Is suicide ever ethical? Well, let me ask you some questions. Is it appropriate for a member of the military to dive on a grenade? Is it appropriate for a person to jump in front of a speeding car to push a child out-of-the-way, knowing that they will die? Are these not merely examples of what Jesus said that, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends,”? You will say to me that this is not suicide per se. But, all three cases are a person going willingly to their death knowing that at almost any time they could avoid it. … [Pause for effect.] Actually, you would be completely correct. There is a medical definition of suicide that is listed on the CDC website that explains much:
- Suicide — Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with an intent to die as a result of the behavior. (CDC definition page).
Catch the definition, because it will give you the difference between suicide and this greater love of which Jesus speaks, right before his death. The definition of suicide is that of self-directed behavior. Greater love is other directed. There is a complete difference in motivation between the two behaviors, although in both cases the person may very well end up dead. The soldier who dives on a grenade ends up just as dead as the person who successfully commits a suicide. We honor the one publicly, while we bury the other quietly. Notice also that there is a complete difference in intent. The intent of the suicide is to die. No soldier, no person diving in front of a speeding car, no other person engaging in a dangerous act in order to save another has an intent to die. They may wish to live even more than the person that they are saving. But, their motivation is a concern/love for others while their intent is to save them and–hopefully–themselves as well.
This is why motivations make such a difference. If we do not know the meaning and intent of what is happening, then how can we even evaluate whether what is happening is appropriate, inappropriate, advisable, inadvisable, commendable, etc.? A person defending their home from a violent invader and an assassin may both kill a person, but without understanding the motivation and the intent, we may not know whether to call it an acceptable or an unacceptable act. Both the person engaging in self-defense and the assassin have committed homicide. But, only one will be legally considered to have committed murder. Why?
- Homicide — Homicides include all killings of humans. Many homicides, such as murder and manslaughter, violate criminal laws. Others, such as a killing committed in justified self-defense, are not criminal. Illegal killings range from manslaughter to murder, with multiple degrees of each representing the gravity of the crime. (FindLaw definition).
Notice that there is a difference in intent. All killing is legally considered to be a homicide. However, there is a difference in whether the intent is attack, or self-defense, or some other type of justifiable killing. For instance, a SWAT team member in a dangerous situation may very well set up a kill shot, carefully plan the kill, execute the person (if the call is so made), and yet be found to have committed a justifiable homicide. The motivation is to protect others. The intent is to prevent injury to others in the immediate area, with a secondary intent to place a kill shot where needed. Again, notice that the motivation of the SWAT team member and/or the person defending their home from a violent invader is other directed. They are often trying to protect others, not to simply kill someone.
This brings me to my point. The title of this blog post is “Motivations make a difference.” We cannot understand or evaluate events, people, literature, etc., unless we understand the motivations and intent behind the action. Two people can take identical actions, but one be considered not-justified, while the other leaves justified. Both Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition are full of stories in which two people are present. One ends up justified and the other ends up rebuked. Jesus loved to tell motivation stories, from the Pharisee and the Publican through the woman caught in adultery through the woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears through Zaccheus waiting in the tree. In every one of his stories and encounters of that type, it is always the one who has the correct motivation who ends up justified, not simply the person who performs the correct action.
Now, Jesus never stuck with just pure motivation. You did have to eventually perform the correct action in order for the story to be complete. Faith without works is dead was the practical outcome of Jesus’ interactions regarding motivation. It is Zaccheus, who offers to give to the poor who is finally called a true son of Abraham. It is the woman caught in adultery who truly goes out and sins no more (at least in that fashion) that remains in our memory. It is the woman washing Jesus’ feet who is complimented and called justified, while the host is told that she is making up for his rudeness.
In every one of the cases, motivation is followed by correct action. And, that should not surprise us. Look above at my definitions of suicide and homicide. In every case, a correct motivation, followed by correct action, makes the difference between the hero and/or person declared justified, and either the suicide or the murderer. It is when one understands that correct motivation will tend to lead to correct action that one can understand why Saint Augustine could say, “Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good.” When your motivation is correct, the likelihood that your action will be correct will be very high.