In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Suicide

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Anthologies and Reference Works
  • Histories of Suicide
  • The Psychology and Psychiatry of Suicide
  • Works Outside the Western–North American Tradition
  • Defining Suicide
  • Moral Permissibility and Impermissibility: Contemporary Perspectives
  • Rationality and Competence
  • Assisted Suicide
  • Duty to Die
  • Suicide Prevention and Intervention
  • Suicide and Life’s Meaning

Philosophy Suicide
Michael Cholbi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0328


With the rise of psychology, psychiatry, and sociology around 1900, suicide has been more commonly seen as a medical or public health problem. Nevertheless, philosophers have shown interest in conceptual, moral, and psychological questions related to self-killing for thousands of years, and there remain a number of questions regarding suicide that are undeniably philosophical in nature. The central questions addressed in the philosophical literature include the definition of suicide, its moral status, the possibility of its rationality, the nature of suicidal motivation, our moral duties toward the suicidal, and the relation of suicide to life’s meaningfulness. Debates about the nature and morality of suicide were reinvigorated in the late 1900s, in no small measure because of shifts in how death occurs in today’s industrialized societies. Individuals now are more likely to be afflicted with chronic and degenerative diseases, and thanks to advanced medical technologies, it is now possible to delay death nearly indefinitely. These facts have helped to stimulate an extensive contemporary philosophical literature regarding individuals’ right to suicide, as well as reconsideration of the question of whether individuals may have a “duty to die” and our duties toward the suicidal.

Introductory Works

Historically, philosophers have not tended to devote works entirely or predominantly to suicide. Suicide has more often been addressed within larger works on moral philosophy, moral theology, or medical ethics. Questions regarding the moral status of suicide have predominated in these works, but discussions of defining suicide and identifying the conditions for its rationality are also common. Cholbi 2016 and Hill 2014 are good starting points (though Hill’s essay takes a decidedly Kantian turn). Fairbairn 1995 and Cholbi 2011 are more comprehensive.

  • Cholbi, Michael. Suicide: The Philosophical Dimensions. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2011.

    Using both historical and contemporary sources, investigates the definition of suicide, arguments for its moral impermissibility, arguments for its moral permissibility, arguments for a “duty to die,” the ethics of suicide intervention and prevention, and assisted suicide.

  • Cholbi, Michael. “Suicide.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2016.

    Covers many of the same topics as Cholbi 2011 in briefer form. Updated every four years.

  • Fairbairn, Gavin. Contemplating Suicide: The Language of Ethics of Self-Harm. London: Routledge, 1995.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203426371

    A nuanced investigation, with particular attention to how suicidal acts are described and the role of intention in suicidal action. Defends the helpful suggestion that suicide is best understood in terms of suicidal acts rather than suicidal deaths. Later chapters on the ethics of suicide intervention are thorough.

  • Hill, Thomas E., Jr. “Killing Ourselves.” In Cambridge Companion to Life and Death. Edited by Steven Luper, 264–281. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Part 1 and 2 offer a quick introduction to controversies regarding how to define suicide and to the primary moral arguments offered for and against its moral permissibility.

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