Yale Open Philosophy Course: The Suicide Lectures


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The course is entitled, The Philosophy of Death, taught by Professor Shelly Kagan at Yale University in 2009. Each lecture is just under an hour.  The written transcript and reading references are available on the individual lecture pages.  The course link above will take you to the introductory lecture and all of the lecture links.

Course Index

Philosophy of Death
The Nature of Persons: Dualism vs. Physicalism
Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part I
Introduction to Plato‘s Phaedo; Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part II
Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part III
Arguments for the Existence of the Soul, Part IV; Plato, Part I
Plato, Part II: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul
Plato, Part III: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul (cont.)
Plato, Part IV: Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul (cont.)
Personal Identity, Part I: Identity Across Space and Time and the Soul Theory
Personal Identity, Part II: The Body Theory and the Personality Theory
Personal Identity, Part III: Objections to the Personality Theory
Personal identity, Part IV; What matters?
What Matters (cont.); The Nature of Death, Part I
The Nature of Death (cont.); Believing You Will Die
Dying Alone; The Badness of Death, Part I
The Badness of Death, Part II: The Deprivation Account
The Badness of Death, Part III; Immortality, Part I
Immortality Part II; The Value of Life, Part I
The Value of Life, Part II; Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part I
Other Bad Aspects of Death, Part II
Fear of Death
How to Live Given the Certainty of Death
Suicide, Part I: The Rationality of Suicide
Suicide, Part II: Deciding Under Uncertainty
Suicide, Part III: The Morality of Suicide and Course Conclusion

There are three suicide lectures.  Part I and transcript, Part II and transcript and Part III and transcript may be viewed at the links.  From the latter part of the Morality of Suicide lecture:

So, the utilitarian position is in the middle. It doesn’t say suicide’s never acceptable, doesn’t say suicide is always acceptable. It says, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s sometimes acceptable; it depends on the facts. It depends on the results. It depends on comparing the results of this action, killing yourself, to the alternatives open to you. We have to ask, is your life worse than nothing? Is there some medical procedure available to you that would cure you? If there is, and even if your life is worse than nothing, that still doesn’t make it the best choice in terms of the consequences. Getting medical help is a preferable choice in terms of the consequences.

We can even think of cases where your life is worse than nothing, you’d be better off dead, and there is no medical alternative of a cure available to you, but for all that, it still isn’t morally legitimate to kill yourself in terms of the utilitarian outlook. Because, as always, we have to think about the consequences for others. And there may be others who’d be so adversely affected by your death that the harm to them outweighs the cost to you of keeping yourself alive. Suppose, for example, that you’re the single parent of young children. You’ve got a kind of moral obligation to look after them. If you were to die, they’d really have it horribly. It’s conceivable then, in cases like that, the suffering of your children, were you to kill yourself, would outweigh the suffering that you’d have to undergo were you to keep yourself alive for the sake of your children. So, it all depends on the facts.

Still, if we accept the utilitarian position, we do end up with a moderate conclusion. In certain circumstances suicide will be morally justified — roughly speaking, in those cases where you’re better off dead and the effects on others aren’t so great as to outweigh that. Those will be the paradigm cases in which suicide makes sense or is legitimate, morally speaking, from the utilitarian perspective.

Watch it on Academic Earth

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2 thoughts on “Yale Open Philosophy Course: The Suicide Lectures

  1. I look forward to reading the transcripts. Does Kagan deal with the modern concept of “suicide as disease”? Or what about the role of the State as only legitimate actor permitted to kill citizens (“you can’t kill yourelf, only WE can kill you!”)?

    • Neither. Strictly an act of individual agency (or varying degrees of lack thereof). Kagan addresses the notion of uncertainty and ambiguity, though, and I think that has some interesting implications.

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