Sociology Index


Altruistic suicides reflect a courageous indifference to the loss of one's life for a honorable cause. The term Altruism was used by David Emile Durkheim to describe an altruistic suicide. Altruism is social behavior and values orientations in which individuals give primary consideration to the interests and welfare of other individuals, members of groups, or the community as a whole. Altruistic suicide is committed for the benefit of others or for the community. Altruistic suicide springs from hope and faith. Contemporary sociologists have used altruistic suicide ideology to explain Kamikaze pilots. A classic example of altruistic suicide would be the cult of the suicide bomber.

In altruistic suicide occurs where people who saw the social world as meaningless would sacrifice themselves for a greater ideal. We also have seen followers and servants who commit altruistic suicide because it is his or her duty upon the deaths of their chiefs. David Emile Durkheim argued that such altruistic suicide is a sacrifice imposed by society for social purposes.

David Emile Durkheim described certain self-inflicted death as obligatory altruistic suicide. Sociobiology argues that altruistic behavior has its roots in self-interest, the unconscious desire to protect one's genetic heritage. Altruistic suicide was described by George Savage as 'To save others from suffering.' Altruistic suicide may be for the sake of executing a particular action, or for the sake of keeping a natural balance in the society. Real examples of such an altruistic suicide as a custom have been recorded to exist among some indigenous peoples, such as certain Inuit tribes.

Fatalistic Suicide results "from excessive regulation." Egoistic Suicide occurs when an individual has a low level of integration into society. Anomic Suicide can happen when an individual has set goals and then experiences a failure in achieving those goals due to societal conditions. Durkheim distinguished between egoistic, anomic, altruistic, and fatalistic suicide, classifications that reflect then-prevailing theories of human behavior. Dismissing altruistic suicide and fatalistic suicide as unimportant, he viewed egoistic suicide as a consequence of the deterioration of social and familial bonds and linked anomic suicide to disillusionment and disappointment.

Motivations for altruistic suicide cannot be explained without reference to the values and norms of culture. The altruist looks to a goal beyond this world, and believes this world to be an obstacle and burden to him. The altruists who commit suicide based on altruism die because they believe that their death can bring about a benefit to the society. When an individual is too heavily integrated into the society, they will commit suicide regardless of their own hesitation if the society's norms ask for the person's death.

Altruism is a state opposite to egoism, in which the individual is extremely attached to the society and thus has no life of their own. Altruism is at the heart of the mystical traditions propagated by both of the great Asian religions - Hinduism and Buddhism. The fiery self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war is a political exemplification of the inspirational power of this belief system.

In India, as noted in ancient religious texts like the Dharmashastra, two forms of altruistic suicide were practiced. Jauhar, a kind of mass suicide by women of a community when their men suffered defeat in battle; and Sati, the self-immolation of a widow along with her husband. The practice of Jauhar has ended but the practice of Sati still continues.

Evolution of the Concept of Altruistic Suicide in Pre-Durkheim Suicidology
Goldney, Robert1; Schioldann, Johan, Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, Number 1, January–March 2004.
Abstract: Suicide as self-sacrifice was described by early nineteenth century authors before the delineation of altruism by the French Philosopher and Mathematician Auguste Comte. The concept evolved, leading to the categorization of altruistic suicide by Savage in England in 1892 and the elaboration of the term by Durkheim in France in 1897. Pre-Durkheim suicidologists were aware of the subtleties of sacrifice as opposed to revenge in this type of suicide.

Altruistic suicide: precedence in usage - Robert D. Goldney. Regarding the belief that Durkheim was the first to use the term altruistic suicide. Altruistic suicide was described by George Savage as ‘To save others from suffering. To benefit others’, in his chapter on suicide and insanity in Tuke's Dictionary of Psychological Medicine in 1892. Further-more, the notion of suicide as self sacrifice was also described by Mercier in his book Sanity and Insanity in 1890. Altruistic suicide is usually attributed to Durkheim, but the evidence is persuasive that Savage deserves scientific precedence in the use of this term. This has been discussed further in Pre-Durkheim Suicidology: 1892 Reviews of Tuke and Savage (Goldney and Schioldann, 2002).

Altruistic Suicide or Altruistic Martyrdom? - Demetrios Constantelos - From Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, No 1, 2004.
Some students of psychohistory have tried to explain religious martyrdom in terms of compulsive suicidal desires: For example, it has been stated "suicide thinly disguised as martyrdom was the rock on which the Church had first been founded." There is no evidence, not even indications, that they were compulsive neurotics who sought martyrdom in order to escape from fear and anxiety, or to achieve notoriety and fame for posterity.

Paetus, It Does Not Hurt: Altruistic Suicide in the Greco-Roman World
Hooff, Anton. Abstract: Emile Durkheim, a student of classical education, studied altruistic suicide through an exploration of ancient culture. He associated the concept to civilizations in which people have not reached a sufficient degree of individuation and held that the Greek and Roman civilizations had already developed and were not strongly integrated, a precondition for frequent altruistic suicide. Loyalty and devotion appear to be especially powerful motives. It is concluded that altruistic suicide had its place inside the Greco-Roman world.

"The recent events in Turkey! They fit Durkheim's definition of altruistic suicide to a "T." They are persons who, in Durkheim's words, "Are almost completely absorbed in the group... who completely their individual personalities for the idea of which they have become the servants. - Suicide as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: Emile Durkheim Revisited, By Harold A. Gould, COUNTERPUNCH: November 25, 2003.

Asking whether euthanasia during the Third Reich is relevant to contemporary debates about physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia is dismissed as inflammatory. Physician-Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: Before, During, and After the Holocaust explores the history of euthanasia-assisted suicide before and during the Third Reich in depth and demonstrate how Nazi physicians incorporated mainstream Western philosophy, eugenics, population medicine, prevention, and other medical ideas into their ideology.