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Honourable suicide

  • December 3rd, 2012

Captain Oates did it,  to increase the chance that his South Pole trip mates could survive. Self sacrficial suicide is clearly honourable.

But what about suicide as extreme remorse? Ship's masters do it, when they deliberately go down with a ship they've captained to disaster. Thousands of Japanese officers did it when they lost the war. Bushido (the Japanese culture of chivalry) expected seppuku (ritual sef disembowelment to atone for failure).

Closer to the present and to a strong thread in our cultural inheritance, hundreds of young Samoans do it, in one of the most painful ways possible (with paraquat) when they've shamed their families or themselves.

So why do we make such strenuous efforts to prevent suicide by people who've deeply dishonoured themselves? There are falls from grace so abject, and deeds so despicable, that life should for ever after be almost unendurable. Pederasty is so reviled that it is hard to imagine why pederastst do not all try to end their lives when caught.

Respect for honourable suicide survives in our language ("falling on their sword") but not in our practice. There was a time in our history when doing the honourable thing (committing suicide) after particularly ignoble conduct was thought partially to redeem it. It saved the suicide's family and friends from the embarassment of working out how to deal with him. Today we are lucky if dishonour even spurs resigning.

Why have we changed? Is it because we're in the middle of an experiment in trying to run a culture and a legal system without shame? I've argued elsewhere that  shame is an essential part of any healthy social response to offending. Without shame we are condemned to harsher official punishments, to compensate. 

When the Hon Maryan Street's euthanasia Member's Bill is drawn from the ballot there will be a debate about the right to end your own life when it has become not worth living. Perhaps then we will also consider again just why we've started to treat all deaths as "tragedies".  Many are far from tragic. Some are "good riddance".

Repeat drunk drivers who kill only themselves may be losses to their families, but for most of us it is just desserts, and a saving to the criminal justice system. Other similarly self induced are not tragic.

But nor are they honourable. The category of honourable suicide should be reserved for those who choose to show their shame by ending their capacity to embarass, both themselves and those who care about them while they live.

When it was first reported that David Ross of Ross Asset Management had lost hundreds of $millions of investor money, he was said to be unavailable to interview,  in hospital with head injuries. He later issued a statement that he'd been hospitalised for compulsory treatment under the Mental Health Act. Runour has it that he'd tried to take his own life.

The client who passed on that rumour, who'd trusted him, added that he should have been left to complete the job.  A bit harsh I thought. But it was not me who lost my savings or my faith in my community.

Thinking more about that comment I realise how steeped we are in the current relativism, that does not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving.

I realise that Mr Ross's help was wanted,  to work out where assets were. And there has been no judicial finding of wrongdoing. But if things are as they appear at present, and if Mr Ross has lied for years, what social purpose was served by stopping him from "doing the decent thing"?

Why should he not have the same right to end his life as a person with nothing to look forward to but pain. We all die sometime. To allow a person to bring their own death  forward when life has little prospect but disgrace seems to me to be a minor mercy to all concerned.

Or are we so corrupted that Mr Ross can look forward to enjoying (after the initial condemnation) the rewards of celebrity? A Martian could understandably think our worst offenders are our leaders. They are treated respectfully, protected and fed without having to lift a finger. They consume enormous state resources in legal aid and polite hearings in court.  Sure there is a price for crime. But it is pitiful here. We have no equivalent to the life-in-prison US sentencing of  fraudsters like Madoff.  In New Zealand a fraudster might expect to be out in time for a book tour, selling the book he'll be allowed to write in prison.


  • Sinner
  • December 3rd, 2012
  • 3:31 pm

Hell yeah. If all those bludgers & civil servants who live on the state tit took the honourable way out – NZ simply would not need welfare, super, state schools, state houses, state hospitals or much of the rest of the mess.

To allow a person to bring their own death forward when life has little prospect but disgrace seems to me to be a minor mercy to all concerned.

Going on the bludge, being unable to provide for yourself, for your family, to have to rely on the state for housing, food, education, healthcare, or the pension should rightly be considered a massive disgrace

quietus with a bare bodkin.

  • Nikki Pender
  • December 3rd, 2012
  • 4:37 pm

The prevailing attitude to suicide stems from our predominantly Christian value system, where suicide is considered to be a sin. Most likely because the path to redemption starts with facing shame, not avoiding it.

“Honourable” suicides are more like the practice in many traditional cultures, where the old and the infirm willingly sacrificed themselves in times of scarcity for the benefit of the tribe or group.

Will the baby boomers be as community-spirited when our health dollars and other social resources become like hens’ teeth, I wonder.


I had thought the rule was “the Captain is the last man off the ship” rather than “the Captain must go down with the ship”, although one may necessitate the other in some circumstances.

  • David Bevan
  • December 8th, 2012
  • 10:04 pm

It would appear you have trouble differentiating between pederasts & paedophiles – at least I hope that is the case & you do not really mean what you say about pederasts.

  • Peter Hassell
  • December 14th, 2012
  • 8:19 am

I agree with your comments on suicide. Anyone should have the right to kill themselves, and this may be an appropriate thing to do in some circumstances. But Maryann Street’s Bill goes much further than this – it creates a right to require your doctor to kill you, or to refer you to some other doctor who will. Demanding a right to chose the exact moment and circumstances of one’s death seems to me to be the ultimate self indulgence. Anyone who really wants to die can kill themselves by starvation or refusing life prolonging treatment (while still receiving pain relief). For example, Tony Nicklinson, who argued for the “right” to have someone else kill him in the UK courts, died 6 days after losing his action, after refusing to be artificially fed.

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