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When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?

15 August 2014

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.

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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.

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Show comments
  • Sisyphus21

    As a long-term sufferer from, at times, severe depression I tried to approach this article with an open mind. I was succeeding until I reached the ‘That is not to say…’ paragraph.

    Then it turned to contempt.

    • Sam_Beresford

      Well I’ve also had some pretty serious mental health problems and I didn’t react with contempt. The point that there is a lot of posturing about mental health and not much understanding certainly resonated with me.

      I do disagree pretty strongly though that we should condemn people who try to commit suicide – having been a telephone helpline volunteer, I’ve heard some pretty grim tales. It’s really not for me, or anyone else, to judge those people.

      Anyway, if it makes you think, and is not hateful (which this article certainly isn’t), what’s the harm in pieces like this? Contempt seems a pretty strong reaction to me…

  • Fergus Pickering

    Christianity made suicide morally repugnant. It was not so in the classical world. Good God, if you are not free to end your own life, what are you free to do?

  • trace9

    In this age of mass-mawkish-memorialisation, how long before there are memorials scattered about, specifically praising someone’s ‘courage’ in killing themselves – perhaps a new lot of plaques on the front of buildings – blood-red? ‘A great suicide succeeded here’.. Tut.

  • WFB56

    Well said.

  • greencoat

    A cult of death has entered our world. Its chief proponent is (‘we love death’) Islam but its acolytes are the abortion mafia, the euthanasia crowd, the ‘assisted suicide’ gang.

    • Zimbalist

      The Father of all Lies is laughing. No comments here seem to contemplate the possibility that suicide is contrary to the Will of God and for that reason, above all, it is to be condemned.

  • Mack

    Well and bravely said.
    How sad that some of the reader comments appear to have crawled out from under the refrigerator.

  • Stereotomy

    “These are serious, existential questions that need to be answered before mental illness is understood.” Gosh yes, Ed, you’re right! What if we’re accidentally feeling sorry for people we should be despising! Wouldn’t that be dreadful?

  • Bonkim

    Don’t bring morality into the discussion. If people wish to leave this overpopulated planet it is their choice. It is the survivor’s guilt that is exposed by reports such as this. The departed are at peace and beyond pain and suffering.

  • Robertus Maximus

    “What about the people left behind?”, people argue on this page. I do not think anyone who has not experienced life as being utterly intolerable and every minute of it unendurable has the right to criticise them. We should just be thankful we were spared such a torment, whatever inconvenience the means of their leaving this life has caused us. It is awful for a train driver to experience such a event but what agony causes someone to choose that particular way of going? It’s awful for those left behind and anger is a natural result but “There but for the grace of God”, although a cliche, is true.

  • Lady Magdalene

    My mother killed herself in her 60s, having suffered a nervous breakdown and severe depression which lasted for several years. The health service was useless and failed her on a number of occasions. She tried twice before succeeding at the third attempt.
    Several years later it was reported that there is a correlation between the anti-depressant drugs the doctors had been prescribing and suicide/suicidal thoughts.
    I was relieved when she succeeded: she was never going to recover and become the mother I loved and remembered again. She was at peace at last “safe in the arms of Jesus” as she wrote in her final note to us. I try hard to remember as she was … not what she became.
    When did suicide become less morally repugnant? In my case it was when I became very aware that the so-called health and caring professions are anything but…… and their treatment for depression can lead directly to suicide.
    “Judge not, least ye be judged.”

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      ” She tried twice before succeeding at the third attempt.”
      Was she charged with criminal offence in enlightened Britain?

    • Warwick Onyeama

      I don’t understand why you expected the Health Service to be responsible for preventing her exercising her determined choice to execute herself. Why don’t we in this country accept that attempts at suicide often end in death and that the responsibility is entirely that of the person who has made that choice.

      • Lady Magdalene

        The health service failed her with the so-called treatment it provided or, to be more precise, failed to provide including mistakes made with the strength of drugs prescribed. I didn’t expect the NHS to prevent her suicide attempts; that was her decision.
        It was the “treatment” before and after that failed her.

    • Upright Man

      “Several years later it was reported that there is a correlation between the anti-depressant drugs the doctors had been prescribing and suicide/suicidal thoughts.”
      What? So the same people who resort to drugs to stop them being depressed also resort to killing themselves to stop being depressed? Some people are just unable to resist the easy way.
      Sympathies for your mother.

  • Dean Jackson

    “Mental illness [sic] has become a great source of moral posturing…”

    Mental illness [sic] is one of those terms that drives me crazy! There is no such baby as a thought that is ill, however there is behavior that can be odd, though not necessarily odd for every culture.

    Depression and anxiety are conditions where the “sufferer” is manifesting an unresolved emotional pain, in the case of depression, or inadequate coping skills in the case of anxiety. Terming the conditions “illnesses” means the conditions have no merit in and of themselves, and they do. The conditions inform us that the “sufferer” is refusing to be honest not only with himself/herself, but with society, and it is only through interaction with society that the “sufferer” can restore “normalcy” to his/her life.

    • Jacques Strap

      Anxiety is a fight or flight response that has become ‘stuck’. Just imagine that feeling you get when you have a rush of adrenaline, now imagine that being constant, it is when a person has unwittingly trained themselves that way.

      It is a spiral of negative thoughts which has gone beyond control. But unlike depression, the person can still think rationally, even if they are suffering with that ‘background radiation’ so to speak.

      • Dean Jackson

        “But unlike depression, the person can still think rationally…”

        Oh, yeah, and my comment didn’t suggest otherwise.

        • Jacques Strap

          I was explaining the dividing line (ok a very grey dividing line) between a condition that someone can live with and hopefully remove on their own (with a bit of Cognitive therapy which does not even have to be given by a professional in many cases) and a fully blown illness.

          • Dean Jackson

            “I was explaining the dividing line between a condition and a fully blown illness.”

            No such thing as a mental illness. A thought cannot be ill, by definition!

            • Jacques Strap

              Do you know anyone who is going through or who has gone through such a thing?

              • Dean Jackson

                “Do you know anyone who is going through or who has gone through such a thing?”

                Yes, and it’s not pleasant!

                • Jacques Strap

                  I dont believe you. Your ignorance is unbelievable.

                • Dean Jackson

                  “I dont believe you.”

                  Why should I care?

                  Why ask me a question, then?

    • Sisyphus21

      Utter rubbish.

  • Jacques Strap

    ‘Mental illness has become a great source of moral posturing’

    What a sickening comment.

  • Weaver

    I have familly members who suffer from a moderate anxiety disorder.

    It’s frightening; there is a very real physical change you can see in them during an episode; and I’ve had the sufferer actually describes their sensation of physiological change as they shut down. I’m convinced that a large part of it is beyond the sufferer’s concious control. The best treatment is to avoid the stress triggers for episodes.

    Now, a combination of CBT and self-awareness and medication manages the condition totally, but I’d say perhaps no more than 50% of the soluton is through willpower and self-awareness.

  • Roger Hudson

    Simple, when people didn’t get upset by the physical or emotional mess left behind, never then.
    Some while after ” I’m going outside and I may be some time”.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Under the influence of organised religion, sub-section Christianity, suicide was illegal in Britain up to the early 1960s. The justification came from St. Augustine of Hippo, the joker that proclaimed the Earth was flat, thus setting back science over 1,000 years, even though Eratosthenes had proved the Earth was essentially a sphere around 250BCE. For an encore Augustine went on to dream up the concept of Limbo, as a solution to a non-existent problem. Namely, the destination for the souls of unbaptised children. Imagine the distress this must have caused some parents.
    Then there was Thomas Aquinas who claimed be could levitate. Levitate? He couldn’t even get up in the morning.
    So these were the two clowns that gave the justification for suicide being against the law. Essentially HMG was saying, “We own you, so if you kill yourself you are in effect damaging government property”.
    So with homosexuality and suicide illegal in Britain, seeking your fortune in the colonies became the preferred option for some.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • Hugh

      “St. Augustine of Hippo, the joker that proclaimed the Earth was flat, thus setting back science over 1,000 years”

      What’s your source for that? As far as I can tell his statements on it were unclear. And what’s the evidence that his view had any impact on scientific advancement?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        I get sick of people asking me for my source. Research it yourself you lazy *********.

        • Hugh

          I did. I couldn’t find anything that supported your claim.

  • victor67

    One forgets that the suicide act is an act of violence against the self. It is often but not always an act of violence against the significant others in the life of those killing themselves.

  • saffrin

    “When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?”
    When the alternative would be a lengthy stay in an NHS hospital.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Anyone seen my semtex waistcoat?

      • saffrin

        Yeah, in Luton.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          Could you pick it up for next time you’re there?

        • Fraziel


  • HaroldAMaio

    “When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?”
    When people started using their intellect.

    • David Paxton

      Perhaps a superior question is: What will the consequences be of suicide no longer being morally repugnant?

      • HaroldAMaio

        The consequences are not morally repugnant, or someone would have walked up to Aunt Marie and told her that when cousin Billy ended his life.
        I am 77. In my lifetime, having personally experienced 12 suicides, not once have I seen that.

        • David Paxton

          “The consequences are not morally repugnant”

          I didn’t suggest they were. I asked what will they be.

  • swatnan

    In olden days you did the honourable thing and went away to a locked room with a loaded pistol. It was considered the decent thing to do particularly so if you had behaved badly or stupidly or become bankrupt. And no one blinked an eyelid.

    • Terry Field

      You probably did blink an eyelid, before it flew across the room and splattered on the wall.

  • Smithersjones2013

    When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?

    When morality became the last refuge of a corrupt establishment. In other words when ‘the repugnant’ took ownership of morality.

    • Terry Field

      Who is this Collymore?
      Is he a working-class person?

  • Ian Walker

    Probably when we stopped thinking that what others do in private was any of our business, moral or otherwise.

    • Freedom

      A fatuous comment. We don’t allow child or spouse abuse ‘in private’, nor do we allow other abuses ‘in private’, and that includes drug abuse. Getting away with something because no one could prevent your crime is not the same thing as a society that is endlessly permissive.

  • Archibald Heatherington

    Don’t worry, Ed, the tide will turn again at some point. Until then we can be quietly disgusted by self-murder.

  • HookesLaw

    ‘This is not to say that I am unsympathetic to the mentally ill;’ … well thats all right then. What a relief.

    You will therefore be pleased to know that I am not unsympathetic to sad thick journalists.

    • The Masked Marvel

      I think that actually answers his question, no?

    • Jacques Strap

      You must be so smart, considering everyone else is so thick (in your eyes)

      I agree that this journalist was distasteful, but obviously not thick. You are not very old are you? Try leaving puberty.

  • Magnolia

    Ed, the psychiatrists can diagnose depression and they have criteria for doing so.
    Untreated severe depression can be a terminal disease and it can be hard to recognise.
    I have treated very severely depressed patients and it is expensive.
    One to one nursing can be required as well as inpatient care.
    How many intensive care mental beds are there?
    As with all forms of mental illness, the premorbid personality will influence the behaviour when ill.
    Suicide can also be an act of rage or anger against almost anything and these are the cases that we should condemn wholeheartedly because they always cause the most hurt for the family who are left with psychological damage, perhaps forever.
    Society was right to condemn any suicide that results in the individual failing to do their duty to others. That is supremely selfish and we should not shy away from saying so.

    • Freedom

      Your last line: It could be said — not that I would do so — that having a child just because one wants a child is ‘selfish’. After all, the child has no say in the matter and might have an unhappy life… leading to depression if not suicide. Where does the selfishness begin or end?

      • Magnolia

        Having a child is only selfish if you are not prepared to accept what you are ‘given’. There is beauty and peace in doing one’s duty and in doing the right thing by your family and your community even if it means self sacrifice and some loss for ourselves.
        That’s why the selfish modern liberals come unstuck because they are ultimately narcissistic.

  • pointlesswasteoftime

    My life, my body, I’ll end it when I’m ready. Unless you’re prepared to be there for me, Mr West, you know when I can’t afford a care home and need someone to wipe my backside, or when I’m absolutely sick to death of needing someone to wipe my backside.

    Regarding Stan Collymore, since when did people become so one-dimensional? Yes he behaved badly in the past but does that mean he’s not allowed to have depression or to speak about his experience of it?

    You are unsympathetic and you’re writing this to be provocative. It is you who is being morally repugnant.

    • Alexsandr

      My life, my body, I’ll end it when I’m ready
      very nice
      but what about those left behind
      the police who have to investigate a suspicious death
      maybe the people who have to wipe you off the front of a train
      the legal issues your nearest and dearest have to deal with.
      and there is still stigma with mental illness and suicide.

      • pointlesswasteoftime

        All sorted. A suicide note will explain the how and the why. My family and friends already know that when the time comes, there’s no stopping me. I have had extensive psychotherapy ad I’ve been told my logic cannot be faulted. I will not do it in any way that causes trauma or inconvenience to anyone else (wouldn’t want anyone to miss a flight because I jump in front of a train, nor would I want anyone to clean up a bloody mess).

        People are always going to be left behind. And as for stigma – I’ll be dead.

        • Conway

          As someone who has had a close friend commit suicide through depression I can only say that those who are left behind are badly affected, no matter how cleanly or clinically the deed is done.

          • pointlesswasteoftime

            I am sorry for your loss, and I can’t speak for your friend. All I can say is that I have told my loved ones that they are loved, but my life is my responsibility, and when it comes to it, so is my death. I hope they are prepared for it whether I am knocked down by a bus today or whether it is by my own hand whenever I feel the time has come.

            • tjamesjones

              yes, having read your entries PWOT, please don’t hold back on our account.

              • pointlesswasteoftime

                What are you trying to say?

            • Baron

              You’ve obviously haven’t been close to departing this world, just wait till that time comes, you may see things differently.

              • pointlesswasteoftime

                “Obviously”? Then you, sir, “obviously” know nothing about me or the road to my choices.

          • Kenneth O’Keeffe

            Indeed. they are. But outweighing that consideration is the right of domain over one’s own body, mind and life.

      • SimonToo

        What about the poor driver of the train ?

    • Matthew Stevens

      Mmhmm. Classic Catholic garbage.

      “Your life and body doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to u̶s̶ God”

      • MrsDBliss

        Who brought god into it?

    • David

      Oh brave new world

  • Matthew Stevens

    “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.”

    The only meaning behind this paragraph is “Oh yeah!?, well, how’d you know he wasn’t just being a wimp!?!” and I think you underestimate your readership if you think that rather crude sentiment will elude them, even if you do try and cover your hide with an opening disclaimer.

    The recent societal emphasis on mental illness is a positive response to the archaic, nonsensical attitude that many people, such as yourself and Mr Brazil, still try to peddle to this day; that a man’s life is not his own, and that anyone who succumbs to challenges which, clearly, are immeasurably tougher than you do, is somehow just being weak.

    • Mr Grumpy

      I refer you to Ed’s last para. And yes, I do know what depression is like.

      • Matthew Stevens

        His last paragraph where he just makes the sulky claim that anyone who disagrees with him is only doing so for their own selfish reasons?

        Nice little circular and unfalsifiable argument there.

        I suppose you’re the kinds of people who think that anyone who gives charity is only doing it to feel good about themselves.

        What a bitter, horrible attitude to have.

        • HookesLaw

          Why bother. This is just another crass article by another crass Spectator journalist.

          • Matthew Stevens

            Y’know what? You’re right.

    • John Lea

      Spot on, Matthew. I’ve suffered from bipolar bear disorder for 10 years and no one really understands what its like. One minute I’m the life and soul of the party, laughing and joking and starting conga-lines, the next minute I’ve got the wife in a neck-lock, I’ve taken a hammer to the father-in-law, and I’m stuffing bags of polo mints down my throat and looking at foxes and stuff.

  • MaxSceptic

    Surely voluntary suicide should be encouraged as a milder form of eugenics.

    • GUBU


      I suspect there are some flaws in your suggestion.

      For one thing, history has tended to show that proponents of eugenics are not that interested in the idea of voluntary participation. They, unlike you it would appear, probably realised it would be difficult to persuade large numbers of people to kill themselves on the grounds that doing so might improve the gene pool.

      I also suspect that many of the people you sought to encourage would be more likely to kill you than kill themselves. And in doing so they might, ironically, be improving the gene pool just as effectively.

      • MaxSceptic

        Darn! Hoisted by my own petard.

        As with all ‘wonderful’ ideologies, the difficult bits only apply to ‘other people’.

        • GUBU

          That’s what petards are for.

    • SimonToo

      You would stand firm against involuntary suicide, I presume.

      • MaxSceptic

        Clumsy phrasing…. not my finest hour.

    • Fergus Pickering

      All suicide is voluntary. If it is not voluntary then it is not suicide. It is murder.

  • Highball

    “When did suicide cease to be morally repugnant?” I don’t know, but I was expecting the article to have an answer, e.g. “1863, December 20th”. Instead, we just have waffle.

    • Mr Grumpy

      It’s called a rhetorical question. And it’s not waffle.

    • Kenneth O’Keeffe

      You are very, very foolish if you believe that a change of a collective viewpoint is instantaneous rather than evolutionary.

  • Rhoda Klapp8

    There’s a p-word?

    • Hototrot

      Presumably the one that rhymes with Taki

      • pointlesswasteoftime

        Or “hoof”?

        • Alexsandr

          or “brat”?

      • Archibald Heatherington

        Or “ebb”?

        • Kitty MLB

          Ah the word ‘ebb’. Sophocles long ago heard it
          on the Aegean, and brought it to his mind;the
          turbid ebb and flow of human misery.

          It sadly felt appropriate somehow.

    • Darnell Jackson

      Or “brick”?

    • kevin foy

      Yeah ‘paddie’. I’m Irish though so I can say it.

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