The Problem with Death

This week’s post-grad seminar session began with our professor recommending that we be a little more disciplined in our discussions than last time… when I was rattling on about my viewpoints on things until a professor from another department knocked on the door and said it was her turn to use the room. I wasn’t singled out for discipline in any sense, but there was clearly a hint for me to take: new students in particular need to avoid the temptation to say everything they think they know about whatever subject comes up. This is one of the advantages of having a blog though: when I feel like I have something to say about a subject, and I’m not sure if anyone is actually interested or not, I can put my ideas up here for the perusal of those who are interested, and those who don’t really care can easily ignore my comments.

As it happens, I’ve given a fair amount of thought to the question that was up for discussion this week’s seminar gathering: the moral acceptability of suicide. To me the most important aspect of the question is to prevent kids from doing it, or even getting to the point of seriously considering it even if we can prevent that. The question is, can we find a philosophical justification for preventing suicide, especially in an across-the-board sort of manner?teen_suicide_in_black_and_white_tollie_international (1)

By way of background perspective, I had some friends who, in the 1980s, got to do a trans-Atlantic crossing together on a rather small ship. In fact one of them “accidentally” took my camera tripod along on that adventure to film the motion of the ship at “calmer moments” from the bridge and the deck. They all had plenty of stories to tell about the joys of extreme motion sickness under such circumstances. A common turn of the phrase for them was, “First you get to the point that you’re afraid that you might die. Then you get to the point where you’re afraid that you might not die!”

Émile_DurkheimI’ve known many people who have come to feel that way –– fearing that they might not die –– for many reasons other than sea sickness as well. Taken to the extreme where someone feels that all life has to offer is suffering, and the only way to escape from that suffering is to die as soon as possible, this leads to what Durkheim called fatalistic suicide. I find this particularly tragic especially in the case of young people, where there are so many possibilities beyond the horizon of pain that they are not able to see beyond, which lack of perspective robs them of. I would go as far as to say that adolescent suicide is, in my honest opinion, the greatest of all human tragedies, bar none.

From extensive first-hand and second-hand experience I can say that tragically painful situations, when (like seasickness) they don’t end up resolving themselves and going away entirely on their own, are things you end up getting used to. The human mind automatically starts to block out useless information about on-going states of affairs. As I sit writing this, for instance, no matter how hard I listen I can’t hear my own heart beating. I rationally know that the vibrations that my heart is sending to my ear drums are stronger than those coming from my refrigerator about 5 meters away, which in the quiet of my apartment I can actually hear. But since I can take for granted that if I am conscious my heart is actually beating, there is no real benefit to be had from hearing this organ’s function; so my mind blocks it out, enabling me to pick up smaller, less continuous stimuli that the sound of my own heart might otherwise cover up. My mind does the same with many other continuous physical and emotional stimuli as well. If it isn’t changing we can’t help but learn to ignore it. Or to put it in the terms that one friend said to me as I was struggling with the pain of my first divorce, “’You can get used to anything,’ said the man on his third day swinging from the gallows.” The sad part is to see how many people give up on life before they reach the point of peace with automatic acceptance of new sorts of limitations in life.

Two significant Hollywood films have tackled this question from the perspective of the tragically injured quadriplegics: Whose Life is it Anyway? and Million Dollar Baby. The question that such films and stories raise is, what is actually morally wrong with suicide in such cases? If the source of my basic joy in life is permanently gone, without the slightest hope of it returning, and I have nothing to look forward to in life but on-going, useless suffering, why should I be required to continue on with such an existence? Who has the right to place such a requirement on me? What gives them such a right?

The standard answer given in such cases is that if people would be allowed to give up whenever they cannot see beyond the horizon of pain they are faced with, society would suffer from too serious a series of deaths as a result. The suicide epidemic would be worse in this respect than the African AIDS crisis. And since we can’t just let everyone who feels that way go ahead and die, we need to set legal and moral standards which prohibit anyone from committing fatalistic suicide. The problem with this approach is that it frames the question as being one of a power struggle between the interests of the individual and those of the society, with an assumption that the good of the society has to take priority over the good of the individual. The same essential weakness is present in any argument that requires people to continue living just because it is “against God’s will” for them to die until “He takes them”: it assumes that individuals have the moral duty to suffer for some “greater good” regardless of what it does to their personal possibilities for satisfaction or thriving.

This is inherently related to questions of what makes human life as such valuable, who has the right and duty to defend particular human lives, when is it “natural” to allow lives to end, and on what authority can anyone be kept alive against their will. All of these questions have a long tradition of finding answers in the theological realm, and the process of attempting to answer them on purely non-theistic bases –– as a matter of principle for those who wish to avoid any morality based on theism –– has caused at least as many problems as it has solved thus far.

I could open up the question of whether or not we actually need to assume that humanity has any inherent value. Finland’s pioneering mass school shooter, Auvinen, posted on-line pictures of himself in a t-shirt which read, “Humanity is overrated.” Is that a philosophically and morally defensible position? My guess is that in the current age finding “serious moral philosophers” to defend such a position would be more difficult than it would have been for Anselm in his age to find the sort of “fool” who doubted the existence of God enough for him to test out his arguments properly. The postulate that human life has inherent value is the one thing that all ethical thought in our age seems to hold in common. Treating people as valuable only when they serve some purpose for those in positions of power is an age old problem, and many would say that such an attitude is the basis of the fundamental evils that any system of thought calling itself “ethics” has a duty to fight against.

Treating people as mere means of achieving some “greater good” rather than considering them (us) as inherently valuable entities unto themselves is what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to prevent; this being, from the UN founders’ perspective, the most obvious means of preventing the evils of Nazism from freely reoccurring. It is fair to say that both religious and strictly secular authorities have had their own ideas of what sort of people are less valuable and more disposable than others, and these ideologies should be seen as equally evil. What we all theoretically agree on is that people should be considered important and valuable, and entitled to certain rights, just because they are people.

The question remains, however, as to how we are to conceptualize the basic human value that our ethical systems must be sworn to defend. Should it be on the basis of sentience, or intelligence, or capacity for empathy, or shared evolutionary interests, or some more “spiritual” factor? On this we have no consensus, and on this basis I continue to believe that religious approaches to the question deserve to be taken seriously. The only paradigmatic alternative is to postulate that evolutionary competition is the basis for all morality, and the risk of eugenic approaches following from such a paradigm cannot be readily dismissed. Suffice to say, I accept the proposal that we agree that human life is valuable in and of itself, and for the time being (for purposes of considering the moral status of suicide) the issue of its metaphysical reasons for being so can be set aside.

A related question that I believe can also be set aside as unresolved here is that of the complete extent of authentic volitional choice available to the individual with suicidal tendencies. Choice is never absolute, yet choice exists, else this whole debate is nonsense. It must be accepted as a basic given that nothing we do as human beings is the result of some abstract “free will” operating within a metaphysical vacuum. Everything we do has causes involved, including hormonal, environmental, genetic and behaviorally conditioned factors. Likewise it must be accepted that conscious choice as we experience it, to the extent that it is not demonstrably an illusion, should be accepted as a reality of the human condition. There are some things that we decide for ourselves, and were this not to be the case then to accuse any person of acting immorally would be as absurd of accusing the Atlantic Ocean of acting immorally in flooding New Jersey last October. We must postulate then that there is some extent to which people intentionally choose their actions, and some extent to which we can justifiably attempt to limit the extent which others can choose actions that we find particularly risky or offensive in some sense. And while it is theoretically possible that this choice factor is key to what makes human life valuable, we are not going to reach the point of basing or conditioning our defense of human life on such a factor.

Sea-sick-while-fishingAll that being said, when it comes to dealing with the issue of fatalistic suicide –– a person wishing to end her life because she sees no alternative path that it could take beyond continuous and meaningless suffering –– I’d like to come back to the question of my seasick friends. One of them actually did fall overboard and was rescued on that voyage, but none of them actually died, and some 30 years later the vast majority of those trans-Atlantic adventurers are happy to still be alive. Fearing that they might not die in their deepest moments of suffering was a passing phenomenon. Most of them were intelligent enough to realize this at the time, and for those who weren’t, their friends took responsibility for keeping them alive even if was against their will at the time.

The logic of preventing suicide in these cases is obvious. These friends were able to return to life very much as they knew it before their painful experiences. But what about those who lose some significant part of their physical and intellectual joys in life? What if they can no longer walk, or drive, or use their hands, or see, or hear, or have sex? What if their brains become damaged to the point where they can’t they can’t any longer appreciate great literature, or recognize their loved ones, or control their emotions in a dignified manner? At what point are they allowed to say, “Enough is enough”? And how can we find a way to draw the line between these cases and those in the above paragraph?

Obviously there are no black and white moral answers here, especially in cases where medical science keeps bodies functioning long after their diminished capacities would “naturally” have shut them down. But we also need to remember that human life as we know it is a terminal disease. All of us are getting older all the time, and all of us are continuously, progressively losing particular important abilities. Eventually this process kills us –– every one of us. The real moral question here is, how far we can justifiably intentionally slow down or speed up the actual dying process under given circumstances? What is lost when death comes sooner than it “rightfully should”? What is gained by “getting it over with” in certain sorts of particularly hopeless cases?

I believe there need to be two operative rules of thumb here: First, with time the transitional pains that go with the onset of illness, injury or personal trauma of any sort have a tendency to pass or to become easier to live with, and we need to allow time to “do its work” in this regard before making room for rash decisions. Of course certain things may never be the same, and certain opportunities and capacities can never be restored, but life has a way of offering us surprising new forms of satisfaction when we let it. Getting those who are depressed due to acute pain and sense of personal loss past their immediate crisis is thus the first moral priority. Second, though there may be some cases where things have become irreparable and new joys in life are entirely out of the question –– where continuous entropy is entirely inevitable and justifiable to avoid –– it is still far better to ere on the side of preserving life too long than on the side of ending it too quickly.

But all this this really only covers one of four aspects of suicide that Durkheim’s seminal work on the subject identified. At the other extreme from the fatalistic we have the case of anomic suicide, where the individual feels that his or her life is too far out of control to be enjoyed any further; where rather than certainty of pain, the person feels lost in a sense of uncertainty about all that she considers to be existentially important. In such cases the act of ending one’s own life can be the last ditch effort necessary to prove to oneself that there is something I’m still in control of. For these people I believe that it is important to put them into the sort of therapy where they come to realize that there are more important things in life than a sense of control. The fact that many people never realize this is tragic enough, but it doesn’t have to be something worth dying for. Then again, when dying becomes the symbolic object of a power struggle against others and the world, there are limits to how much you can help a person with therapy.

That covers the suicides caused, in Durkheim’s analysis, by too much or too little predictability in life. That leaves those which are caused by too much or too little personal connection with those around us. Those who feel detached from society –– who give up on life because no one seems to care, or who decide to end their lives as a form of revenge against those who “should have cared more” –– commit what Durkheim’s translators called “egoistic suicide”. The opposite extreme to this is those who risk or sacrifice their own lives “for the good of others,” thus committing “altruistic suicide.” In both of these cases our moral priority seems to be to avoid these suicides being based on mistaken premises and, ironically in both cases, to encourage all the greater level of social connection.

When an egoistic suicide attempt is viewed as a “cry for help,” we are actually prone to actually give the suicidal person what they want in some form; that is unless we consider them to be unreasonably demanding and incapable of recognizing the importance of others in turn. But rather than a moral issue or an individual mental health issue, we tend to take egoistic suicide attempts as a sign that we have some repairs to do on our social structures. Thus the prevalence of teen suicide in Finland and Japan is one of the strongest signs we have of a need to fix some aspects of the school systems in these countries. Some blame goes to the individuals in question, but more goes to the system.

spocks death scene

The classic scene of Spock’s self-sacrifice is something that no one would dare to moralize against.

When it comes to altruistic suicides, unless they are suffering from a tragically delusional messiah complex we tend to treat them as heroes: the soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, the firemen who rush into the burning World Trade Center on 9/11, the nuclear power engineer who goes into the highly contaminated reactor area to shut down the reaction and save the local village, the mother who is killed in defending her daughter against brutal rape by invading soldiers… all heroes. As long as they are doing something authentically important in sacrificing their lives, we tend to praise them for doing so. That may be a matter of society callously encouraging people to consider their own lives less important than the society’s shared objectives, or it might be a matter of recognizing some things to be more important than the prolonging of the physical processes of human life for their own sake.

In the latter sense these altruistic suicides can be compared with recreational drug users and extreme sports enthusiasts. In both cases it could be argued that the risk of death, or the extreme likelihood of death, is not the primary objective of the action, but it is considered a valid risk to take / price to pay for the benefit potentially gained by the action. So the question is whether or not the audience offering the moral evaluation agrees with the pro-and-con assessment implicit in the risk-taker’s actions. To save other people’s lives, sure, we’ll morally accept that choice. To experience an ever increasing heroin high, no, we’re not likely to accept that as a valid trade-off. To get the adrenalin rush of pushing out the envelope with your stunt performances, reviews are likely to be mixed. In any case, whether your actions are accepted by others or not there’s some truth to the adage that there’s no point in prolonging your survival if you never really live; and if this process of really living shortens your period of survival in some cases, you can be at peace with that –– even if, strictly speaking, you might not be able to “live with that”.

Life is short; there’s no getting around that fact. Eventually, inevitably, death has to become part of life for all of us. But if we can keep ourselves and those around us from making life even shorter than it has to be, that has to be a step in the right direction. I still agree with Kierkegaard though, that the point of life is to find something worth living and dying for, and no amount of longevity can replace that sort of purpose in life. A death that reflects a deeper purpose is far to be preferred to an extended life without such. But some sort of life has to keep going for that purpose to be revealed and realized, and the longer that extended life can be my own, the more successful I will consider myself to be at the art of living. I wish that as many others as possible would have the same sort of success, and that as few as possible would end up getting short-changed in this regard –– especially by their own hand. Your mileage may vary.


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Filed under Death, Ethics, Human Rights, Philosophy, Purpose, Risk taking, Spirituality

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