Suicide and the 'Impure' Soul

New research says moral bias against suicide often comes from disgust over a tainted soul.
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Around the world, about one million people die of suicide each year, according to the World Health Organization. Each death causes immeasurable harm: Friends, family members, and coworkers suffer loss, guilt, and confusion, and the immediate victim loses a future. Many of those friends and family members consider suicide to be morally wrong. But new evidence shows that people who consider suicide wrong might have other reasons than the harm it brings. There is a more abstract—and at the same time more visceral—consideration at play.

We consider many things morally wrong not because they cause immediate harm but because they seem physically or spiritually impure. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and collaborators have explored reactions to many examples of purity violations, such as eating a dead dog, or signing a piece of paper declaring your soul for sale.

Three researchers—Joshua Rottman and Deborah Kelemen at Boston University and Liane Young at Boston College—wanted to know if we consider suicide wrong primarily because it is harmful or because it is impure. They conducted two experiments to find out. The results were published in Cognition.

In the first study, participants read eight brief obituaries. For some subjects, the deceased all died of suicide, and for others they all died of homicide; otherwise the descriptions were identical. Subjects answered five questions about the death: They rated how morally wrong it was, how angering it was, how disgusting it was, how harmful it was, and how much it tainted the soul of the victim (this last item was intended to measure purity). Then they evaluated explicit justifications for why suicide or homicide is wrong, rating the explanations “[Suicide/homicide] is wrong because it directly hurts other people…” and “[Suicide/homicide] is wrong because it disrespects the sacredness and purity of the self…”

Subjects also completed the Harm and Purity segments of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ), a test designed by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and colleagues to measure the degree to which people’s ethical values are based on concerns about harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. Items to be rated included “Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue” (a measure of concern for harm) and “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed” (a measure of concern for purity). Then subjects rated how easily disgusted they are (by things like cockroaches and mucous) and how easily angered they are. Finally they reported their level of religiosity and political conservatism.

Unsurprisingly, the degree to which subjects thought the homicides mentioned in the obituaries were harmful reliably predicted the degree to which they thought the homicides were morally wrong. Purity did not predict wrongness. But for the suicides, the reverse was true: wrongness was predicted by ratings of purity (the suicide tainted the victim’s soul) but not harm. Similarly, concern for purity on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire predicted judgment of the suicides as wrong, but concern for harm did not; the reverse was true for homicides. Additionally, both disgust at the deaths and the degree to which subjects were easily disgusted predicted their judgments of the suicides as wrong; neither anger at the deaths nor being easily angered did. So people in the study considered suicide immoral because it disgusted them—viscerally and spiritually.

Subjects’ ratings of the suicides as harmful did exceed their ratings of the suicides as soul-tainting, but because only the soul-tainting judgment correlated with their judgments of the suicides as wrong, the authors argue that we consider suicide wrong primarily because it’s a purity violation. If we didn’t consider suicide impure, would we consider it harmful but somehow not morally wrong? Rottman says yes. He told me that of the people who gave the lowest possible ratings of soul-taint (1 on a scale of 1 to 7) on all suicide obituaries, their harm ratings averaged 5.62 out of 7, similar to the overall group average, but their wrongness ratings averaged 3.33, significantly below the midpoint on the scale (4). So those who didn’t see suicide as impure thought it was very harmful but not very wrong. (To make sense of that seeming paradox, Rottman notes other acts that some consider harmful to others but not morally wrong: eating meat, extracting teeth, executing prisoners.)

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Matthew Hutson is a science writer based in New York City. He is the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.

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