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 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 his or her life willingly it is not necessarily 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 Indian practice of widow suicide is called sati, and often entails the widow lying down on her husband’s funeral pyre in an act of self-immolation. 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, intentionally ending one's life to preserve the resources 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 long-term planned action, yet may involve some short-term planning.
- Cadmean victory
- Human shield
- Lawrence Oates, an Arctic explorer who committed altruistic suicide
- Pyrrhic victory
- Self-sacrifice in Jewish law
- Voluntary Human Extinction Movement ("VHEMT") - does not promote direct suicide but encourages participants not to have any descendants.
- HMS Birkenhead (1845)
- Half a Life (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
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