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…”