Altruistic suicide is sacrifice of one's life to save or benefit others, for the good of the group, or to preserve the traditions and honor of a society. It is always intentional. Benevolent suicide, also referred to as agathusia (gr. agathos + thusia, ἀγαθὸς + θυσία, noble sacrifice) refers to the self sacrifice of one's own life for the sake of the greater good. Such sacrifice may be for the sake of executing a particular action, or for the sake of keeping a natural balance in the society. It is a theme or concept of a custom of sacrifice typically found within certain types of science fiction stories. However, real examples of these customs have been recorded to exist among some indigenous people, such as certain Inuit tribes. This was seen by Émile Durkheim in his study Suicide as the product of over-integration with society.
In contrast a "sacrifice" committed by force of a state is instead referred to as eugenics or mass murder, but may be otherwise referred to as "enforced population limits" or "population control". In literature, examples may promote the concept as a means for ending enduring types of social conflict, or else deride the concept as an example of a dystopian future society.
If a person ends their life willingly it is not seen as a tragic death. Émile Durkheim notes that in some cultures there is a duty to intentionally commit ritual suicide. A Japanese Samurai intentionally ends life (Seppuku) to preserve honor and to avoid disgrace. Indian, Japanese, and other widows sometimes participate in an end of life ritual after the death of a husband, although Westernized populations have abandoned this practice. The elderly members of certain cultures intentionally ended their lives, in what is termed as senicide. In hunter-gatherer societies, death "was determined for the elderly ... normally characterised by a liminal period and ceremonies in which the old person was transferred from the present world to the next." Durkheim also observes that altruistic suicide is unlikely to occur much in contemporary Western society where "individual personality is increasingly freed from the collective personality". Altruistic suicide has been described as an evolutionarily stable strategy. Altruistic suicide has a long history in India, even being noted in the Dharmashastras. Some perceive self-immolation as an altruistic or "worthy" suicide.
In contemporary Western society, this is seldom referred to as suicide, and most often referred to as heroism. This only exists in times of emergency, and is always lauded, and is perceived as tragic death. Self-sacrificial acts of heroism, such as falling on a grenade is one example. Intentionally remaining on deck of a sinking ship to leave room in the life rafts (for women and children), intentionally ending one's life to preserve the resources (fuel and food) of a group in the face of deprivation and the like are suicidal acts of heroism. Firefighters, law-enforcement individuals, undercover agents, sailors, and soldiers more often are at risk of opportunities for this form of unplanned self-sacrifice. These are all as a result of tragic, life-threatening, emergencies. It is only an emergency measure, a willing, yet unintentional end to the person's life. It is never as a result of a planned action, yet may involve some planning.
In popular culture
- In Dan Brown's book Inferno, Professor Robert Langdon stumbles upon an article entitled "W.H.O. needs Agathusia" (see above), dealing with the sacrifice that is required of a part of the world's population, in order to ensure the human race's survival in the face of imminent resource depletion and overpopulation.
- In real life the group Voluntary Human Extinction Movement ("VHEMT") does not promote direct suicide but not having any descendant among its affiliates, as an altruistic way to avoid suffering and more damages to thousands of other sentient species and also to millions of unborn human beings. It is a kind of "genetic suicide" (placing an end to the "selfish gene" stigma) in order that persons and animals already living may enjoy better conditions and more natural space.
- "Children of the Corn", a Stephen King short story in which all the children must offer themselves up to sacrifice when they are 18 years of age.
- Logan's Run (1967 novel and 1976 film), in which all are mandated to be terminated upon reaching the age of 21 years (30 in the film). The dystopian theme is a Cold War allegory, asserting the nature of the "East and West" contrast as one of totalitarianism versus freedom, as these manifest as artificial and natural drives, respectively.
- The "LifeDeath" story arc in the X-Men comic book, describing the practice of a fictional African tribe, in which the village elder, upon the birth of a new child, allows himself to die for sake of keeping the natural balance found by experience to be necessary for the tribe's survival.
- The Isaac Asimov novel Pebble in the Sky—In a distant future, Earth is radioactive and all inhabitants are euthanized at the age of sixty to keep the population under control. A similar idea is present in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Half a Life", where the Enterprise aids a planet where a person must commit ritual suicide on reaching the age of sixty.
- In Sonic Adventure 2, Shadow the Hedgehog uses up all of his power to prevent the Space Colony ARK from crashing into the Earth, which would destroy all life on the planet, which ultimately makes him fall to the Earth below, (presumably) killing him.
- The Stargate Atlantis episode "Childhood's End"—An expedition encounters a colony of humans who perform ritual suicide at the age of 25 in an effort to keep the Wraith away. The team learns that, unknown to the colonists, the tradition was created to stabilize the population size so that it could remain within the range of an ancient defense field. Eventually, the team reveals the truth, and improves the field so that the population can age and increase normally.
- In Lois Lowry's novel The Giver, the protagonist is a young boy living in a seemingly utopian future society which suppresses strong emotions. He has been taught that the elderly (and other "unfit" people) are "released" at a certain age to live outside the community, but eventually learns that they actually are being euthanized. This is meant to eradicate grief by making death normal and monotonous, but ends up making people numb to the horror.
- "The Lottery", a classic American short story by Shirley Jackson, describes the annual forced sacrifice of one resident of a small New England town in order to ensure a good harvest.
- In Japanese anime Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, Lelouch Lamperouge sacrifices himself and his life for the greater good by creating himself as the enemy, then being assassinated in front of the world, turning the world's hate for him into wisdom and knowledge.
- In Soylent Green (1973 film), agathusia is an available and acceptable service provided by government facilities in an overcrowded world. A character in the film takes advantage of this service, which does not appear in the novel on which the film is based.
- In The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan, Luke Castellan commits suicide to stop Kronos, the antagonist of the series, from possessing his body.
- Lewis B. Smedes (9 March 1989). Mere Morality: What God Expects from Ordinary People. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 114–. ISBN 978-0-8028-0257-6.
- Robert L. Barry (1 January 1996). Breaking the Thread of Life: On Rational Suicide. Transaction Publishers. pp. 13–. ISBN 978-1-56000-923-8.
- Steven J. Jensen (1 September 2011). The Ethics of Organ Transplantation. CUA Press. pp. 187–. ISBN 978-0-8132-1874-8.
- Rysa Ket. ReadOn. Rysa. pp. 1–. GGKEY:PJG0JH7UBZD.
- Brogden, Michael (2001). Geronticide: Killing the Elderly. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd. p. 57. ISBN 1-85302-709-X.
- Deniz Yükseker, Lecture on Emile Durkheim
- Mascaro, Steven; Kevin B. Korb; Ann E. Nicholson (2001). "Suicide as an evolutionarily stable strategy" (PDF). Lecture Notes in Computer Science. 2159: 120–132. doi:10.1007/3-540-44811-X_12.
- Vijayakumar, Lakshmi (January 2004). "Altruistic suicide in India" (PDF). Archives of Suicide Research. 1 (8): 73–80. doi:10.1080/13811110490243804.
- Coleman, Loren (2004). The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. New York: Paraview Pocket-Simon and Schuster. p. 48. ISBN 0-7434-8223-9.
- Blake, JA (Spring 1978). "Death by hand grenade: altruistic suicide in combat". Suicide & life-threatening behavior. 8: 46–59. PMID 675772.
- Dan Brown (14 May 2013). Inferno. Doubleday.