Death instinct

Other Names:
Death wish
Wish for self-destruction
Desire for death

The wish for self-destruction or self-harm expresses itself in the life histories of countless individuals. Some destroy their lives; others their careers; and others their relationships with other people. It is a sometimes invisible, corrosive force eating away at human development.

There are a number of theories to explain this phenomenon: Psychoanalysts, following Freud, speak of a death instinct; some feel this works as an efflux from the powers of the root psychic force, the libido. To other analysts it is an energy in its own right, the destrudo; while again for others, the self-directed destructive energy is distinguished as the mortido: this is supposed by some to be biologically situated although triggered by physical or mental reactions to what the organism perceives as deep-level pain, and thus constitutes an escape hatch. Others deny the biology, and say it is not an instinct but a psychological drive arising with the development of the individual psychic structure. Still other analysts suspect a positive purpose to what might be termed, self-reducing, or self-limiting tendencies in the psyche.


44% of Germans want to die before age 80, although 54% would reduce their calorie intake by half, and 10% would give up sex if these tactics could ensure them an extra 20 years of life.


Since the universe tends to disorganize itself via entropy, self-destructiveness would be a normal drive in humans. On a world level, wars and threats of nuclear wars may suggest a global death instinct.

The death wish shows itself in many ways: (a) suicide; (b) psychogenic death, or the surrender of the will to live; (c) murder, the murderer kills in order to be killed; (d) in war, a way of committing suicide is provided without the moral or religious guilt attached to it; (e) in certain philosophical, religious and political beliefs, such as atheism, agnosticism, humanism, existentialism nihilism and anarchism; (f) the choice of death-defying professions, such as mountain climbing, automobile racing, sky diving, and parachuting; (g) insanity veils full consciousness with its burdening responsibility; (h) sickness where many patients do not want to get well; (i) addictions to drugs and alcohol; (j) bad luck and accident proneness; and (k) pleasure which can also be a way of escaping the hard realities of life.

Counter Claim:

What is seen as a death-instinct may be a drive towards transformation to a higher level. This was the mystery of the seed taught as a parable in the New Testament, that unless it fell into the ground and died it could not bring forth new grain. In the Greater Mysteries at Elensis the initiates descended symbolically into the underworld, as they did in other Mysteries, in order to receive new life. The Islamic warrior fighting for his holy cause is still taught to sacrifice himself in battle so that he might immediately be reborn into paradise. In the arcana of human development, according to old but universal traditions, by a first death one won a second life.

Without the death urge, the drive to live would not exist. Until a person has come to terms with their own death, not some symbolic abstraction but the reality of rotting in the grave, they have not really lived. Coming to terms with the reality of death is not simply acknowledging it but personally forcing one's death to reveal the meaning of one's life. Without the death urge one's life has no authenticity.

Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 15: Life on Land
Date of last update
17.06.2018 – 03:58 CEST