I was just wondering what the libertarian approach would be if someone was suicidal or harming their selves in some way, is/are there any principles in the ideology that would have or warrant intervention?

I'm assuming that they would take it up until NAP time but if Aggression would be required would libertarian ideal set aside NAP due to other tenets of the ideology and how would the approach be observed in general?

NAP standing for Non Aggression Principle

To address a comment: this question is about Libertarianism as it does follow the motto of "Don't Tread On Me" which tends to mean that you are free to forge your own path and tends to follow the guidelines of being so far that your own path does not violate others rights. Self harm however is personal so what else is there to the Libertarian ideology that would address this if such a thing exist?

A good answer will cite the works or speeches of prominent libertarians.

  • 5
    What? Is this a serious question? How would a fascist deal with it? How would a communist deal with? How would someone who is left handed deal with it? How would someone who ate cereal this morning deal with it? Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 18:16
  • 4
    Suicidal behavior might be interpreted as mental illness which may cast doubt on a presumption of independence, so it might be treated differently than say not wearing a seat belt, not brushing your teeth, or donating a kidney.
    – user9389
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 18:40
  • 4
    By the way, "tenants" are people who rent a place to live. The word you want is "tenets". Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 20:22
  • 3
    We have a lot of other similar questions open, so it's hard to close this as off topic politics.stackexchange.com/questions/20421/… politics.stackexchange.com/questions/3285/… politics.stackexchange.com/questions/15752/…
    – lazarusL
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 21:50
  • 8
    To address many of the comments, this has historically been a significant problem for liberal philosophies. Notably, John Locke was somewhat (in)famous for his attempt to resolve the issue. So although it may not seem like a significant social issue, coming from the political theory side it is an important subject. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 1:38

4 Answers 4


Suicide (or more generally, self-harm) has been a difficult moral subject for libertarian philosophy. In earlier times, self-harm was held to be a moral evil. So the possibility of a moral philosophy which accepted self-harm was a serious situation.

Generally: Self-Harm is Permitted

In general, the libertarian philosophers make self-harm morally acceptable, but not required. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent article on suicide. The general argument within libertarianism is that moral rights follow from property rights. Since an individual "owns" their own body or life, they have the moral right to be able to inflict harm to themselves.

In fact, the same set of principles require others to accept suicide (because the person acted within their own property rights) and not to interfere with suicide and self-harm.

An Exception: John Locke

One notable exception to this is the work of John Locke. In Second Treatise of Government Locke argues that a person does not own themselves. Rather, God owns their lives. Accordingly, self-harm and suicide are not morally acceptable because they act contrary to the notion of property rights (because it means damaging someone eles's property).

  • That's a huge stretch, because although many libertarians are Christians as well as Locke, but many are not. Ayn Rand was an atheist, as 1 example. Locke was a "Classical Liberal" & although Libertarianism & Classical Liberalism are very, very similar & share many principles, I would say this is one area where Libertarians veer of the path of Locke's ideology. I consider myself a Classical Liberal & do NOT even believe that God owns my life in the literal sense & although I am also a Christian & believe suicide is a sin, I don't think taking my own life is a property rights issue either.
    – Aporter
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 11:24
  • 1
    @Aporter The headline clearly says that John Locke is an exception. Nothing in this answer suggests any common linkage between libertarianism and Christianity. Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 22:24

There are two broad categories of Libertarian responses. Some say that you just have to let people do whatever they want to themselves if they're not hurting anyone else.

Others say that relatives have the right to prevent damage if they can show that the self-harmer isn't acting as a competent moral agent. That is, they believe that aggression is only prohibited against competent moral agents and so wouldn't be prohibited against a self-harmer just as it wouldn't be prohibited against a rock.

Note that this is if they can show that the self-harmer is not acting as a competent moral agent. As a silly example, if some evil genius had used some mind control technology to make them self-harm. A more realistic example might be a physical brain injury or disease of some kind.

And before you ask if that means that if someone is temporarily not a competent moral agent does that mean that you can steal all their stuff, they'll answer "no". Their property still belongs to the moral agent they were, so long as it can still exist. And if it no longer exists, their property is inherited, not up for grabs.

  • Thank you for the pretty concise answer. Just in addition would close friends have any say in these scenarios?
    – SCFi
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 20:16
  • 2
    @SCFi I haven't discussed this issue in that much detail with that many Libertarians, so I can only guess. Those with a more anarchic bent might argue that anyone can do it, just like anyone can rescue a drowning dog even if they have to fight the dog to save it. Those with a more small government bent might argue that it has to be whoever courts would recognize as next of kin or a court might have to designate a guardian. I'm not sure. Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 20:19
  • 2
    You should add a link to an explanation from a Libertarian thinker how a "competent moral agent" is defined.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 23:37
  • @Philipp Moral agency is not specifically a Libertarian concept. Commented Aug 5, 2017 at 4:25
  • 3
    Can you link these arguments to specific authors or documents? That would be helpful for people who want to know more. Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 1:39

Libertarianism is based first and foremost on Natural Rights, from which all other rights stem. There seems to be a common misconception that the NAP is the foundation from which libertarian philosophy is built, and that it's based on physical aggression or violence, but that's not really accurate. Libertarians believe in violence in defense of Life, Liberty and Property. They do not believe in initiating violence against another person's Natural Rights. The Non-Aggression Principle is not just focused on direct physical violence. As a libertarian you believe that any attack against someone's rights is an act of violence, albeit not necessarily physically aggressive.

If you violate someone's property rights or even vote to take away another individual's liberty, those are considered acts of aggression. This is where the NAP is most important. Many people seem to think it only applies to foreign policy/war, or actual acts of physical violence. It's much more all encompassing in terms of Natural Rights.

With that being said; a Libertarian believes in using violence when necessary to protect life, liberty and/or property. As a Libertarian/Classical Liberal I believe that my right to defend my Life, Liberty and property doesn't just cover myself. It covers those around me that might be innocent victims and it covers anyone, including friends and family, which I care about. Which means if I am walking by a grocery store and there's some maniac shooting customers I have a right to draw my weapon and defend those lives. Or to defend the lives of people I care about or whatever. So I can ethically use aggression to defend Life, Liberty and Property.

I do not have the right to intervene if someone is trying to take their own life, here's why:

"a man's land, or merchandize, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights."


"Conscience is the most sacred of all property" - James Madison

In a nutshell according to Madison: every man has a right to do what he wants with his own life, and I have ZERO right to interfere with another man's right, whether or not it might make me feel good. Every man has a right to his own conscience(the most sacred property in it)and his own religious beliefs. If this man's own conscience and religious beliefs, lead him to take his own life, then nobody, not me, not you, not the government has a right to stop him. The only way you would have a right to stop him is if he was going to take another life in the process with his own.

  • 1
    Self-harm doesn't necessarily mean taking, or attempting to take, one's own life. But I'm guessing that from a libertarian viewpoint, the same principle applies to self-harm in general?
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 12:40
  • @F1Krazy Indeed, the term self harm could be exceedingly broad and using that qualifier to restrict people's actions could potentially be very tyrannical! You could say eating processed foods or drinking soda is self harm. Both are very bad for you, but I have no right to restrict you by saying you can't eat or drink what you want. Just as you have a right to do what you want with your life, you have a responsibility to make your own choices. The removal of personal responsibility = the removal of freedom
    – Aporter
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 12:49
  • 1
    Thanks for the answer. This answer would be significantly improved by adding links to your sources (such as the quotes) as well as backing up the core arguments. For example, a source explaining Madison's interpretation in more depth would be interesting to someone who wants to know more about that view. It also helps make sure that arguments are high-quality and not personal opinion. Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 22:26

Libertarianism is based on simple principles. Your life. you decide. Based on that, self harm is no brainer. How supportive libertarianism on self harm depends on how radical their libertarianism is.

In general YES. Self harm is OKAY. When a person fully consent doing things that you or society think is self harming, that person should have full right to do so. Government should NOT interfere.

The most obvious black and white case "text book" of self harm is suicide.

You can read here


The answer is unanimously YES. Libertarians allow self harm, and in general, even suicide.

Jeffry Miron answer will be very similar to mine

The more difficult question is assisted suicide. Freedom to assist someone else commit suicide might seem like a natural extension of the freedom to commit suicide, but assisted suicide does raise the issue of coercion. If assisted suicide is legal, it might be too easy for a spouse or other family member to force someone into a "suicide" that is really murder.

The issue is not whether something is self harm or not. The issue is whether something is consensual or not.

The ONLY exception is if consent is in doubt (other answers would quote, competent moral agent). Do we allow self harm when the actor is a child, not fully informed, yada yada yada.

Libertarians would prevent self harm. But libertarians would do so con sensually.

Self harm without consent is simply harming. And that's something libertarians and non libertarians are against.

In general it depends on whether consent of self harm is in doubt, whether the self harm act is "truly" self harm or just presumed to be self harm, or other things.

Consent matters a lot in libertarian. So whether an act is consensual or not would be a big deal for libertarians.

When consent of self harm is in doubt.

For example, say a person drink a poison that he doesn't know is poisonous. It looks consensual in theory, he drinks a poison con-sensually. But that's because he doesn't know it's poisonous.

A libertarian would say, you can force people not to drink it. Some libertarians agree that government have a reasonable reason to require proper labeling on most potentially dangerous food and drink.

You don't even have to be a libertarian to see that poisoning someone is murder and not suicide. And the state (for non radical libertarian), does have a case to prevent that.

Another sample is deceptive contracts. Libertarians in generals are against scams. But what count as scams or frauds is often grey. Look at Sim Lim scam. A person agrees to sign a contract to add insurance for his iPhone. http://www.asiaone.com/singapore/sim-lim-scams-student-reduced-tears-after-being-charged-1k-iphone-warranty

In theory the victim consent to pay by signing up the contract. In practice the guy that present the contract deliberately obfuscate the material term of the contract.

Again, as a libertarian, I have little issue if government would prohibit such things. That being said, as a libertarian, I really do not think government intervention will do much against such scam anyway.

Now let's take a look at something a bit "whiter"

However, once a person DOES know that the drink is poisonous, and he really wants to drink it, then he has all the right in the world to do so. That would be a standard libertarian ruling.

Perhaps a better question would be whether it's a good idea to use libertarian principles and allow self harm.

We all do things according to what we believe. Not allowing self harm means allowing other people, or government, to prohibits act, that they perceive as self harm to others.

What does that mean? That means government or anyone, can simply prevent you from doing anything you wish by declaring that what you do is self harm.

Usually typical prohibition against self harm is done by government prohibiting individuals from act that the governments or society deem self harm. Sometimes the individuals performing the act do not think they are self harming themselves.

In which cases, just like in most cases, libertarians would "err" on the side of giving individuals the choice.

How absolute libertarians are depend on how radical they are to libertarian principles.

Consider that the poison that you think is poison actually make someones' IQ higher and is not poison at all. Say other people have a right to stop people from self harming.

What would stop people from declaring that you are self harming when you are not really self harming?

What would stop me, from saying that you are harming your soul to hell if you don't pay me $1million and hence, I have the right to force you to give me $1 million.

You can argue that I am wrong. But that means I have to agree with your argument first before you can choose not to give me $1 million. Also, I have $1 million reason not to agree with you.

The more obvious cases are prostitution and drugs.

Most drugs are far less dangerous than cigarettes. Nobody dies due to ganja. Almost no body dies due to xtc. Even reasonably harmful drugs, like meth, can help autistic people when used properly and responsibly. Many people do that.

And yet, people, who are not customers, and have no incentive to be "right" on those drugs.

Most government in the world prohibit xtc, lsd, ganja, psychobilin, DMT, and so many things that do no harm at all. Half of jails are filled with people that do non violent crime.

Allowing the states, or the society, to prevent self harm, effectively give power for some people to simply "run others' life". That is very dangerous not only to the very people they supposedly "protect" but for society as a whole.

Not allowing people to self harm can be abused by the majority of voters and buy politicians to actually harm people they claim to protect.

I believe that the real reason behind anti prostitution acts is to put unnecessary burden on sexual transactions. Polygamy or temporary marriage can be very consensual. Criminalization of prostitution can be used to prohibit those 2 arrangements. However, prohibiting prostitutions is to the best interest of most males. Most males will have harder time getting laid if Donald Trump can easily pay 1000 women to fill his harem.

Hence, in most western countries, polygamy is prohibited. It's obvious.

As a moderate libertarian, I would require a very strong proof of self harming before voting in favor of candidate in government that wants to prohibit some self harm.

  • 3
    According to the OP, a good answer here should cite notable libertarians or famous speeches. This doesn't do that. Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 1:56
  • 1
    The first half of your answer is not about self harm at all. In the second half you are not trying to unveil the moral compass of libertarians view to self harm, you are arguing that specific cases are in fact not self harm.
    – Communisty
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 8:29
  • What I mean is most libertarians, in general favor right to self harm. That support is even stronger when the self harm is not even self harm at all. Most likely of which is prostitution and drugs.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 7:31
  • David Schwartz answer is similar with mine. Also don't include sources. I mean, it's pretty obvious that libertarians do not support government prohibiting self harm.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 7:45
  • I added some sources where most libertarian anonymously allow right to commit suicide. Suicide is pretty much "text book" self harm. There is no controversy there.
    – user4951
    Commented Feb 16, 2018 at 8:42

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .