Kant vs Cato

Ethics of SuicideI have recently come across an interesting post by Margaret Battin over at the Oxford University Press blog, entitled “Death with Dignity: is it suicide?” It’s a very interesting reading in its own right, exploring how the language we use to label a certain practice immediately shapes our ways of thinking about that practice. The same thing can be referred to as “little tiny babies” on one side and “fetal tissue” on the other, or “physician-assisted suicide” by critics, “self-deliverance” and “aid-in-dying” by supporters.

Of course, Stoics have had traditionally quite a bit to say about suicide, and I have already visited the argument a number of times (here, here, and here), and plan to do it again in the future — fate permitting, of course.

What caught my attention in Battin’s essay, though, is this connection between Kant and Stoicism: “Immanuel Kant argued against [suicide], though he acknowledged the possible exception of Cato.”

Hard to imagine that Kant would make an exception to his rather strict views on suicide, even when acknowledging a highly morally and historically significant figure like Cato. So I dug a little deeper, and found a paper by Jyl Gentzler, published in 2003 in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy and entitled “What is a Death With Dignity?

Again, the main trust of the paper, just like Battin’s essay, is not about Stoicism. Indeed, Gentzler examines the concept of dignity deployed by supporters of assisted suicide (or should we call it self-deliverance?) and finds it wanting. She then articulates an Aristotelian view of dignity, which she claims does support the legalization of assisted suicide, but only under fairly strict circumstances. (I tend to be significantly more liberal than Gentzler on both the concept of dignity and the permissibility of self-deliverance, but that’s a story for another essay.)

On p. 463 of her paper, Gentzler says: “for Kant, the existence of one’s person is not a mere limited end – it is an end-in-itself of unlimited and incommensurable value. The hardship that others suffer on account of one’s own survival is, necessarily, of merely limited disvalue. Therefore, in requiring others to suffer hardship by refusing to commit suicide, one refuses to treat oneself as a mere means to others’ limited ends, and, on Kant’s view, one acts as one is morally required.”

I’m no Kantian scholar, but that strikes me as about right. Now, the bit of concern to us as Stoics comes in the note referred to at the end of the bit I just quoted. Here is what it says:

“Margaret P. Battin claims that Kant recognizes another exception to his general prohibition of suicide – Cato’s suicide (Battin, 1980/1993, p. 278). However, the textual evidence that she cites does not support this interpretation. In his Lectures on Ethics, Kant recognizes that this case is tricky, but, in the end, he denies that Cato made the right choice: ‘’If Cato, under all the tortures that Caesar might have inflicted on him, had still adhered to his resolve with steadfast mind, that would have been noble; but not when he laid hands upon himself. Those who defend and teach the legitimacy of suicide inevitably do great harm in a republic’ (Kant, 1775–1780/1997, p. 148)”

[If anyone wishes to check what Battin herself wrote originally about this, here is the full reference: Battin, M.P. (1980). Suicide: A fundamental right? In: Battin, M. (1993). The least worse death (pp. 277–288). New York: Oxford University Press.]

Again, taking for granted the above caveat that I’m no expert on Kant, it seems to me that Gentzler’s interpretation is closer to the mark than Battin’s. But that’s not my main purpose here.

Instead, I wish to point out two things: i) This is a textual example of direct concern by Kant, arguably the most influential modern moral philosopher, with Stoicism. It is often said that Kant was influenced by Stoicism, especially in his conception of duty, but it’s nice to see the thing black on white, so to speak.

ii) More interestingly, I think Kant puts the emphasis on the wrong point, from a Stoic perspective. When he says “under all the tortures that Caesar might have inflicted on him” he seems to think (again, I’m happy to be corrected by Kantian scholars, if I’m getting this wrong!) that Cato was concerned with avoiding physical pain. But that is not at all why Cato committed suicide (see this recent biography of him). Pain, after all, is a dispreferred indifferent for Stoics, and the Sage is supposed to be “happy” (meaning, keeping his ability to exercise virtue intact) even on the rack. While nobody is a Sage, not even Cato, the threat of torture wasn’t the issue. The issue was being captured alive by Caesar’s emissaries and then been pared and used in Rome to further Caesar’s political advantage. That is what Cato objected to, to being an instrument of tyranny, as he saw it. (We do need to remember, of course, that Rome was no democracy, and that Cato himself was a member of the highly privileged Senatorial class. Still, the plebe did have more a voice in the Republic than it ever was going to have under the Empire that Caesar helped usher in.)

Now, Kant might still have thought that even that motivation isn’t enough to justify suicide within his deontological system. But Cato’s decision made perfect sense not only within the framework of Stoicism, but more broadly within Greco-Roman virtue ethics. Indeed, as Battin herself points out in the OUP post, we have similar examples of self-immolation from other cultures, such as those of Buddhist monks that walk through what Epictetus famously referred to as “the open door” in order to resist a repressive political regime. And so here is yet another similarity between the practices of Stoicism and Buddhism.

4 thoughts on “Kant vs Cato

  1. 3dbloke

    That quote from Gentzler (p. 463 of her paper) took several re-reads before I had its meaning clear in my mind. I’m happy to say your own writing style does not require the same effort Massimo. Far from it, in fact. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jason Cullen

    Perhaps I’m misreading here, but “And there goes yet another similarity between the practices of Stoicism and Buddhism” seems to imply that a similarity has been shown to be false.


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