A Morally Defensible End to Life; Mark Piper

A fictional narrative exploring several key philosophical issues surrounding the morality of suicide

-I-

My name is Joshua. It is three o’clock on a pale and quiet Sunday afternoon in October. I have just attended the funeral of a childhood friend who had committed suicide because of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. I had been out of touch with him for years, but this tragedy compelled me to join in sympathy with the mourners. I am heading home now, walking alone through the cemetery and into the neighboring park, and experiencing the strangest sense of displacement; I feel as though I’ve lost my equilibrium; I am even having difficulty feeling the ground beneath my footsteps. What could have led my old friend to such an act? How could it have been prevented? And how will his family deal with this tragedy? In the midst of these confused thoughts, I remember the words of the preacher at the funeral, who, despite taking all care to give comfort and hope to the bereaved, gave several brief but pointed words on the immorality of my friend’s suicide. I can recall them clearly. He said,

My brothers and sisters, even in the midst of this time of trial it is of the greatest importance to keep in mind that it is not for man to decide the time of life and death. These are the special province of the Lord above, the creator and sustainer of all things on Earth, and the author of all goodness. It belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence on these matters, for as the Lord says in Deuteronomy Chapter 32, verse 39, “I will kill and I will make to live.” We who remain in His service, while keeping hope that those who go astray will again live in Your sight in Heaven, must remember that self-destruction, even in times of greatest trial, is always a sin against the will of God and the community of the faithful. It is our privilege to have been given life by God, and it is our obligation to God to maintain that life, until He should call us back to Him.

Yes, I remember it very clearly. And I remember almost all of those who attended the funeral nodding at the preacher’s words. But I was not so inclined; for though my friend’s rash suicide is certainly a great tragedy, surely the issues surrounding the morality of suicide cannot be dealt with in such a summary fashion, by reference to an obscure passage in a holy book, or even by the common belief of society. I am but in college; and my formal study of philosophy is still in its beginning stages, but I have already learned enough to know that one cannot expect to achieve truth through an uncritical acceptance of societal beliefs, no matter how common or seemingly intuitive. Issues of this depth and importance require patient and critical reflection into the reasoning given for judgments about them, and as a student of philosophy, I see that this is my task now regarding the issue of suicide. And so I pause for a moment in my walk home; and I state the question to myself unambiguously: what is the moral status of intentionally taking one’s life?

Pausing to sit on a bench beside a pond in the park, I see an old woman painting on the other shore, and I am sharply reminded of the other reason this issue is of such importance to me. Only last week, my grandfather, himself an artist, and a very old man, asked my family for permission to end his life. Although at first shocked and dismayed — for I love my grandfather dearly — I have come, through the past several days, to accept that I must give careful thought to his situation; it is the least I can do for one whom I admire so much. And his situation is extraordinary. It is true that he is very old; but he is not dying of a terminal disease or undergoing intense physical suffering. He is not facing severe mental degeneration or dementia; he is not even in a state of profound sorrow. He is in full command of his faculties, and has given the thought of his own death careful and deliberate attention — he now feels that it is his time to pass on and he asks for his family’s permission — and my permission — to do so. But before I can come to consider this incredible request, the question, so strongly punctuated by today’s funeral, cries out to be answered: can this action of intentionally ending one’s life be moral, requiring understanding and acceptance, or is this unequivocally an action of selfishness and immorality, requiring blame? Although I have not yet come to the answers I seek, I feel strongly one thing. The account of my friend’s rash, despairing suicide, compared with my grandfather’s considered and even peaceful desire to be the author of his own death, means that this issue will most likely not be decided by black and white, absolute pronouncements, but must take into account the specific nature of the case in order to judge it correctly.

Having decided at last to undertake this inquiry, I must try to bring some order to it. The little study that I have done in medieval philosophy now comes to mind, and I remember that Thomas Aquinas gave three principal reasons why suicide should be judged as immoral:

(i) First, because it violates our moral obligation to God;
(ii) Second, because it violates our moral obligation to other people;
(iii) And lastly, because it violates our moral obligation to ourselves.

Our moral obligations to God, to others, and to ourselves. A condemnation of suicide would involve showing a violation of one or more of these obligations; and a defense of suicide would either have to show these obligations to be false, or to show cases in which one can maintain these obligations, and still intentionally end one’s life.

First then: the idea of suicide as a violation of our moral obligation to God. Once again the preacher’s words return to mind: “It belongs to God alone to pronounce sentence on life and death… self-destruction, even in times of greatest trial, is always a sin against the will of God.” What to make of this claim? Mulling over this, I reflect that it is very understandable that religious believers would feel themselves fully justified in giving a universal condemnation of suicide for that very reason; but conversely, it is just as understandable that I would find absolutely no force in such reasoning, for I do not believe that God exists. I was raised in the humanist tradition, but not dogmatically; I have come to this position on my own. Certainly my parents explained their humanistic and atheistic beliefs to me, but they always made it very clear that I was to judge the matter for myself when I felt ready. I have considered the matter thoroughly, and I have come to share their convictions. I believe that in all likelihood these ideas of gods and goddesses, and heaven, and hell, and supernatural realms of divine beings, and so forth — these ideas were created by us, by humans, when we were still in our intellectual infancy, to explain a world that we didn’t understand. And bolstered by time, tradition, and institutionalization, supernatural religion has become a powerful societal force, there is no doubt of that; but no amount of social power can give religious beliefs objective validity if they were at first the product of human ignorance trying to explain the unknown by positing the agency of supernatural persons. These matters are very deep, but I have considered them at great length, and so I do not feel that it is necessary at this moment to laboriously go over them once more.

I would hope not to be misunderstood; I have no animosity towards most religious believers; and I greatly appreciate the influence they have had — and still have — towards the establishment of a moral society; but if my perspective is correct, and the idea of a god is a fiction invented by humans — then it is all the more important to put my trust in what I do believe in, what I must believe in: the human species of which I am a member. Arguments for the immorality of suicide based on the moral will of God have no validity if God does not exist. But Aquinas’ second claim then arises all the more forcefully: what are my obligations to my fellow humans, and how do they reflect upon the morality of suicide? This question, I realize, is of the utmost importance for correctly judging the issue, and it promises also to be one of the most difficult.

Standing up from the park bench where I have been ruminating over these matters, I decide that it is time to broach the subject with an authority. Normally I would seek out my parents, but it is unlikely that they can discuss this issue now with the kind of objectivity that responsible philosophy requires. Instead I will seek out my mentor at the university, the professor of philosophy and Englishman, Dr. Nigel Brace.

-II-

I reach the university by four o’clock — I can hear the town’s church bells ringing the hour. I find Dr. Brace working in his study, preparing a lecture for his political philosophy course. He is just the person with whom to discuss this issue, being acutely interested in social affairs, and being himself a well-educated humanist. Sitting beside him, I apologize for the interruption, and, after talking briefly about my friend’s funeral — and receiving his sincere condolences — I proceed to ask for his help in my inquiry into the morality of suicide — without, however, mentioning my grandfather’s situation. Specifically, I tell him, I want to understand whether or not the presence of obligations to others — to family and to community — always makes suicide an immoral act, or whether there are extenuating circumstances that might provide suicide with a moral justification, even in the face of social obligations? Dr. Brace is at once keenly interested in this inquiry, and he launches into dialogue with me, as I had hoped.

“It seems to me,” he begins, “that we will not be able to answer this question without some notion of who or what it is that holds moral authority in society. For once we have a clear idea of the source of societal moral authority, we can hopefully discover some kind of standard by which to judge the issue.”

I agree with this immediately, for it seems to me very sensible. If we are going to discover the morality of suicide in relation to society, we will need to reference some kind of social moral authority to judge the issue. But I hasten to share my doubts with Dr. Brace as to the possibility of finding this social moral authority. Surely, I say, it would not have been difficult to do so in many of the past centuries, dominated as they were with the teachings of the Church. In past times, it seems as though it would have been a much simpler matter of discovering the Church’s stance on the issue, and allowing that to stand as the established social moral authority. And in fact this approach remains pervasive today. But if God does not exist, then the question of social moral authority immediately becomes much less clear. To my thinking, I continue, it seems that our greatest hope for societal progress now lies within a humanistic philosophy: one which accepts the fact that our species must rely solely upon itself for the progress it makes; and moreover, it seems that progress in humanistic social philosophy can only be made on the principle of the equal worth of each individual. But if this is accurate — if in fact we are to understand human society from a humanistic point of view, as a collection of individuals of equal worth — the problem becomes acute. What is the source of a common social moral authority? Without overarching commands from the divine, we are left to ourselves to create the society we want. And yet if we are to accept the principle of the equal worth of all individuals, then how can we find a common moral authority? For will we not descend into a relativism of the worst kind, with each individual deciding for themselves what they will accept as moral or immoral? And if this is the case, I say, it seems that we can never arrive at a source for a social moral authority, and consequently we will not be able to say anything concerning the moral status of suicide — and a hundred other issues — in relation to society, which is what we are seeking.

Dr. Brace ponders this for a moment, and then speaks. “You have touched, Joshua, upon a problem of great significance, and one that must be answered confidently if humanistic ethical culture is to flourish. But even in the midst of the relativism into which a humanistic approach to society seems to lead, I believe that we can discover the source of a moral authority which will not only provide us with a standard by which to judge social issues — including suicide — but also one which will allow the freedom of personal expression that we would expect from a society of autonomous, equal individuals.”

At last it seems that we have come to the heart of the matter, and I exhort him to continue. He takes a deep breath, and begins.

“In a humanistic ethical society, authority must be reached by free, rational agreement between autonomous individuals. Authority is not assumed to lie with any person or social group in particular; rather, authority is created, and created by the common agreement of the society’s responsible, autonomous members working within a framework of free, rational agreement. Free, rational agreement is the key, Joshua. For if this society is to be truly ethical, it must not be one in which force is ever used to impose one’s ideas of the good on others. There must be discussion, and there must be debate, and it must be free and rational, and supported at all times by the principle of the worth of each individual. Now it seems to me — and this is key — that there are certain minimum requirements that must be observed in order for such a society to exist. And these requirements, stated broadly, are, I believe, twofold. First, the requirement that individuals within the society act in accordance with the principle of self-respect; and second, the requirement that individuals within society act in accordance with the principle of mutual respect. Without these basic principles to serve as a foundation, an ethical culture of individuals creating authority by common agreement on issues cannot exist. But why are these two principles so fundamental? The possession of self-respect is required for individuals to realize that they are autonomous, free, and responsible for their own self-guidance. The practice of mutual respect is required by individuals in order for there to exist an atmosphere of free and humane dialogue on social matters. They are both necessary, for if there were only self-respect without mutual respect, there would be no basis for social responsibility; and if there were only mutual respect without self-respect, there would be no basis for personal responsibility, which is the backbone of an ethical culture founded on the inherent worth of each of its individuals. And truly, I might add, you cannot have g enuine respect for others without genuine respect for yourself. It is only when one possesses a genuine respect for oneself that one knows how to treat others with respect. Does this make sense to you, Joshua?”

I sit thinking about it for a short time, and although it certainly isn’t possible to give the issue the thorough consideration it demands, what he says seems to make sense. Basically, there are certain minimum requirements that have to be in place in order for an ethical culture of autonomous individuals to exist under common agreement. Its members must respect themselves as social legislators, and must respect the responsible legislations of others. But these principles seem so general, I ask Dr. Brace: how can they lead to the standard of social moral authority we’re seeking?

“But don’t you see, Joshua? I believe we’ve found the source of social moral authority in a humanistic society. All of the members of a humanistic ethical culture, in order for it to exist, must, without exception, adhere to those two basic precepts. Without them, it is impossible. And if we adhere to these two precepts, we now have a standard by which to judge the actions and decisions of people in our society. Now Joshua, you have taken my ethics course, so you should know the answer to my next question: when we judge other people for the morality of their actions, what do we concentrate on? What is it that we judge?”

Yes, I remember very well, I tell him. Usually, when we judge others for the morality of their actions, we are looking at their intentions and the effects of their actions — it is these that we describe as moral or immoral.

“Yes, that’s right.” he says. “Moral judgments on people concentrate on their intentions, and on the effects of their actions. If these are good, the people are considered good, and vice-versa.”

But I quickly note to Dr. Brace that we need the right moral standard to judge these things correctly.

“Yes, that’s right, and that’s what we’re looking for now,” he says. “And I would say that we’ve found, at least in outline, the correct social moral standard by which to judge things. Remember, a humanistic ethical culture cannot exist without its members adhering to the two basic principles of self-respect and mutual respect. And so we have found our social moral standards: in a humanistic society, those intentions and actions are moral which are in keeping with the principles of self-respect and mutual respect, and those intentions and actions are immoral which violate the principles of self-respect and mutual respect. I imagine it may sound a bit generalized, Joshua, but consider this: most of the actions which are taken as immoral by most people are condemned as immoral on this standard. It condemns theft, murder, adultery, cheating, torture, blackmail, intimidation, bribery, and so on and so forth, because these actions violate the mutual respect necessary to maintain a free society of autonomous individuals — and in so violating they are rightfully called immoral. And further, it condemns drug addiction, sloth, greed, hatefulness, uncontrolled indulgence, excessive vanity, and so on and so forth, because these violate the self-respect necessary to responsibly take part in a free society of autonomous individuals. The beauty of this approach is that, while giving us a social moral authority based on the minimum requirements for the very existence of an ethical culture, it allows for the widest range of personal expression within it, just as long as these basic precepts are observed. Doesn’t it seem to you, Joshua, that we have found, at least tentatively, a basis for a common social moral authority in a humanistic ethical society, and a standard by which to judge the social moral status of issues such as suicide?”

I have to take a breath myself and think about that for a moment. But I have to admit that at least on the surface, it sounds very sensible, and might serve as a strong basis from which to make social ethical judgments. However, I’m not so taken with his account that I think it completely unproblematic. My exposure to philosophy is limited, yes, but I’ve studied enough to know that broad ethical systems like the one he just gave to me often get into difficulties when one starts sifting through the details, and I tell him so.

“Oh yes, I certainly wouldn’t want to say that it is a perfect ethical system,” Dr. Brace quickly responds. “I doubt if such a thing exists in ethics. For as Aristotle said in the beginning of his masterful work, Nichomachean Ethics,

We must be content, in speaking of [ethical] subjects to indicate the truth roughly and in outline…[and] In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated person to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.

“You see, Aristotle was very wise to say this,” he continues, “for when we are seeking for general ethical standards — and that is precisely what we have been doing here — it is necessary to concentrate on actions and principles in general, and we necessarily look over many of the particulars of situations that plague us in everyday life. But we should consider ourselves fortunate if we can arrive at general principles which allow us to judge in a moral way with most particular situations. And I think that this is the benefit of the ethical standards we’ve discussed today.”

I continue to ponder what he has said, and I am just about to ask Dr. Brace some further questions, but it appears that we have run out of time. He must go to teach. And so he thanks me for seeking his counsel, apologizing that we did not get a chance to investigate how those principles apply to the issue of suicide, and he says that he hopes that his few words have given me some guidance and help. I assure him that he has helped me, and I promise to see him again.

Walking back home, I try to complete the work that we had begun I think about the social moral standards he had mentioned, and try to determine of their application to the question of the morality of ending one’s life. This, after all, is my main concern right now. What were the principles he used? “In a humanistic society, those intentions and actions are immoral which violate the principles of self-respect and mutual respect. Those intentions and actions are moral which are in keeping with the principles of self-respect and mutual respect.” I try to think of the most common kinds of suicide that occur in society. So many of them — probably most of them — are suicides of despair, like my childhood friend’s. Some great grief or melancholy descends upon them, and they eventually come to think that they cannot bear them, and so they end their lives in terrible anguish. Most of these suicides are violent and desperate, and seem to reflect such self-contempt in those who commit them, and for those who are affected by them. Surely these kinds of suicides do reflect a violation of self-respect, for no person possessing genuine self-respect would make self-destructive decisions while in the throes of emotional disorder. And surely these kinds of suicide are greatly in violation of mutual respect as well, for is it not the case that most suicides of despair are committed with no thought of its effects on those around them? This is especially the case when a suicide leads to the utter emotional bereavement of living friends and family members, or to the financial ruin of the suicide’s dependents. It seems quite clear that these kinds of suicide — which form the majority — violate the basic principles that underlie the possibility of ethical culture, and so can be condemned as immoral. People who would seek to commit these kinds of suicide should not be given respect for their autonomous decisions, but rather care, and treatment, and support, to allow them to return to a state in which they can make their de cisions responsibly. This much seems to resonate with the prevailing societal view of the issue.

But the question then becomes, are there cases of suicide which are moral by the social standards of humanistic ethical culture? By the rule given by Dr. Brace, these would include suicides committed for the sake of maintaining self-respect, in accordance with the demands of mutual respect. Are there any suicides like this? My first thought is of those suicides that are committed out of a desire to die with dignity. Admittedly these seem to be in the great minority of suicides, but perhaps for that very reason they deserve closer attention. It is easy to feel sympathy, I reflect, for those people who, facing the prospect of profound physical and mental degeneration, the loss of their powers, the loss of their ability to live meaningfully, should wish to end their lives with dignity before they are reduced to a state of degradation and monstrous pain. Indeed I have heard some say that it is a crime that our society would seek to have terminally ill humans hang on to the bitter end when, were it one of our pets, we would put the animal to sleep out of a desire to be humane. But the question remains: are such suicides moral in relation to the standards under consideration? It seems, firstly, that they are examples of acts done with the intention of maintaining self-respect; for it is precisely the desire to die in a dignified manner that propels these suicides. It seems that such people do not want to be reduced to the indignity and suffering of advanced physical and mental decay. Such people would seek to end their lives painlessly and mercifully, before they would be so reduced, out of respect for the human spirit. I remind myself that these kinds of suicide must be few in number, and that most people would probably not consider it an option — very well then, they are few in number, but no less deserving of respect if their autonomous decisions are made in accordance with the standards of social morality. But a question remains unanswered: even if it is granted that there are suicides genuinely committed for the sake of self-respect, do they violate mutual respect? Is it possible to seek suicide in a way keeping with mutual respect? It seems, I must admit, that one can, at least in theory. If the person seeking suicide makes the decision in an unselfish and responsible way, making sure that the act would not lead to irrevocable financial or emotional ruin in others, and with the knowledge and understanding — if not the acceptance — of those who would be most affected, it seems that the act can be in accordance with the principle of mutual respect. And in that case, the act can be considered moral in relation to society.

And my own grandfather, I realize with a feeling of shock, has done precisely that: in asking for his family’s permission to end his life — in making us a living part of his decision — he is honoring the mutual love and respect that binds us; he is fulfilling what he sees as his obligation to us. I am suddenly overwhelmed by this. I had been distancing myself from thoughts of my grandfather all week, and even today, forcing myself to remain objective. But it strikes me now with such clarity: the beauty of his action: the fact that he would honor us with this profound confidence.

It seems much clearer to me now that there can be cases of ending one’s life which are socially moral, in keeping with dignity and a sense of obligation to others, at least from the standpoint of humanistic ethical culture. And if this is correct, then how great of a failing is it for a society which claims to be based on the equal worth of its autonomous, responsible citizens, to deny this freedom?

But I have no energy for further objective inquiry. I am intellectually drained, and quickly becoming emotionally spent as well. Yet doubts about my grandfather’s desire to intentionally end his life keep nagging at me, and they won’t go away. Granted that his suicide is no violation of his obligation to God — if God does not exist — and granted that his suicide is no violation of his obligation to society — for our society should respect as moral those decisions made in accordance with self and mutual respect — is he not violating his obligation to himself? This was the third of Aquinas’ claims. My grandfather is not yet degenerating in any kind of advanced way, and he could doubtless live many more productive months, if not even perhaps years. Does he not have a moral obligation to continue to live the unspoiled life remaining to him, the life that so many people would pray to be given?

I have delayed long enough; I must speak with him. All the principles in the world cannot replace direct human contact. I must speak with him.

-III-

The sun is just beginning to set as I approach my grandfather’s house, where he lives alone. I find him sleeping in his recliner; and I hold for a moment, and do not wake him, so that I can look at his face, and the life that still flows through him. It saddens me so deeply to imagine that he might soon be gone, and I wish with powerful suddenness that he would end this talk of death, and stop dragging my parents and me through such upheaval. But I stop myself — I must remember at least to attempt to appreciate his situation, and the possibility that he might have a legitimate claim to ending his life. I am confused and I give a loud sigh — and my grandfather wakes up and smiles at me, and he says my name, and extends his arms that I might hug him. I embrace his frail form, and suddenly break down. He cries with me, and we comfort each other.

At last the emotion passes, and I speak with him. I tell him about my friend’s funeral, and my decision to think, as carefully as I could, about the morality of suicide. I tell him about my discussion with Dr. Brace, and about all of my reflections. I thank him for including me in his decision. And I ask him if we might talk about it. He is so infinitely gentle with me; he smiles and says that it is just the time for us to talk; and he suggests that we go to his observation deck up on the roof, that we might watch the sun set while we speak. And so we make our way upstairs, and I must help him, for his legs have grown thin and weak, and the steep stairs are beyond his power. We arrive at the observation deck, where in days past my grandfather painted so many of his beautiful works. To the west, the sky is a brilliant expanse of lightest blue fading into orange and crimson streaks at the horizon. I help him into his seat and take my own. At first we cannot talk for a long stretch, he is having such trouble recovering his breath after the climb. At last he has composed himself, and I begin to speak.

“Grandfather, I love you and I do not want to be separated from you. The thought of your death is so difficult to accept. I want you to know that I respect your decision, because I know that you would never make such a choice lightly. I’ve always admired your wisdom. And so I feel that I have to hear you out; that I have to understand why you want this. It’s just that — I could understand so much more easily if you were dying or in great pain. I could accept that so much more easily. But — but you — you have good life left within you; you still have control of your mind and body, and you could still paint so many beautiful things. Grandfather, don’t you feel an obligation to yourself to continue living while you still have good life to live?”

He bows his head forward in reflection, and then answers me in a soft voice. “Joshua, I love you. And I know that I haven’t always been wise, but you have always honored me with your love and respect; and this has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I know that it must be so painful to discuss this with me, and yet, you are here, and we are discussing it; and for your own courage and wisdom I am so proud of you…” He trails off for a moment, seeming to collect his thoughts. In a moment he finds them, and taking a deep breath, looks directly at me as he continues: “Joshua, I have lived a long life. And I have lived a good life. I have had a wonderful family, and wonderful friends, and the good fortune to come into a bit of wisdom. I have tried to understand this world, and I have tried to contribute to our understanding of it in what small ways that I could. I have created artwork that has given simple pleasure to some few people, and I have taken great happiness in all of this. And what you say is true: I am not yet in the desperate throes of some terminal illness. And I still feel happiness, as I did when I saw you. But Joshua, my grandson, I am so weary, and I have declined. Where I used to blaze with life, it now but seeps from me. I fall asleep while watching the world that used to make me gasp in wonder. I am lonely, and often I’m tired, and I find myself listless and dull. And I am afraid of pain, Joshua. I fear that I will suffer an unexpected and painful death, alone and terrified. My heart is so heavy within me, grandson. And I feel that I am ready to die.”

I cannot hear my grandfather speak in this way without being again moved to emotion, and I put my face in my hands, and feel my tears flow, warm on my cheeks.

“My grandson, my beautiful Joshua, you mourn for me already, but what I want is that my death not be a cause for despair and misery! I want — I want to be able to embrace you, and all of our family, knowing that you will be comforted that my death was of my own peaceful choosing, and that it was painless. As the end of my life approaches — and it approaches, whether wished or not — I think that there is no greater gift that one could possibly possess than the freedom to end one’s life peacefully, in the most meaningful way possible. I want to accept death, Joshua, and find meaning in it; I do not want to claw away from it in some wretched fear of its inevitability. This is, to my mind, one of the greatest fruits of humanistic philosophy; this is one of greatest rewards of genuine and responsible self-determination. And I believe that Friedrich Nietzsche realized this when he wrote, speaking as the prophet Zarathustra,

Die at the right time! In your dying, your spirit and virtue should still glow like a sunset around the earth: else your dying has turned out badly.

“No, my grandson, I do not feel that I violate my obligation to myself. What I feel is that I would fulfill my obligation to myself by dying at the right time: with acceptance, and dignity, and perhaps even poetry. I don’t believe this is the path of every person. Some lack the freedom. Some lack the courage. But I believe that it is my path. Others will find it moral or immoral as their hearts tend, but I believe that it is my path — but I will not walk it without your blessing, grandson.”

A suspended silence descends upon us. My tears have stopped, but my hands still cover my face, and for a long time I stare into the blackness they cast over my eyes; and I do not think of anything, but instead I listen to my own breathing. When at last I uncover my face, I breathe deeply and feel a sense of peace — it hints of sadness, but it is peace. The last of the sun’s rays grace us, and in the dreamlike atmosphere of descending dusk, I see that my grandfather has fallen asleep.

-IV- Envoi

My grandfather died only a week after that conversation — the victim of a heart attack. I had given him my acceptance, but my parents had not, and he had waited, and death had come unexpectedly. After all of this, I think back on my thoughts on the morality of suicide, and two things come to mind. First, it is true that we need some conception of a moral authority to help determine the moral status of suicide in relation to society, and Dr. Brace’s principles seem like a good place to start, especially for those committed to maintaining a humanistic ethical culture founded on equal respect for its responsible, autonomous members, and their decisions. But secondly, and at the same time, I realize that suicide is an intensely personal issue, and one that cannot be fully understood or decided by reference to a set of general ethical principles. For my own part, I feel fortunate that my grandfather helped me to appreciate the idea that intentionally ending one’s life cannot be unequivocally understood as a tragedy and act of immorality; rather it can be an act of dignity and meaning, one accepted responsibly, and peacefully. And I know that this is not the common feeling; and I would never seek to impose my personal acceptance of it on others; but I would hope that for their part, others might at least genuinely listen to my point of view, in an effort to increase their understanding, and to decide the issue for themselves responsibly.