Suicide is a major public health issue; it
takes the lives of more than a million people each year. It is also widely
believed to be immoral. Why do people so commonly believe it is wrong for
people to take their own lives? According to a study by researchers at Boston
College and Boston University, people – even non-religious people – make this
moral judgment because they believe suicide taints the purity of a person's
soul. Their findings are reported in Issue 130 of the journalCognition.
Philosophers have long debated whether
suicide is considered immoral because it is harmful to others or because it is
defiling and impure, said the study's lead author Joshua Rottman, a doctoral
student working with Deborah Kelemen, associate professor of psychology at
Boston University, and Liane Young, assistant professor of psychology at Boston
College. But beyond the speculations of philosophers, what do people actually
believe about this issue?
In order to find out, the researchers
presented a sampling of American adults with obituaries describing suicide or
homicide victims, and then asked them a series of questions regarding their
reaction to what they had read.Moral condemnation
The responses showed that, while harm was
associated with people's judgments about the wrongness of homicide, it did not
significantly explain why people thought suicide was wrong. Instead, regardless
of their political and religious views, participants were more likely to
morally condemn suicide if they believed it tainted the victims' souls and if
they demonstrated greater concerns about moral purity in an independent
questionnaire. People's tendencies to feel disgusted by the suicide obituaries,
and to feel more disgust in general, also played a significant role.
The study findings also demonstrate that,
while politically conservative and religious individuals find suicide more
morally wrong than do secular liberals, even self-described non-religious
liberals consider suicide to be morally wrong – and do so on account of concerns
about moral purity and taint. "These results suggest that even if people
explicitly deny the existence of religious phenomena, natural tendencies to at
least implicitly believe in souls can underlie intuitive moral judgments,"
Why suicide is stigmatised
These findings contribute to the scientific
understanding of our moral judgments – and they also shed light on the real-world
issue of people's psychological reactions to suicide by explaining why suicide
is stigmatised and often considered a taboo topic of conversation. "A
greater understanding of the processes relevant to the condemnation of suicide
victims may prove useful for people worldwide who are affected by this
widespread tragedy," said Rottman.