicide Man / Needpix

For a long time, suicide has been considered to be one of the worst sins possible. It was viewed as one of the freest acts possible, that is, there was no external influence upon the person to kill themselves, so that a suicidal person was entirely culpable for their actions.  Suicide was similar to an act of murder, the unjust taking away of life, with the life being one’s own. If an attempted act of suicide was successful, there would be no turning back, and so many moral theologians said, there would be no possibility for forgiveness. In other words, the conclusion which was accepted by many is that if someone killed themselves, they could not be saved.

The presuppositions used to support the notion that those who committed suicide would automatically be numbered among the damned have, theologically and philosophically, been overturned, when careful examination of them has been undertaken. This is not to say that the perfectly free, malevolent suicide born out of nihilistic malice is entirely impossible, but if such a suicide were to take place, we could never know because the subjective dimension needed to determine this lies outside our purview. Instead, it is now recognized, most suicides are not done with total freedom: chemical and psychological imbalances often overwhelm the person who kills themselves so that they are not in the right frame of mind to be said to act with total freedom. This, then, also calls into question whether or not it is an issue of malice, of hatred towards life, or something else which causes the person to kill themselves. Likewise, the time between the act which leads to death, and the death itself, often gives more than enough time for someone to come to their senses, to wish they could turn back and truly be sorry for killing themselves (and with such contrition, forgiveness is indeed possible).  Thus, not only do we have the possibility of showing that there is no perfect suicide where the person is free enough to be  fully culpable for their actions, we have the possibility of contrition after the fact, contrition which suffices for grace to come in and heal the person and make sure they are not among the damned.

But, as Bernard Häring reminds us, determining if an action is really an attempted suicide, or something else entirely, is not always as easy as it is often made out to be:

A few years ago, a reader of my column in the Italian Publication Famiglia Cristiana asked the following question: a captured spy, serving a county whose freedom is greatly threatened is in possession of secrets which he knows brain washing could make him betray, and this betrayal would endanger peace on earth. May this man take his own life in this case? May he “commit suicide”?

My response began with the general principle of Catholic moral theology: suicide is immoral. If one is sure that this is suicide in the moral sense, with its characteristic malice, then there is no doubt about its immorality. But the real question is: should it be called suicide at all? How do we define suicide? There are all kinds of cases where people have disposed of their lives.[1]

Disposing one’s own life is not always suicide, though the actions are similar. If suicide merely is to be seen as sacrificing oneself, then many martyrs, even Jesus himself, could be accused of suicide. The absurdity such an accusation should show us that there is more to suicide than the combination of the willingness to die and acting in such a way to allow for, or even make for, such a death to take place. The reasoning for the death, why someone chose to die, and whether or not that reasoning came from a sound mind, or one brainwashed, or one which was insane, should all be a part of the equation used to determine if an action is suicidal or not. And, as Häring observed, each situation, each potential suicide, has its own conditions, and though the actions seem similar, as the martyrs indicate, or as people who stand in the line of fire to defend the life of others indicate, what might appear suicidal could be the ultimate representation of someone’s affirmation of God, grace and life:

No two cases are alike in all respects. What is just a word in the dictionary may be, in one case, a most generous response to the needs of one’s fellow men, understood and meant as a loving response to God’s call, and in another case it may be a defiant rejection of his holy love.[2]

What is objectionable, what can be considered as “suicide” then has many requirements, some of which are probably impossible for us to determine. The act must be free. The person must know what they are doing (so they must know about life and death, for without the knowledge of what death entails, the person cannot be said to have chosen death). They must be seeking to destroy themselves and not having their death some indirect, secondary effect of their actions. They must, in some fashion, be acting in such a way that their death can be said to be an act of blasphemy, and assault on the rights of God over their lives.

This is important for us if we want to look into and consider the possibility which has been raised of late that animals, too, might be able to commit suicide. While the question has been raised for quite some time, more and more evidence indicates that at least some animals willingly kill themselves, knowing that they are killing themselves, and so the question of whether or not they should be deemed as suicides is one which can be examined.

David M. Peña-Guzmán, in his 2017 article, “Can Nonhuman Animals Commit Suicide?”  not only has raised the question, but he demonstrates why he thinks it is possible to say some nonhuman animals voluntarily kill themselves. Various animals demonstrate an awareness of death,[3] and among them, there are anecdotes which suggest that some willingly kill themselves in such a way that their actions look like suicide:

Although stories about  suicidal animals are anecdotal, what matters is that they are perfectly plausible from the standpoint of contemporary science (Preti 2011a,p. 819).Thus, even if we cannot currently prove that any animal has committed suicide as a matter of fact, there is a large and growing body of evidence indicating that this possibility cannot be ruled out as a matter of principle.[4]

In the end, if we cannot answer the question for someone we can much more easily understand, a fellow human who kills themselves, obviously our inability to properly communicate and understand other forms of animal life and their internal psychological awareness will make it nearly impossible for us to determine if their actions qualify as “suicide” in the moral sense, but, because of the way we have come to understand animals and their potentiality, it is indeed something which should not be entirely ruled out. Marc Bekoff thinks that the question is certainly unanswerable but we should have an open mind, because research cannot give us a conclusive answer:

Concerning the questions: “Do animals really know they’re gonna die?” and “Do animals have the same concept of death that we do?” I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. This does not mean they don’t, but I don’t know of any research that conclusively shows they do. When I’ve talked to a few people about these possibilities during the past few years, I find myself resisting answering these sorts of questions with a definitive “yes” or a definitive “no.” Living in that troubling gray zone of uncertainty—maybe they do and maybe they don’t—makes me keep an open mind about the cognitive and emotional capacities nonhumans have that may inform themselves about their own demise and what they know about when others have died and aren’t coming back.[5]

And that, certainly, is what we should consider ourselves. Just as we should leave it open in relation to fellow humans, and pastorally be sensitive to the possibility that what appears to be a perfectly free suicide was not, and so comfort family members of potential suicides by showing respect and kindness to the one who killed themselves, so we must likewise be sensitive to the possibility that animals themselves suffer conditions which might cause them to kill themselves, whether or not such self-destruction could be determined to be “suicide” in the strictest moral definition with all that is required for it to be labeled suicide.

The question which should be raised in relation to human suicides must be the question which is raised when we see animals willingly kill themselves: why? What is the cause behind such activity?  Often, it will be some sort of external cause which leads to such self-destruction, something which makes life so unbearable that the only reasonable solution appears to end it. This is because there is a sense that such action will end the immediate pain and suffering, making it appear to be the only rational option out of such pain and sorrow. The question then is if animals can make such choices; but if we think of it fully, it should not be surprising that they can be because animals are not as different from us as we have often made them out to be. They have a sense of freedom. A sense of choice of what they can and cannot do. They are not automatons preprogrammed to specific ends. They are sentient beings with the ability to act according to their own particular form of being.  And this is what is important for us to realize: animals are not what we have historically made them out to be, either mere machines, objects to be used according human desire, nor merely some sub-rational creatures, but creatures with their own will and insight which gives them a range of potential choices to act upon, choices which are similar to our own. The question, then, as Jessica Pierce explained, is important, if for no other reason that when we reflect upon it, it can help us override many prejudices we have against them. “The idea that animals can and do engage in self-harming and self-destructive behaviors, even to the point of causing their own death, is challenging on many fronts. It upsets our folk belief that humans alone possess subjective awareness and are qualitatively different from animals.” [6] Even if it is a question we cannot answer, by raising it, by recognizing it as a possibility, we not only begin to understand the potential non-human animals possess in themselves, it also makes us more aware of our own actions with them, to make sure our treatment of them does not lead to their own despair causing some to kill themselves. Likewise, when we consider animals, and see that they might be able to kill themselves in a way which does not fit the moral definition of suicide, but yet indicates a serious problem to fix, we can then continue such reflection with humanity. What does suicide really entail? What are the causes which lead people to think the only reasonable act they have left is to kill themselves? What can we do to rectify such a situation? If we can find ways to help non-human animals overcome such a need, perhaps the lessons we learn will help us better understand possible human suicides, and work even better at their prevention.

[1] Bernard Häring, Morality Is For Persons (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 130.

[2] Bernard Häring, Morality Is For Persons, 131.

[3] See David M. Peña-Guzmán, “Can Nonhuman Animals Commit Suicide?” in Animal Sentience  vol. 20. no.1  (2017):  6-7.

[4] David M. Peña-Guzmán, “Can nonhuman animals commit suicide?”: 18.

[5] Marc Bekoff, “Do Animals Really Know They’re Gonna Die?” in Psychology Today (Jan 8, 2018).

[6] Jessica Pierce, “A New Look at Animal Suicide” in Psychology Today (Jan 6, 2018).


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