Thursday, February 09, 2006

Japanese Suicide and the Value of Life

Apparently, a growing number of Japanese have been using the Internet to find people with whom to commit suicide. These so-called group suicides are popular with those who want to commit suicide but do not want to die alone.

Turns out, Japan has the second highest suicide rate amongst industrialized nations with 24.1 per 100,000 people opting to kill themselves annually (it’s 10.4 per 100k in the U.S.). Why is this so? One reason is that Japan has no religious prohibition against suicide. It was an common part of Samurai culture and is still viewed as an acceptable way out of trouble, particularly financial trouble.

That's not the case for our culture, where suicide is deplored. In fact, from a socio-religious standpoint, we in the West consider any and all taking of life, whether by your own hand or another's, to be immoral. But we too have exceptions. In cases of the death penalty, abortion and the assisted suicide of the terminally ill, various groups within our culture believe the taking of life to be acceptable.

This all flows back into what is called “the culture of life.” Those that promote this culture claim that if we don’t draw clear and immutable lines we’ll slip into a moral grey area where the value of life is variable. And when the value of life is variable, the very moral fabric of the nation is at risk. After all, have not all the notoriously evil regimes (the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Maoists, the Taliban) shared a profound disregard for the sanctity of life? If we devalue one life, do we risk devaluing all lives?

I don’t like to believe that we have to live encased in such absolutes. I do not think assisted suicide or abortion or the death penalty threaten to push us into the abyss. It’s true that I disapprove of all three. But that disapproval is personal and I do not consider those who disagree with me to be immoral.

In the end, we have to acknowledge that the value of life is always variable. The grey areas are all around. The key is to keep away from the dark, away from death delivered with malice. For I believe it is through malice that life is unforgivably devalued. All the rest, all those grey areas where malice plays no part—we can survive with them, even as we seek a purer path.

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