Sociology Index

Altruistic Suicide

Altruism, Egoistic Suicide, Anomic Suicide, Fatalistic Suicide

The term 'altruism' was used by David Emile Durkheim to describe a suicide committed for the benefit of others or for the community: this would include self-sacrifice for military objectives in wartime. Altruistic suicides reflect a courageous indifference to the loss of one's life. In altruistic regard for others is the principle of action.

Altruism is social behavior and value orientation in which individuals give primary consideration to the interests and welfare of other individuals, members of groups or the community as a whole. Sociobiologists argue that altruistic behaviour has its roots in self-interest, the unconscious desire to protect one's genetic heritage.

Critics of sociobiology respond that altruism is evident between individuals and in social situations where people are completely unrelated genetically and claim that human conduct and motivations 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 altruistic suicide springs from hope and faith. Contemporary sociologists have used this analysis to explain Kamikaze pilots, the cult of the suicide bomber, people who saw the social world as meaningless and would sacrifice themselves for a greater ideal. The altruist who commit suicide based on altruism die because they believe that their death can bring about a benefit to the society. In other words, 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.

We also have followers and servants who kill themselves because it is his/her duty upon the deaths of their chiefs. Durkheim argued, such a sacrifice is imposed by society for social purposes; and the individual personality must have little value, a state Durkheim called altruism, and whose corresponding mode of self-inflicted death was called obligatory altruistic suicide.

Durkheim distinguished between egoistic, anomic, altruistic, and fatalistic suicide, classifications that reflect then-prevailing theories of human behavior. Dismissing altruistic 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.

Evolution of the Concept of Altruistic Suicide in Pre-Durkheim Suicidology
Goldney, Robert1; Schioldann, Johan1
Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, Number 1, January–March 2004 , pp. 23-27(5)
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, FRCPsych, The Adelaide Clinic, 33 Park Terrace, Gilberton, South Australia, Australia 5081
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.
Whilst the concept of altruistic suicide is usually attributed to Durkheim, 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?
Christian Greek orthodox Neomartyrs: A Case Study
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."(7) The life and martyrdom of the Greek Orthodox neo-martyrs reveal that there were several dynamics at work, and as the appendices indicate martyrdom cannot be explained in personality structures and psychological terms.
Undoubtedly former apostates from Christianity possessed the desire to atone under "the weight of excessive guilt,"(8) but the majority of neo-martyrs followed neither a uniform ritualistic behaviour nor an identical pattern. 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
Archives of Suicide Research, Volume 8, Number 1, January–March 2004 , pp. 43-56(14)
Abstract: E´mile 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. Yet, studies of Greeks and Romans show ample examples. 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 [discard] 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.