The ethics of suicide

Samtiden 2/2023

Changing attitudes to suicide in Norway: how suicide was redefined by the media as a matter of public interest; why lowering the taboo is saving men’s lives; and a brief history of the ethics of suicide, from Plato to feminism.

In Samtiden, Per Arne Kallbakk describes changes in attitudes towards suicide in the Norwegian media. The ethics editor of public service broadcaster NRK, Kallbakk recalls that until the early 1990s suicide was a taboo: article 4.9 of the Vær varsom-plakaten – the ethical guidelines of the Norwegian press – explicitly stated that ‘suicide and attempted suicide should not, as a rule, be mentioned’. 

However, attitudes have evolved. The catalyst was the suicide of the son of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister, in 1992. Her grief forced Harlem Brundtland to resign as party leader of the Labour party, though she remained prime minister until the end of her term. Despite having a direct effect on the government and clearly being a matter of public interest, the suicide received not even a sentence in Norwegian press.

It was only when Harlem Brundtland talked about it in a TV interview that the need for transparency became apparent. Article 4.9 was reformulated, with Kallbakk’s participation. The new guideline took the public interest into account, so that suicide was no longer a subject to be simply avoided. This marked a significant change in the public discussion of suicide in Norway, writes Kallbakk. 

Suicide and men

In 2009, the author Oddvar Vignes was deeply depressed and tried to kill himself. In an interview with Bård Andersson, he reflects on the importance of letting voices from the darkness be heard. Men make up the majority of suicides and the numbers have risen substantially among young men. 

But the prognosis is not all bleak: ‘In the past it was more difficult for a man to be open about things like depression’, writes Vignes. Recent research also shows that emotional barriers are being overcome. May Vatne, who has conducted ground-breaking research on suicide and suicide attempts, says she was surprised by the openness shown by interviewees. The men were particularly transparent when describing their desire to talk, leading her to conclude that the attitudes to mental health amongst men has changed. The shift has altered Oddvar Vignes life and will continue to save others.  

Suicide and care

Anniken Fleisje describes today’s dominant approach as an ‘ethics of caring’ that derives from the feminist philosophical tradition. It argues for the importance of the collective in the event of a suicide: those close to the victim are considered both affected as well as responsible in providing help.

Obvious though it might appear, the ‘ethics of caring’ differs substantially from ancient attitudes: Plato considered suicide an act of rebellion against the gods, whilst Aristotle thought only the ruler had the right to decide over death. The stoic tradition took a more ‘liberal’ approach: if a person was not having a good life, suicide was justified. 

With the Christian influence, suicide came to be considered a violation of the laws of society, since it reflected moral decline. When Kant entered the discussion on suicide, he laid the foundations for the ‘autonomous defence of suicide’ that underlies today’s debate on voluntary euthanasia. For those who endorse the latter, the act is rational and therefore justified as long as the decision is not clouded by mental illness. 

But though this intellectual heritage continues to echo in our ethical perceptions of suicide, Fleisje suggests that one might ‘rather think of one’s loved ones than old philosophers’.

Published 19 April 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Samtiden © Eurozine


Published in

Share article


Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Literature that bridges the welfare gap

‘Vagant’ heralds writing that moves staid positions on the welfare state: freelance writer Henning Hagerup exposes Norway’s bureaucratic system; Christian Johannes Idskov notes the literary excellence and fated criminality of second-generation migrant Hassan; and Joni Hyvönen asks, Ken Loach: tragedian or saboteur?

Cover for: Universalism in dark times

It has become axiomatic in our distrustful age that truth stands in tension with friendship. But the traps of identitarianism require that we rehabilitate our relation to truth – and understand it not as the opposite of friendship, but its very condition. Jewish-Palestinian friendship is the epitome of this radical universalist principle.