Philosophy Professor Discusses the Morality of Suicide at Fordham University


Professors of philosophy from various colleges and universities discuss their ideas. Photo by Celina Durgin.

Dr. Jennifer Uleman, a professor of philosophy at Purchase College, presented a paper on philosopher Immanuel Kant’s ideas concerning the morality of suicide during a workshop in early modern philosophy at Fordham University on November 20.

Uleman used Kantian ethics to discern why suicide cannot be universalized.  She began by addressing the question, “Why does Kant believe suicide is immoral?”

To answer it, Uleman first delved into other questions Kant addresses, with which most King’s students are familiar:

How does free will relate to morality?  Is morality universal?  How do we know?  How does the nature of man determine the way we should act toward each individual?

Uleman found it necessary to tackle an apparent contradiction between Kant’s view on free will and his opposition to suicide.  Kant believed that man’s free rational agency is his highest faculty.  Uleman questioned why he didn’t consider suicide, in which a person takes his very life into his own hands, to be a consummate exercise of that free will.

The answer to this question also ultimately answered her main question, which asked why suicide cannot be “universalized.”  Kant’s famous universal imperative of duty states, “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”  Despite Kant’s emphasis on the value of free will, he believed that suicide should not become a universal law of nature.

Dr. Jennifer Uleman answers questions after her presentation. Photo by Celina Durgin.

Uleman determined that “nature” does not refer to a nature that is physical or teleological (“Teleology” teaches that design and purpose, like those found in human actions, are inherent in all of nature).  Rather, “nature” refers to the nature of a community comprised of rational beings, who are “ends in themselves.”  In other words, the morality of a person’s action in such a community depends upon his intentions towards other rational beings, who are inherently worthy of that person’s best intentions.

Uleman concluded that suicide directly rejects that community and denies the worth of one’s life as an end in itself.  According to Kant, in order for a person to commit suicide morally, he must intend that suicide should become universalized.  In doing so, however, he is devaluing the lives of others as well as his own, which can never be morally acceptable.

Dr. Uleman has taught philosophy at Purchase College in New York for eight years.  She received her bachelor’s degree at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and her doctorate at Penn State.

“I discovered in high school that I loved philosophy,” Uleman said.  “I took a philosophy class, and it was then that I realized I didn’t want to do biology or mathematics or literature or history.  I found what I loved.”