Friday, February 3, 2012

Suicide and Deontological Ethics

This is interesting. I’ve hit a rare breaking point in my philosophical beliefs. Yesterday, Jack Marshall wrote about Don Cornelius’ recent suicide, and today he took it as an opportunity to recall a post from years ago regarding Hunter S. Thompson having killed himself in 2005. In the first place, Marshall was making the point that the social ethics regarding suicide may have to change as a deeply flawed health care system makes the last years of people’s lives burdensome to their families and communities. But Marshall reposted his comments about Hunter S. Thompson in order to make it perfectly clear that he has an unforgiving attitude towards suicide outside of the special cases of extreme old age and infirmity.

I appreciate the pointed focus on ethics of Jack Marshall’s blog, and I read it frequently, but I find that I am often at odds with his politics, as he is quite conservative, and I am sometimes at odds with his ethical theories, as he is unambiguously utilitarian. That latter fact explains why Marshall is able to conceptualize ethics as so flexible that suicide may be wrong in every case for one generation, but circumstance-dependent in another. I have never been comfortable with the idea that the rightness or wrongness of actions can change. I don’t believe that ethics are so flighty and inconsistent, so I have always subscribed to a deontological outlook, considering actions to be right or wrong entirely unto themselves.

Thus, I disagree with Marshall about the idea that the ethic of suicide may be different in the future than it was in the past. But as it happens, I also disagree with his aggressive assessment of the current ethic. I think the cultural revulsion at the idea of taking one’s own life is overblown and lacking in compassion. Despite using the term “victim of suicide,” we frequently tend to portray such people only as perpetrators, never as victims.

Most people, Jack Marshall certainly among them, describe suicide as the ultimate selfish act, but I consider that claim to be irrational. For something to be selfish, one must be able to expect that he will personally benefit from the act, but what personal benefit can there be if the end result of the act is that you cease to be, and thus cease to be capable of either benefitting from or being harmed by anything? I would say that in all probability, suicide is generally neutral with regard to self-interest, and indeed that the vast majority of suicide victims genuinely believe that other people will either not be affected by their deaths, or will be affected positively. Thus, I would ascribe the same motivations to most or all suicides that Jack Marshall ascribes to the theoretically defensible suicides among the elderly of the future.

As far as I can tell, I’ve always felt this way, though it recent years my forgiving stance on the issue has been helped by being on the other side of it. I have contemplated suicide extensively, and while I certainly would not encourage anyone to follow through where I have held back, I also would not pass judgment on anyone who did so. There are motivations, and mental states, and circumstances to consider, and the entirety of what drives a person to forfeit his own life cannot be adequately known. But I suppose that the essential reason to give a suicide victim the benefit of the doubt is an ethic of live and let live, live and let die. That is, there’s something to be said for the idea that one’s life is one’s own to either hold onto or cast off. And since I don’t believe in utilitarianism, the incidental, secondary consequences of suicide are not sufficient cause to judge it as unethical.

But my breaking point comes of realizing that it’s hard to make deontology mesh with attitude that says suicide might be okay. After all, my aversion to utilitarianism is clarified by any thought experiment in which murder is made okay by the promise that it will save other lives. Now, that’s the very thing that helps to convert others to utilitarianism, because it’s hard for people to imagine how a worse outcome can be associated with a better moral decision. But it is my strong intuition that we are morally culpable primarily just for our own actions, and if there are exceptions to the hierarchy of right and wrong, the entire system of morality falls apart.

I realize now that by allowing for the ethical rightness or neutrality of suicide, I am contradicting my belief that killing is wrong in its own right, rather than because of its outcomes. My natural inclination is to equate killing with murder – to think of it as an externally directed act. Yet suicide is barely different; it is an act of murder in which the same person is both victim and perpetrator. Unless I go to great lengths to explain why a self-contained act of murder is morally different from an externally directed one, it seems rationally incumbent on me to accept that suicide is wrong not only in general, but even in cases where it would end severe pain and suffering.

It’s not impossible to make that distinction. I could say that actions contain their own normative value only by virtue of their being externally directed. That’s tempting and I’ll give it some more thought, but it also seems like a manipulation of my own moral theories. To build such an exception into the concept of the intrinsic wrongness of a type of action is to approach dangerously close to utilitarianism and thus to be left with what I consider an incomprehensible moral code. And in fact, my willingness to consider circumstance in eschewing moral judgment of suicide could itself be easily labeled as utilitarian.

So it’s not easy for me to reconcile my intuitions toward suicide and self-harm with my belief in deontology. Now that the two ideas have been brought into conflict, I’m inclined to drop my existing attitude toward the specific case. The only other options are demolishing my ethical framework or twisting it to accept a contradiction, and either such action would be rationally unjustifiable. At least until I come up with a better solution, I feel compelled to declare that suicide is wrong no matter what. That extends even to the exceptions that Jack Marshall is willing to make for elderly people who feel they must take their own lives to avoid becoming a burden within the healthcare system.

However, I can see no intrinsic moral value in declining to preserve or prolong life, and that should adequately reconcile the deontological view of suicide with the utilitarian concern about becoming a societal burden. No moral imperative compels the elderly and infirm to pursue treatment, or even to actively keep themselves safe and healthy. And fortunately for my intuitions, the same goes for anyone who has motivations for suicide other than old age. It’s wrong to kill oneself, but it is not strictly wrong to accept one’s own death, to will it, or to actively pursue it.

This too is the sort of hypothetical which will drive some people fast away from deontology but that recommits me to it. It will strike others as inconsistent that euthanasia can be considered wrong while allowing yourself to die by other unnatural means is considered acceptable. But as far as I’m concerned, at a sufficiently deep level of analysis it is the only view that is consistent. And in fact it’s delightfully consistent because it appears to reconcile not only contrary intuitions but also deontological and utilitarian theories. Not only that, but it satisfies both my rationality and my romanticism. The idea that courting death can be right even as forcing it is wrong gives moral weight to the way that I hope to one day die. It means that Hunter S. Thompson, who left a suicide note lamenting the end of football season and shot himself at 67 while on the phone with his wife, is subject to ethical judgments, but that I should admire Ambrose Bierce even more than I already do for getting involved in the Mexican revolution at age seventy-one and disappearing after leaving behind a final letter that said in part:

Good-by -- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico -- ah, that is euthanasia!

1 comment:

penn said...

Linked to this from Jack Marshall's blog. Don't usually follow things out this far (and I don't comment to him anymore because I am still 52 blogs behind & have sworn to catch up before rejoining the responders) ... but you have just explained to me something that has puzzled me since I went to spend most of the 70s in Japan. It has to do precisely with deontology, namely, with the duties and responsibilities the Japanese is considered to be born with (whatever lesser ones he may acquire in life). Which, of course, adds a cross-cultural component to the ethical argument. Also, because I've worked for 15 years with a (non-suicide) crisis line that comes under the umbrella of SF Suicide Prevention, I thank you for adding to my argument that their ethics are dangerously oversimplified: one does not fit all. Personally, at 72, with no dependants and AIDS-devastated relationships, failing health, growing discomfort, poverty, and lack of valid cause to "occupy" my mind, I may have to scrape together the fare to Mexico. On second though, Afghanistan might be a better idea.