Like revolt, suicide is a uniquely negative action: it has no positive goal and seeks only the destruction of what already exists (in this case, the self). De Beauvoir has a unique take on suicide, however: while it is often a sign of nihilistic moral cowardice, she says, sometimes it is actually the only way for people to pursue their freedom. In the first case, nihilists who realize that there are no inherent values built into the universe see this as proof that nothing at all is valuable (instead of that they are in charge of their own moral destinies). Completely attached to the idea that true moral values must be absolute, nihilists decide to pursue the destruction of all subjective moral values (even though all real values are subjective, and all subjective values are real). Suicide is one version of this process: the will to destroy freedom itself. In another kind of case, however, de Beauvoir thinks that suicide is precisely a means to freedom. When people are so oppressed that they have no hope of reclaiming their freedom through means like escape or successful revolt, suicide can be the only way for them to act freely.
De Beauvoir gives an example of each kind, asking how those with relationships to people trying to commit suicide should react. In her first example, “a young girl takes an overdose” because of heartbreak. It is clearly right to help her, because she is acting out of a momentary nihilism, a desire to destroy herself because she ran up against the limits of her freedom (her inability to be with the person she loved). In the second example, de Beauvoir considers “melancholic patients who have tried to commit suicide twenty times” and are locked in asylums with no hope of “putting an end to their intolerable anguish.” In this case, if such a patient has no way out of the asylum, it is acceptable to support their suicide, which represents their only way to act freely, in defiance of their oppressor (the society that imprisons them in the asylum).
Suicide accordingly represents how, for existentialists, it makes little sense to talk about morality in terms of absolute approval or rejection for certain kinds of action. While most conventional moral systems would ask whether suicide is wrong in the abstract, de Beauvoir thinks it only makes sense to ask about it in particular, concrete situations, depending on whether it ultimately gets in the way of people’s later freedom (like the overdosing girl who will later overcome her heartbreak) or actually constitutes a person’s only possible free act (like the asylum patient). More broadly, then, the example of suicide represents the limits of conventional ethics and the need for a system like existentialism, which refuses to judge people except in the actual circumstances of their lives.
Suicide Quotes in The Ethics of Ambiguity
The fundamental fault of the nihilist is that, challenging all given values, he does not find, beyond their ruin, the importance of that universal, absolute end which freedom itself is.