Monday, July 16, 2007


I have a request from the studio audience to address the moral issue of suicide.

Many "relativists" argue that suicide should be morally acceptable because (to overly simplify their position) you're not harming anyone but yourself and relate to smoking or any other self-destructive liberty. They also argue from the standpoint that condemning suicide promotes the extension of the torture of enduring life itself when suicide is desired. Finally, they argue against the ability for external forces to properly discern between euthanasia and suicide.

One way to interpret this is as a question about the morality of a specific act of suicide. The only possible answer to this question is, “It depends.” Even the act of torturing a child can be made permissible, even obligatory, if we put enough at stake on the other side of the equation. Have some alien race threaten to permanently torture every human on Earth unless you torture one child for one hour, and it becomes permissible. Now, a good person would have such an aversion to torturing a child that this act will likely leave permanent psychological scars (nightmares or even some sort of psychotic break), but this is not an argument against the permissibility of the act.

Condemning Suicide

If we are going to talk about suicide in general terms, then desire utilitarianism suggests that we look at the question of whether people generally have reason to use the tools of social condemnation to promote an aversion to taking one’s own life.

Here, some critics might sarcastically ask, “How are you going to condemn the person who wrongfully takes his own life? Are you going to send him to his room? Are you going to have him whipped?”

In earlier times, this was a common reaction to suicide, and it was a perfectly rational response. The purpose of condemnation is not so much to change the behavior of the person being condemned, but to change the behavior of everybody else. Banishment of the body from the community cemetery is unlikely to build remorse in the heart of the person who has already taken his own life. However, it is likely to build an aversion to suicide in those who are still alive, causing them to think, “I do not want to be thought of in that way, even after I die.”

Prima Facie Argument from Freedom

We can start this analysis from the fundamental argument for freedom. Earlier, I defended freedom on the grounds that each agent is the most knowledgeable and least corruptible individual to put in charge of directing each individual life. Where we are looking for desires that tend to fulfill other desires, a desire for individual liberty puts the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent in charge of each life, so it would be a desire that tends to fulfill other desires.

This argues that the burden of proof is on those who would condemn suicide. This burden would not be easy to overcome. The person making the claim needs to overcome the presumption that each person is the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent to put in charge of his own life (or death).

However, we are not completely lacking in arguments that claim to be able to do exactly this.

A Desire to Protect and Preserve Life

Life is an almost universal means to fulfillment of one’s desires. With few exceptions, any desire that an agent may happen to have can be more easily fulfilled by an agent who is alive than an agent who is dead. I am certain that I would suffer a significant decrease in productivity when it comes to writing essays for this blog if I were to suffer an unexpected (or even an expected) loss of life.

One of the ways that we can better secure our lives from being terminated is to promote a general aversion to the taking of a life. We have a great many string reasons for praising those who act so as to protect and preserve life, while condemning those who take life. One potential problem with capital punishment that I have mentioned earlier is that, as children hear adults cheer and applaud any range of killings, they may grow up to have a weekend aversion to killing, thus find it easier to become killers.

It certainly seems to be the case that societies whose citizens are so averse to killing that they even have an aversion to capital punishment may raise fewer murders. Similarly, a society that teaches its children to be so averse to killing that even self-killing is made loathsome might also raise fewer murderers.

In the absence of hard empirical evidence on this issue, we must make do with anecdotal and other less reliable evidence, keeping in mind that controlled scientific research could bring all of this into question.

Anyway, we have at least some anecdotal evidence that societies that are more lenient on suicide and euthanasia still have lower murder rates. People, it seems, have the ability to distinguish between the wrongness of killing others, and the permissibility of killing self.

We see further evidence of this in the fact that we do not seem to need a more general prohibition on putting a person at risk of harm. People seem quite capable of morally distinguishing between putting oneself at risk of harm (which is permissible) and putting others at risk of harm (which is generally prohibited)..

So, we do not yet have good reason to override the presumption in favor of liberty.

Bad Desires and False Beliefs

Still, we may have another reason to promote an aversion to killing self – because those who do so tend to do so for poor reasons.

For example, there is a genetic disorder that causes those afflicted with it to gnaw their own flesh, biting off their own lips and fingers. We may assume that the biting off of one’s own body parts is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. We certainly have reason to condemn those who have this desire, if we had reason to think that condemnation would do any good. Failing that, we have reason to call this affliction an illness, and take steps to prevent these people from doing that which they desire to do. For example, parents of children with this disorder may seek to have the child’s teeth removed.

Some percentage of suicides are due to depression or some other irrational desire. Other suicides are due to miscalculation over what the future will be like. Some suicides are based on false beliefs (e.g., that one will appear in a spaceship riding in the tail of a comet or that the cult one belongs to is under attack and all will be taken away and seduced into an evil life. Some suicides are done as a form of attack, by people think, “I’ll show you. I’ll make you suffer for what you did to me.”

Where rational suicides are the exception, and suicides grounded on mistakes are the rule, and there is enough evidence of this to override a presumption that each individual is the best informed and least corruptible agent of his own actions, we have reason to institute an aversion to suicide. This suicide will prevent people from doing that which, if they were fully informed with good desires, they would clearly not do.

The claim that a person who is considering suicide is mentally ill by definition - that no rational person would ever consider taking his or her own life – is patently false. There are clearly desires that can sometimes be better fulfilled by death than by life. One such desire is an aversion to pain. In situations where there is no way for a conscious brain to block out some pain, death may be a better way to fulfill a desire to be free of pain than conscious life, and unconscious life or life under so many drugs that one cannot function may justifiably be claimed to be as bad as death, at least when it comes to the agent’s ability to fulfill other desires.

However, the fact that there may be instances in which suicide is a rational option does not imply that society lacks good reason to condemn suicide. I once read a case of a person with obsessive/compulsive disorder being shot in the head. The injury did not kill him. In fact, it seemed to have cured his obsessive-compulsive disorder. The fact that there is an instance where being shot in the head produced good results does not change the fact that society has reason to promote an overall aversion to shooting people in the head.

The Old and the Young

As it turns out, instances in which a person can best fulfill the more and the stronger of his or her desires by dying are not that rare – particularly as people near the ends of their lives and who are in extreme pain. It also applies to people who have lost the ability to act so as to fulfill their desires – where there an empty shell – still ‘living’ in a technical sense, but with possibility of beliefs and desires motivating actions that aim to make true a valued state of affairs.

At the same time, we may expect that those who take their own lives for foolish reasons are those who are younger. Indeed, we tend to put greater restrictions on those who are younger precisely because they have a greater tendency to do things that they will regret, and will not be able to undo.

This suggests that there is a curious split in the effects of our attitudes towards suicide. There is reason to condemn suicide in the young if this prevents young people from performing actions that will tend to thwart their own desires and the desires of others, while permitting suicide in the old who can get relief from suffering through death, or who have already died in all but an overly technical sense of the word.

Furthermore, this is not a hard distinction, since there are young people who can be in extreme misery, and older people enjoying life and still capable of acting so as to fulfill their own desires.

An Ideal Position

Ideally, I hold that society should treat suicide as a medical condition. People who think that they may be better able to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires through death rather than life should be free to go to a doctor. A doctor can check their assumptions, run physical tests, and check to see if depression or some misunderstanding of the relevant facts is present. If it is not present, then the physician can administer the treatment that best fulfills the desires of the patient.

This will, unfortunately, require making some judgment call on the merit of the desires that would be fulfilled by death. The patient who comes in seeking an end to his life because he wishes to escape death, or he wishes to make his former lover feel bad, would not be permitted to fulfill those particular desires – at least, not with a doctor’s aid. Doctors shall not be made accomplices in a patient’s wish to do harm to others.

This brings up a principle in medicine that says to do no harm. However, when it can be demonstrated that a patient’s desires are better fulfilled in death than in life, then forcing the patient to continue living is not in that patient’s interests. In this case, life is an imposition that harms the patient. Death is a harm when death prevents a person from fulfilling her desires, and life is a harm when life prevents a patient from fulfilling her desires.

If such a system existed, then we can reasonably condemn anybody who seeks what we might call a ‘freelance’ suicide. These people (in most cases) may be considered foolish or evil – failing to show the proper appreciation for a careful analysis of the facts that we have reason to demand that all people seek.

However, in a society where the work is left up to amateurs, and where no professional option is available, we should not be surprised to find a society where amateurs are constantly mucking up the operation – committing suicide when they need not, and doing so (or attempting to do so) in sloppy ways that simply compound the misery and suffering involved.

Having said this much, there are a couple of additional concerns, that I discussed in the posting on Physician Assisted Suicide.

This, ultimately, is how I would address the issue of suicide.


Uber Miguel said...

Thanks Alonzo, it's amazing how many different angles you entertain throughout this post. I especially respect the fact that you even take time to flesh out the weaker positions one may take and why they tend to fall through.

Amazingly, I still have die-hard subjectivists who blindly adhere to the issue of individual freedom, as if the only alternative is the mind control of religion or state. Appealing to a professional solution of the healthcare system only seems to further elude to the opinions of the elite.

Of course, mention a hypothetical scenarios where things get personal and they typically bend to an interest in intervention. This suggests to me that their original position is flawed since they're left with an important desire (on the verge of an indirect need) that their ethical position is utterly incapable of justifying. By then, it's too late.

But you're probably right, the best way to address the issue is in terms of it being a medical issue.. although since the current system focuses more on weighing out levels of sanity instead of desires, it seems as though we're still in a tough position when we find that the option arises.

Anonymous said...

I think a computer system should be set up to analyze the person's situation to remove the possibility of subjectivity interfering with the right decision. A doctor might be more likely to say "yes" if the patient is someone he hates and more likely to say "no" if the patient is someone he loves.

Maybe we could set up suicide booths like they have in Futurama, only the booth asks you a series of questions and analyzes your mental state to try to determine if you really should commit suicide before letting you go through with it.