If ever there was a man with a case to make for rational suicide, it was him. He fit the profile of the American cohort most likely to take their lives. He was white; he was over 65; he had no friends; he had no children; he was not married; and he was not practicing a religion. He was under incredible stress and although he was not suffering physically, his psychological pain was acute. What better reasons could you ask for?
And so Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself in his a high-security jail in Manhattan.
But however rational his motives were, you’ll have more luck finding a polar bear in Death Valley than finding someone who is tweeting, “Congratulations on affirming your autonomy, Jeffrey Epstein! Well done, bro!”
Politicians, journalists, lawyers, jailers and especially his victims are apoplectic that he took an early exit from life. And with good reason.
Jennifer Araoz, who accused Epstein of raping her when she was 15, told NBC News:
“I am angry Jeffrey Epstein won't have to face his survivors of his abuse in court. We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people. Epstein is gone, but justice must still be served.”
A lawyer for other women declared: “The victims deserved to see Epstein held accountable, and he owed it to everyone he hurt to accept responsibility for all of the pain he caused.”
Suicide is no longer a crime, but in Epstein’s case you can glimpse why generations past thought that it ought to be. William Blackstone, the famous British jurist, wrote in the 18th Century that there were two kinds of reasons for criminalising suicide.
The first was religious (in an officially Anglican nation), “in invading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for”. Whatever the merits of this point of view for Christians, it’s not very persuasive in the aggressively secular public square nowadays.
But the second was completely secular, or as Blackstone termed it, “temporal”. The felon acts “against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects.”
By this Blackstone did not mean that the lives of his subjects were the king’s property. As a figurehead constitutional monarch, an 18th Century British sovereign had no power over them. “The king” was legal shorthand for the ties binding English men (and women) to their communities.
The view of Blackstone’s age, which was generally accepted before the contemporary explosion of hyper-individualism, was that each of us is bound to life by a web of debts to society. To our families we owe our language, our knowledge, our health, our mastery of manners, our very existence. To our communities we owe our education and our livelihoods. To our nation we owe opportunities for social and economic advancement and safety from enemies domestic and foreign.
Those communitarian attitudes have evaporated. They seem obsolete in the Age of Me, when “no one can tell me what the hell to do!” It’s the view which explains legal assisted dying in Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, New Jersey and Vermont.
But egotism is fundamentally unrealistic. No man is an island; each of us is part of the continent of humanity. Our existence and survival depend upon hundreds, if not millions, of other people, often unknown to us personally. We all have a stake in our neighbour’s life. Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide demonstrates this truth in a startlingly unexpected way. It ought to make us question the conventional wisdom that we owe no one anything and that rational suicide is an acceptable option.
Jeffrey Epstein’s life was his own, but everyone seems to be in agreement that he had no right to kill himself.
Without him standing before a judge to be sentenced, there will be no justice for his victims, no sense of closure. He will never be forced to take responsibility for his crimes.
Without him standing in the dock, it will be impossible to know the full story of how he became a sexual predator, who enabled him, who connived with him, who turned a blind eye. We will probably never know the full number of his victims.
In the end, public outrage over Epstein’s suicide will demand more or less the same penalty dealt out by 18th Century justice. “What punishment can human laws inflict on one who has withdrawn himself from their reach?” asks Blackstone. And he responds:
“They can only act upon what he has left behind him, his reputation and fortune: on the former, by an ignominious burial in the highway, with a stake driven through his body; on the latter, by a forfeiture of all his goods and chattels to the king.”
Epstein won’t be interred in Times Square with a stake through his heart. But with the number of lawsuits brought against his estate, all his good and chattels will probably end up forfeited to “the king”.
For once, at least, Americans will be united in their belief that rational suicide is a serious wrong. It ought to make them think about the wisdom of assisted suicide, as well.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet