Perhaps the most potent argument against suicide in modern secular societies is that it constitutes wastage of the agent’s own life and commits at the very least indirect harm to the lives of others who in various ways have depended on the agent. However, the force of this argument could be mitigated if the suicide occurred in the context of experimentation, including self-experimentation, with very risky treatments that aim to extend the human condition. Suicides in these cases could be quite informative and hence significantly advance the prospects of the rest of humanity. The suicide agent’s life would most certainly not have been in vain.
Much if not most of the cutting edge ‘enhancement’ research is currently conducted on non-humans and/or simulated on computers. Regardless of the promise of such research, it is generally agreed that the real epistemic step change will come from monitoring human usage of the relevant enhancement treatments. But as long as research ethics codes for human subjects continue to dwell in the shadow of the Nuremberg Trials, a very high bar will be set on what counts as ‘informed consent’. Nowadays, more than seventy years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the only obvious reason for such a high bar is the insurance premiums that universities and other research institutes would need to bear if they liberalized the terms on which subjects could offer themselves in service of risky enhancement research.
Of course, the actual outcomes of such experiments need not be death, just as the actual outcomes of suicide attempts are often not death. Nevertheless, the agent would be treating the prospect of suicide in the spirit of self-sacrifice, not so very different from citizens who volunteer to join military service, knowing full well that they may need to give up their life at some point. In this way, the moral stigma surrounding suicide would be removed. Indeed, in a truly progressive society, this route to suicide may come to be seen as a legitimate lifestyle choice – one that might even become popular if/when death comes to be medically reversible.
My inspiration for this line of thought, which I have been pursuing from The New Sociological Imagination (2006) to The Proactionary Imperative (2014), is the great 1906 lecture by the US pragmatist philosopher-psychologist William James, ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. There James acknowledged that there is something of value in people willingly risking their lives in war – a sense of self-transcendence -- which nevertheless needed to be channelled in a more productive fashion. My modest proposal is that the taboos on suicide be lifted such that potential experimental subjects who are told that their chances of survival are very uncertain may nevertheless agree to participate with limited liability borne by the institution conducting the research.
To be sure, there remain many questions to be solved – such as who bears the liability of a subject severely harmed but not killed as a result of an experiment. In addition, the usual concerns about the potential exploitation of economically vulnerable subjects apply, and may even be intensified. However, the bottom line is that individuals should be presumed capable – until proven otherwise – of setting the level of risk which they are willing to tolerate, even including a level that implies a much higher likelihood of death than most people would tolerate. Such people have the makings of becoming the true of heroes of the transhumanist movement.