I certainly have my questions about meaning in life, which I'm still working through (on a personal level as well as academic), so it may seem odd that I've chosen to write about meaning in death—in particular, meaning in suicide. I have experienced the pain of suicide on several levels, and I've talked about it in my classes (very carefully, as you might imagine), which has helped me think through some of the issues. I'd like to share some of those thoughts here, in case they may be of help to anyone dealing with the suicide of a family member or friend, or who may be contemplating ending their own lives (in which case, please talk to somebody—anybody—if you're not already doing so).
For philosopher Immanuel Kant, suicide is one of the examples of immoral behavior he used to illustrate the categorical imperative, his version of the "moral law" for which our basic duties can be derived. He argues that a person who kills herself uses her reason against itself, which is contradictory, true, but otherwise not a very satisfying argument to me. His stronger argument (in my opinion) is that such a person crucially fails to respect herself, by sacrificing her moral nature and all of her future potential and possibilities to end (mere) physical or mental suffering. To Kant, each person has an immeasurable and incomparable dignity, which should never be compromised even to end the most profound suffering. (See also Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning for a very similar view.)
This argument against suicide applies to the person who wants to kill herself because she's miserable, depressed, or doesn't see any joy in living any longer. It may even apply to supposedly "altruistic suicide," in which a person wants to end her life because she thinks it will make other people happier, or because she feels she does more harm in the world than good. (Heroic self-sacrifice, such as a solider leaping on a grenade to save his or her comrades, is a different matter entirely, largely because the person is not thinking of him- or herself at all.) To Kant, dignity is something that cannot be traded for other goods or benefits; it is above price and exchange. Each person has an intrinsic worth that is more valuable than any measure of happiness or sadness, benefit or harm, whether to herself or to other people, and recognition of this dignity prohibits suicide for the sake of preventing pain to oneself, or even pain to others (which the person may think she causes).
But in later work, Kant acknowledges some circumstances under which suicide may not be immoral, and may in fact be noble—but this depends on dignity itself. His example is of a man who is bitten by a rabid dog and starts to lapse into dementia, and worries that he will become violent and hurt other people when the disease robs him of his will. Kant wonders if the man's killing himself before he loses his autonomy (the source of his dignity) would be permissible, or even moral. He doesn't answer (it was offered more as a question for discussion), but if he believes it is allowed, it is specifically because the man is about to lose his dignity, and may (or should) take measures to make sure he doesn't do harm when it happens.
But the harm itself may be irrelevant; Kant's larger point may be that when faced with the loss of one's autonomy and will, and therefore dignity, suicide may be an honorable way to leave this world with your dignity intact. Thomas E. Hill, Jr., a…