Suicide and the 'Impure' Soul

New research says moral bias against suicide often comes from disgust over a tainted soul.

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.)

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.”