Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why you should not kill yourself and why we should try to stop you if you do try.

Yesterday, I wrote that if you want to talk a person off the ledge, you need to tie that action to current desires. Future desires do not work because future desires cannot reach back in time to influence current actions.

You can mention intrinsic values or displeasing god, but there had better be a present desire to do that which has intrinsic vale or aversion to displeasing god, or the augment will not work. When a person says, "If there is no intrinsic value or god to please, then life is not worth living," they are actually responding to a current desire to do that which has intrinsic value or pleases god - a desire learned through social forces, not one that occurs naturally. It is a desire that can be unlearned as an individual, instead, learns to find value in things that are real rather than things that are imaginary.

However, I did not actually tie suicide prevention to current desires.

I do not want to lie and make claims about intrinsic values or gods that do not exist. The question about whether to lie or "humor" a suicidal person with a belief in intrinsic values or a god is a legitimate question - but not the topic under discussion here.

To start, we all tend to have current concerns for fulfillment of our future desires. It is an important part of what keeps us alive. Show a person a button and say, "Pushing this button will cause you excruciating pain tomorrow lasting one hour." Few will push it. We live our lives considering the effects that our actions will have on our future selves.

This happens to be one current desire among many - often overridden by the weight of other current desires. These include the desire for sex (risking disease and, for some, the physical stress of pregnancy), for more food than is good for us, for things that thwart future desires. We put future desire fulfillment at risk by not saving for retirement and running up debts. Still, even if often outweighed, our interest in the fulfillment of our future desires is there, giving us motivating reason to act in ways that bring about future fulfillment.

We are also concerned about the future desire fulfillments of our friends, our children, and our friends' children.

This gives us reason to promote in others those desires that will contribute to our future desire fulfillment. Not only is it the case that we do care about the fulfillment of future desires, we should care - in the sense that people generally have many and strong reason to promote interests that fulfill rather than thwart future desires.

At this point, I want to bring up an important distinction that desirism recognizes. It is the distinction between desires TO fulfill future desires and desires THAT fulfill future desires. An aversion to activities that waste non-renewable resources is not the same as an aversion TO thwarting future desires. However, it is an aversion THAT prevents the thwarting of future desires - and one that people with a concern for preventing the thwarting of future desires have reason to promote.

The fact is, many suicides are irrational. The person incorrectly predicts whether future desires will be thwarted or fulfilled. They falsely conclude that current pain will extend into the indefinite future, thinking "Every future day will be as bad as today, and the only way to avoid that future pain is death."

This is often not true. The current pain itself is already working through the reward system to alter desires - creating and strengthening interest that avoid these pains and weakening or eliminating interests that contribute to them. In a few years, the pains will be diminished. Perhaps it will not disappear entirely. Perhaps, in some cases, it should not. However, it will diminish.

In other words, "It gets better."

This is not always the case. The 87 year old cancer patient who is either in excruciating pain or so heavily drugged she cannot think would not be irrational to conclude that her prospects for future desire fulfillment are slim. Similarly, we can imagine the case of a prisoner enduring day after day of torture rationally concluding that his prospects for future desire fulfillment are dim as well.

However, there are many cases in which these types of conditions are not met. For the person standing on the ledge, chances are good that it is true that, "Your calculations are mistaken. Your future is not as bleak as you think it is. You are incorrectly predicting sameness where, in reality, things will change. You will adapt. All you need is time. If you realized how wrong you are, you would not act this way."

Yet, this leaves open the question of whether we force this conclusion on people who disagree with us. We think it will get better. The person on the ledge disagrees.

Generally, the argument for liberty is that each agent is the most knowledgable and least corruptible individual regarding their own welfare. I have accumulated a great deal of knowledge about what I desire and how to obtain it. Furthermore, there is little or no chance that I will exploit the power I may have over my own life to advance interests other than my own. On the other hand, if somebody else is given authority to run my life, they will that authority to fulfill their desires, not mine. Even if it included an interest in my happiness and welfare, she would not have near the knowledge of what that is as I do.

Furthermore, I have many and strong reasons to promote in others an aversion to denying my freedom to act on that knowledge - and they have many and strong reasons to promote such an aversion within me. We do this through social institutions that promote a love of liberty and an aversion to slavery and tyranny.

This translates into an aversion to interfering with the liberty of the person on the ledge.

On the other hand, with respect to suicide among a certain class of people we are almost always dealing with people who are not the best judge of their future desire fulfillment - who have made incorrect inferences about the prospects of future pain. It is not unreasonable to conclude that a major support for liberty is missing. With drug users, alcoholics, and smokers, there is still an opportunity to teach them the error of their ways. With suicide, the only way to buy time is through force. We also have reason to worry about promoting such a casual indifference in another person's untimely death that people are not motivated to prevent those deaths. We have reason to want people to be motivated to prevent our untimely deaths, and they have reason to want us to be motivated to prevent their untimely death.

Here, I want to point out that one of the conclusions of desirism is that some moral questions allow for no easy answer. There are weighty matters to consider - and the only people clearly wrong are those who say that the answer is obvious.

If you are looking for a moral calculator where you can punch in the circumstances and easily draw out the moral right answer, desirism is not that theory.

Here, we weigh an aversion to interfering with liberty and an aversion to interactions with others without their consent against an aversion to the waste of a life and a need for time to convince somebody they are about to make what we can reliably know is a tragic mistake.

Ultimately, I would argue that suicide prevention offers an important exception to the provisions of liberty. It is a good thing to violate the liberty of a person considering suicide (with some exceptions for rational suicide). On the other hand, I would not argue that this is so obviously true that any who disagree must be indoctrinated into some idiocy.

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