Ed West

When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?

When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?
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The great Theodore Dalrymple once came up with the theory that there is a fixed level of righteous indignation in any society. As soon as we become more relaxed about one area — say, drug taking — we get much more prudish and finger-wagging about something else — smoking, for example.

Sometimes one taboo easily takes the place of a previous one. Race, for example, has become the new sex, with the F-word and C-word de-stigmatised and replaced by the N-word and P-word as no-nos (the new taboo also comes with its own hypocrisies, obviously, and few of today’s moral leaders send their kids to vibrant inner-city schools).

But in other cases, whole moral frameworks are inverted. When this happens, the proponents of the latest status quo become insufferably sanctimonious, desperate to prove their moral worth with a deluge of empathy.

Suicide used to be universally considered a sin, a shameful thing to do, but even when this was the case there was some leeway given; the religious and secular authorities would accept that someone might not be of sound mind, for instance, and would try to reduce the family’s suffering while deterring others who might be influenced (suicide is fairly contagious). That wasn’t always the case, obviously, but the point is that it was possible to think it a terrible thing and still have compassion for the tormented individual.

Mental illness has become a great source of moral posturing, and social media becomes unendurable every time some unfortunate man kills himself. Today’s moral guardians see the mentally ill — whether self-diagnosed or not — as victims, who are, therefore, beyond reproach, even if they take their own life.

So Alan Brazil gets slammed for (rather tactlessly) criticising the act of suicide by that modern-day moral guardian Stan Collymore. You may recall that Collymore hasn’t always been so self-righteous; among other things, he beat up his then girlfriend Ulrika Jonsson in a bar in Paris in 1998. But he’s had a long and very, very public battle with depression, so we must ignore his past misdemeanours and accept that his assertions about suicide are sacrosanct while Alan Brazil’s old fashioned point of view is bigoted. No further discussion required.

This is not to say that I am unsympathetic to the mentally ill; conditions like clinical depression or schizophrenia cause as much suffering as any physical illness, but the major difference is that we don’t yet truly understand mental illness like we do most physical maladies. Who is to say what is and isn’t mental illness and what is merely the human condition? To what extent do we have the free will to fight these maladies? And how much are these problems environmental and how much hereditary? These are serious, existential questions that need to be answered before mental illness is understood.

Much of the righteous outrage one reads on this subject is moral posturing; a low-cost way of declaring oneself to be someone who cares and is up-to-date with the current moral trends. It contributes nothing to our understanding of mental-illness, or those who suffer its consequences.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articleSocietysuicide