This paper is a project in descriptive applied Chinese ethics, in which I attempt to analyze ethically the Confucian moral views on suicide in ancient China. As in Europe, there is a long history of moral debate on the moral status of suicide, and the long debate on the suicide of Qu Yuand and on Guan Zhong's refusal to commit suicide are obvious examples. Three pairs of theses and antitheses are formulated to represent Confucian moral rules and arguments for and against suicide, and they are as follow.
Thesis I: One should give up one's own life, if necessary, actively as well as passively, for the sake of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi.
Antithesis I: One should broaden the scope of one's commitment; instead of dying for a limited cause, one should live and die for an object of a higher order.
Thesis II: One should actively terminate one's life for the sake of avoiding humiliation, i.e., for the sake of upholding one's dignity.
Antithesis II: When there is no threat to one's life, and when the calling in life is clear, one should live on to fulfill one's vocation in spite of personal tragedy and undignified treatments.
Thesis lll : Filial piety reinforces, rather than overrides, Thesis I; it requires us to commit suicide that is obligated by ren and yi.
Antithesis lll: Filial piety requires us to take care of our parents, to preserve our life, and to procreate abundantly; hence it forbids suicide.
I submit that in other-regarding suicides, the predominant Confucian position is in its favour. Thesis I receives very strong backing in the Confucian traditions, and Antithesis I rises to prominence for only a very limited time. Though some Confucian scholars attempt to use Antithesis III to override Thesis I, it is met with opposition from Thesis III. In self-regarding suicides, in most cases (death as a solution to one's problems in life) the predominant Confucian position is against it, and Antithesis lll is the usual justification given. In one particular kind of self-regarding suicide, viz., to terminate life to avoid humiliation or to uphold one's dignity, the Confucian position, however, is strongly in its favour with Thesis II as its justification. Antithesis II receives only very limited support. (Classical Confucian endorsement of suicide for the sake of ren and yi s till exerts its influence on the moral thinking of twentieth century Chinese intellectuals, especially during the dawn of Republican China and during the "Cultural Revolution.")
Accordingly, though there is diversity among traditional Confucian moral perspectives, a sharp contrast between the pre-modern western views on suicide (with the exception of Stoic Rome) and the Confucian perspectives on suicide is still discernable. A predominantly negative moral judgement on suicide was characteristic of pre-modem Western ethics. To approve of suicide morally had the burden of apology. The major moral issue was, accordingly, "Is it morally permissible to commit suicide, especially suicide for one's own sake?" From ancient Confucian perspectives however, suicide for the sake of ren and yi was never deemed wrong and needed no apology; those who thought otherwise, however, had the burden of proof. The major moral issue was, accordingly, "Is it morally permissible not to commit suicide for the sake of ren and yi?"
Though this paper deals with mainly Confucian ethics, inter-school debates (between Daoism and Confucianism) are noted as well as inter-school debates (between different strands of Confucianism) are fully noted.