PROFESSOR NEWMAN ON THE DUTY OF SUICIDE.
PROFESSOR NEWMAN , in a letter which we print elsewhere, declares that he feels no hesitation in asserting suicide to be sometimes a duty, and he intimates that this opinion is somewhat widely spread amongst cultivated persons, but suppressed from the odium attaching to the profession of such opinions. We attribute very little importance to scattered expressions of opinion of this kind from persons who have not weighed the whole ques- tion in all its bearings, and whose imagination is probably greatly influenced by the painful impression produced by a mere individual case of hopeless suffering. All it seems to us to show is, what we have long known, that the importance attached to visible utilitarian consequences as compared with the awe excited by spiritual instincts, is rapidly increasing, and that irresponsible in- dividual opinion is much more apt to be hasty now in underestimat- ing the weight to be attached to unreasoned recoils from un- natural acts, and in overestimating the argument from calculable and visible results, than it used to be. Probably, however, the very persons whom Professor Newman has found half favourable to sui- cide or to the policy of extinguishing the life of sufferers in whose case there is no hope, would not only shrink from backing their opinion, as Mr. Tollemache and Professor Newman have done, by a publicly avowed conviction, but would find on reconsideration that theirs was not a conviction at all, but a hasty impulse of pity for the suffering involved in a particular case. However, in the present article we wish to limit ourselves strictly to the subject of Suicide. We observe that Professor Newman, though his letter ends by insisting on the formal assent of the patient, really implies much more, when he suggests that the Commissioners who visit Lunatic asylums should be consulted as to the humanity of putting a term to hopeless sufferings ; and when he refers to the very 'natural wish of the friends of persons " suffering agony or even• delirium and painful delusions without hope" that the end may come soon, as testimony in his favour. In both cases, the testimony is evidently germane only to the vindication of the policy of extin- guishing the life of others. An insane, delirious, or lunatic patient is just one whom it would be a mockery to consult about his own fate ; while the hopeless paralytic, whose power of communicating with the external world is at an end, could not be consulted. Professor Newman, therefore, must hint at legalising, not merely volun- ' tary and deliberate suicide, but the termination—by relations or friends—of the sufferings of others, and we pointed out last week what we confess we think an unanswerable argument against that course. As it is obvious, however, that the strength of the position of the Euthanasianists lies in the case of suicide deliberately decided upon by a mind in possession of its reason, and if it fails there, there will be little chance for them of success in their advocacy of the benevolent murder of patients unable to give a rational con- sent, we will confine what we have to say to-day strictly to the discussion of Professor Newman's position, —that suicide may be right or even a positive duty, and, of course, that in such cases it is simply wrong to interpose the veto of the law, and the moral opprobrium which the veto of the law carries with it.
Professor Newman's conviction of what he regards as the right or even the occasional duty of suicide is grounded, of course, on the serious sacrifices which are sometimes required from those who are not, or, at least, would not otherwise be, in any danger of death, in order to prolong, and that sometimes very slightly, the lives of those who are. He gives us two instances :—In travelling rapidly through forest or desert countries, if the health of one of the party fail, either all must seriously endanger life, perhaps all perish, through waiting to help him, or they must leave him be- hind, helpless, to encounter a still more certain death. Now in such cases the sufferer sometimes begs to be killed lest he perish by a much slower and more painful death, that of starvation, or by the attacks of wild animals. Are you to sacrifice the lives of all to no purpose for his sake ? or to leave him to a certain death, yet refuse to shorten the pain of that death ? or to sanction his suicide? Again Mr. Newman puts a case, not nearly so strong on its humane side, but intended, we suppose, to be stronger on the side of duty, of an aged man dying of a slow disease which wears out the health of those who tend him, though that health is far more important to the happiness and future prospects of those who sacri- fice it, than the brief prolongation of a worn-out life can be to the happiness of the invalid, and he says boldly, " I (for one) look with horror on allowing tender kinsfolk to sacrifice youthful health in order to add days or weeks to my life, when worn out." In other words, he declares it would be the duty of such an invalid to liberate his nurses by putting an end to his own life. Now surely it is obvious that in the former case—that of the sick traveller in jungles or deserts, —there is no new ethical element at all which is not present in almost all cases of proposed suicide. The really delicate question is that which bears upon the duty of abandoning the sick man rather than throw- ing away apparently the lives of all by delaying the march ; but that is not a question of the morality of suicide ; it is a question of a conflict of duties of a very impressive kind ; and the decision that would be right for one such party of explorers might very well be wrong for another,—a great deal depending on the sort of tie between the different members of it. It is both natural and, no doubt, a duty to risk a far greater danger for one to whom there is a very close tie, than any it would be natural or a duty to risk for a comparative stranger to whom you have no intimate ties of feeling at all, while there may be very close ties to those inter- ested in your welfare at home. But even if the question be deter- mined in favour of abandoning the sick man to his fate at his own request, there is no advance at all towards the solution of the question of the right and duty of suicide. If suicide is right for an invalid suffering from hopeless disease at home, it is right here. If it is wrong for such an invalid, it is wrong here. The mere height- ened terrors of a lonely, desolate, and perhaps horrible death can make no difference of kind in the problem. The agony may be worse than the agony of cancer and frequent delirium combined, but if it is right to endure the one agony patiently, it is right to endure the other. It is impossible to say in such a case that it is a man's duty to cut short his own life. He is clearly showing far more fortitude and trust in waiting for death than in anticipating the end of his own pangs. Whatever else you said of a man who had endured to the end the lonely agony, no one would say of him that he had failed in his duty, that he ought to have sooner ended his own sufferings. There will always be a hesitation and a doubt about the motives of the man who terminates his own sufferings ; there will never be any about the motives of him who suffers on bravely to the end.
But Professor Newman grounds the motive of the second case of suicide he puts, distinctly on the disinterested obligation of your duty to others. You ought not, he says, to let tender kinsfolk sacrifice youthful health in order to add days or weeks to a worn-out life. And he cordially approves of the high sense of duty shown, in his opinion, by the friend who, as he has reason to believe, " withdrew himself from life somewhat prema- turely by means of chloroform." Now, first, that sense of duty, if it were one, would surely be a very revolutionary sense of duty, supposing it were to spread much amongst the people. Where is the distinction between the duty of liberating anxious friends from painful and, for their particular purpose, fruitless demands on their strength and health, and the duty of our helpless pauper population of diminishing the pressure of the rates on the poorer ratepayers, by a similarly disinterested act of abdication ? If such an act be a duty at all, it must surely be a duty for every man to calculate whether he is more burden, or more help and pleasure, to the world in which he lives, and if he decides that he is the former, then in case he can remedy the mischief by no other mode, he should accept the duty of suicide. Here is a strin- gent mode indeed of providing for he unproductive classes by early educating their sense of duty. If a sick man is surrounded by " tender kinsfolk," he is, at least, at whatever loss of health and happiness to them, exercising some of the very highest affec- tions and virtues,—disinterested love, patience, and self-sacri- fice. But the wretched paupers who are not surrounded by tender kinsfolk at all, who see no good arising out of their sufferings, and who may know that they are costing much to fellow-sufferers, not more able to bear the burden than themselves—would not they be bound even more than the aged invalid whose case Professor Newman considers so clear, by the same rule ? If, then, there is to be a duty of suicide, it would surely be a duty by no means ex- ceptional. It would be a duty affecting all who believed them- selves to be, on the whole and without remedy, a burden and trouble to their fellow-creatures, instead of a blessing. Indeed, we are clear that if life is not to be regarded as a trust which we have no right to lay down, either merely at our own discretion or only because we think that it is the cause of more pain than pleasure to our fellow-creatures, a totally new and most dangerous class of questions, which might acquire a most serious significance for any nation that entertained them, would at once arise. If there be such a thing, as Professor Newman thinks, as the duty of suicide at all, it is a duty of enormously wide sweep, for it is hardly too much to say that a considerable portion of every population on the globe might have quite as mach reason as his aged invalid to think themselves a mere burden on the face of the earth, a cause of irremediable sorrow to others and no cause of joy to themselves. And once let the duty turn on such a doubtful subjective balance of considerations, and where would this stream of apparently inexpensive, but ultimately costly spiritual emigration end? Does Professor Newman think that people would be deterred from suicide by a registrar's refusal to grant a bene decessit in their case, if they had once got rid, by the help of the law itself, of all scruple as to the morality of self-destruction ?
But, next, to go a little nearer the root of the question, the fallacy, as it seems to us, in the assertion that a man ought to shorten his own life in order to defeat the tenderness and abridge the self-sacrifices of his kinsfolk, lies here,—that it denies the duty to live in itself, as distinguished from the duty of doing good to others and ourselves. Indeed, there seems to be no reason why; if that be so, it would be otherwise than a noble act for the heir to a greatfortune and estate, whowas persuaded that his younger brother wouldfill it inestimably better than himself, but that nothing would persuade him to fill it during his own lifetime, to make a vacancy by suicide. It would be said very justly that a man could not know enough of his own and his brother's qualifications to decide on this so positively, that it would be great presumption, and putting himself in the place of Providence, to do so. No doubt; but that applies also, though perhaps in a lees degree, to the case of the suicide who puts an end to
his life to save his kinsfolk from sacrificing their health and happiness. How does he know that the sacrifice of his life will not prematurely stop up some vein of affection and self-denial in the character of some of those kinsfolk, of the importance of which he had no knowledge? Pro- fessor Newman's and Mr. Tollemache's theory is founded really on the belief that man is as good a judge of the time to terminate his life as he is of its other duties,—that his conscience can -tell him as clearly when he should take the step into the next world, as when he should take any specific step in this. We hold, on the contrary, that God sets limits to our judgment and conscience, where He sets a limit to our sight. We cannot choose as a duty to go into a world into which we do not even know the conditions of right entrance. We cannot say that between the duty of forti- tude for ourselves and for others, and the duty of taking a leap in the dark, the latter is the higher. There is a clear duty to be fulfilled in bearing misery well ourselves, while we are miserable, and also even in enduring with humility to be the cause of pain and suffering to others, where God has granted us no mode of alleviating it except a leap in the dark against which even nature rebels. The reaetion against the theology which makes obedience and submissiveness the first of virtues, goes mach too far when it encourages us to take into our own hands the discretion of giving up life itself,—on the strength of a blind and probably worthless calculation of the profit- and-loss account which the remainder of life is likely to yield.