Suicide and the 'Impure' Soul

The notion that suicide is wrong because it taints the soul might sound foreign to atheists. But even when only non-religious liberals were considered (those who rated themselves below the midpoint on religious belief and political conservatism), the wrongness of the suicides was still predicted by ratings of purity and not by ratings of harm. According to Rottman, the pattern holds even among people who gave themselves the lowest possible rating on religiosity (1 of 7). Concern about the soul’s purity is not just for church-goers.

Subjects more highly endorsed the explicit statement that suicide is wrong “because it directly hurts other people” than the one saying suicide is wrong “because it disrespects the sacredness and purity of the self,” but the authors write that these judgments, when placed alongside subjects’ reactions to the specific obituaries, merely “indicate that participants did not realize (or did not accurately report) why they judged suicide to be morally wrong.” People say it’s wrong because it’s harmful, but disgust and purity drive their responses to individual deaths.

What if people really did consider the suicides in the obituaries to be wrong because they were harmful, but the question about harmfulness was too vague? The researchers conducted another experiment to find out.

Subjects read the eight suicide obituaries from the first study and again rated how wrong the death was and how impure it made the victim’s soul. This time, instead of answering a single question about each death’s harmfulness, they rated how much it harmed the victim, other people, and God. Again, purity predicted wrongness. Harm toward the self, others, or God did not.

The authors note that philosophers have debated whether suicide should be thought of as a harmful act or as a defiling one. “This meta-ethical uncertainty was perhaps best captured by Dante,” they write, “who expressed ambivalence in his categorization of suicide by assigning it to a unique ring of hell precariously situated between the rings of harm and impurity in the Seventh Circle.” Their study suggests it’s closer to blasphemy than to murder. They point out, however, that more research should be done on particular forms of suicide, including suicide terrorism, assisted suicide, and honor suicide.

Of course, this is just one set of experiments, and the psychologist Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina maintains that harm is actually at the root of all moral concern. Indeed, in some of Rottman’s replications of their first study, reported in a supplementary document, ratings of suicide’s harm actually did correlate with ratings of its wrongness, albeit to a lesser extent than purity correlated with wrongness. The debate will likely continue.

I asked Rottman whether (and how) suicide should be de-stigmatized as disgusting. “You’ve identified what is (to me) the million-dollar question on this issue: how to de-stigmatize suicide as impure,” he emailed. “I’m not sure that I have any advice on this point, but I agree with people like Martha Nussbaum and Paul Bloom that we should do everything we can to ignore the disgust reactions we have toward certain social issues and instead override them with rational considerations.”

“That’s not to say that we should start thinking that suicide is perfectly OK,” he went on, “but I don’t think we should treat it as taboo (and therefore avoid bringing it up in polite conversation). Instead, we should engage with it as a public health concern and find ways to effectively increase prevention.”

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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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