John Stuart Mill and the Complicated Issue of Suicide

In his essay, “On Liberty”, John Stuart Mill clearly outlines his views on one potentially very controversial issue: the harm principle. Mill states in his essay that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This idea on a basic level is very clear. If someone wants to harm another member of society, then that is considered breaking the law and he or she should be punished. But if someone wants to harm themselves, that is permissible, because no law should disallow someone from harming themselves if they really want to. Mill thinks that is their prerogative and their right. This idea on its face seems to be rather simple, but in reality, it is a complex issue that can take many different twists and turns.

John Stuart Mill, the author of the work “On Liberty” that presents that harm principle

In my opinion, there definitely is a line between partaking in an action that involves intentionally trying to harm yourself, and partaking in an action in which you could potentially, unintentionally harm yourself. For example, if someone is willing to free climb a mountain, as Alex Honnold is willing to do, or someone is willing to sky dive from what essentially is outer space, then go ahead, be my guest. I would never in my life do it and couldn’t be paid enough money to do it, but it is their right, and I don’t think a person should be penalized for it. Suicide, however, is a slightly different story.

If Felix Baumgartner wants to jump and free fall from space, Mill and I agree: be our guest

The legality of suicide is something that is often debated and is the subject of controversy. Currently, there are no laws against suicide in the United States, though there were some in place in the 1980s. Now, physician-assisted suicide is legal in five states, and this idea of physician assisted suicide was made famous right here in Michigan by Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Dr. Kevorkian was a Michigan doctor who began the practice of assisting his terminally ill patients with suicide in order to “put them out of their misery” as they say. Dr. Kevorkian was a very controversial figure, and one I think Mill would have a lot of problems with.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian was a very controversial figure, although he did give the subject of assisted suicide a face

Mill advocates for punishing those who harm others, but what if someone else has asked you to harm them? If Mill has no problem with someone harming himself or herself, would he have problems with someone helping you harm yourself? Mill’s harm principle takes an interesting turn when it comes to the matter of assisted-suicide. I think physician-assisted suicide should be legal, but only if the patient has expressed consent, along with the patient’s family, and the patient has been diagnosed as terminally ill with a specific amount of time left to live. Only then do I think assisted suicide should be legal, because otherwise, someone who may be terminally ill could ask for suicide simply because they have no hope. It becomes a slippery slope, because some people will ask for suicide no matter what, so I think only when a doctor has put an expiration date on someone’s life can they ask for this physician assisted suicide.

If John Stuart Mill were alive today, he might be conflicted on the matter of the assisted suicide. In a way, it both correlates with and goes against his harm principle. I am curious to know what he would think, though in my opinion if he were around today, I think he would say people like Dr. Kevorkian are in the wrong and they should be punished. I think Mill would say doctors who assist suicide are breaking his rule, and only individuals who harm themselves with no outside help apply to his theory of the harm principle.

-Natan Gorod


3 thoughts on “John Stuart Mill and the Complicated Issue of Suicide

  1. Pingback: Free Solo Climbing Has It All | THE BIG HOUSE OF IDEAS

  2. Pingback: What If the “Harm Principle” Is about Utility? | THE BIG HOUSE OF IDEAS

  3. I agree that this is a very complicated issue for people who are directly affected by the issue, and I also agree that somewhere a line should be drawn if we are to move forward with the issue in America. I think an important, although very controversial opinion on the matter is that any able-bodied person has the physical ability to commit suicide if they so choose; however, someone who is terminally ill does not have this ability, but may have more of a justification to want it. Just some food for thought on the matter.


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