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Is Suicide Selfish?

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Suicide is commonly characterized as a “selfish” act. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die (who revealingly refers to suicide as “self-murder”), describes his response to a suicide thus:

How could she do it to her friends and to her family and to the rest of those who needed her? How could such a smart kid commit such a dumb act and be lost to us? There is no place for this kind of thing in an ordered world—it should never happen. Why, without asking any of us, would this beloved young woman just go ahead and take herself away?

Those who characterize suicide as “selfish” tend to focus, as Nuland does, on its effect on those left behind, rather than on the pain of the suicide, and whether it is fair to expect her to continue living so that her friends will not be deprived of her company. (Note that it is also common for them to characterize the suicide in demeaning ways, such as “dumb,” “stupid,” or “cowardly.”)

Duty, Self-Interest, Reasonable Generosity, and Selflessness

It is important to figure out what we mean when we call an act selfish. One possibility is that “selfishness” occurs when someone violates a duty to another. As I will explain, this is not the sense in which we usually use the term “selfishness.” In addition, even under this definition, the act of suicide is not in violation of a duty.

Duty

Selfishness does not entail the violation of a duty. For instance, we might speak of someone as “selfish” if he does not share his popcorn with his friend. He owes no duty to share his popcorn, and the friend has no right to the popcorn, but we may nonetheless properly characterize his failure to share as selfish. “Selfish” must therefore have another meaning.

However, even though we must look elsewhere to figure out whether suicide is selfish, we can briefly touch on the question of whether suicide entails the violation of a duty. The identification of continued life as a duty must mean that, on the other side, others have a right to our continued life. However, it is very strange to think of someone as having a right to our company, care, or even presence in the world (with the exception of our children, as I have explained before). In most cases, bodily autonomy and self-determination are held to be more fundamental rights than any “right” to be free from the emotional pain of someone’s absence. Given that bringing someone into existence is a serious wrong, I am not sure what distinguishes the suicide case from the escape-from-slavery case. In both cases, the agent removes himself from a horrible situation after a serious wrong has been done to him. In the process, he harms those with an interest in his remaining in the horrible situation (friends and family for the suicide, the slave owner for the escaping slave). But it would be very strange to say that the interests of the people left behind are sufficient to create a duty not to leave the horrible, unfair situation.

Taking Self-Interest as More Important than the Interests of Others

Another candidate for a definition of “selfish” might be taking the interests of oneself as more important than the interests of others. By this definition, we are selfish if we ever put our own interests ahead of those of others. But this definition must also fail, as it gives ludicrous results. Mainly, the definition fails to take into account that the interests of oneself and the interests of others may be of objectively different strengths. If I suffer a serious fall and yell to my neighbor to help me, I am putting my interests (in summoning an ambulance) ahead of my neighbor’s interest (in not being bothered with my problem). But it is ridiculous to call my action selfish. Similarly, if I end a romantic relationship because I no longer love the other person, I am putting my interests in being free from a loveless relationship ahead of his interests in having my continued company. But, again, rarely would we characterize this personal decision as selfish. In fact, it would be selfish of my neighbor to refuse to help me (assuming he hasn’t anything more important to do), or for my lover to demand that I remain in a loveless relationship. Therefore selfishness must refer to making a wrong judgment about the relative strengths of my own interests and that of others. One way to say this is that it is selfish, all things considered, to put a minor interest of my own ahead of a serious interest of someone else. Another way to put it, and one that captures more dimensions of the problem, is to say that it is selfish to fail to show that generosity that can reasonably be expected of people in a particular relationship.

Reasonable Generosity

When someone fails to share his popcorn with his friend, he is not violating a duty, but rather failing to show that level of generosity that can be reasonably expected of someone in a friendly relationship. The generosity that can be reasonably expected must take into account the magnitude of the sacrifice that is demanded, and the strength of the interest in whose name the sacrifice is to be made. If the sacrifice is slight or even roughly equal to the interest served, then, depending on the relationship, it might be selfish not to make it.

And this is the essential disagreement as to the selfishness of suicide: whether it is reasonable to expect someone to continue to live a miserable life for the sake of the feelings of his friends and family. I suspect that most people, like Dr. Nuland, cannot imagine that life could be so bad that one’s suffering could outweigh that of one’s friends left behind. These are the people that David Benatar characterizes as “cheery” (he means it as a swear). It may be impossible to accurately measure or assess the difference in suffering between the would-be suicide who remains alive despite wanting to die, on the one hand, and the friends and family deprived of the deceased suicide, on the other (but see my previous post on qualia of happiness). Almost certainly, it varies. (An interesting outcome of this way of looking at things is that, by this definition, the suicide of a person with no friends or relatives is not selfish at all, even if he is only experiencing slight suffering, whereas the suicide of a person with many friends and relatives may be very selfish, even if he is suffering severely.) But certainly it is a bit rich to assume that, in all cases, the suffering of the would-be suicide is outweighed by the possible suffering of his friends and family from being deprived of his company. In fact, in many cases it must be that it is selfish – even indecent – for a suffering person’s friends and family to expect him to continue living, if his suffering is so serious that it outweighs their interest in his continued company.

Selflessness

Some people who feel that their lives are not worth living, and who would very much like to die, nonetheless continue living for the sake of saving their friends and family the sorrow that their suicide would entail. Is this merely what is expected of them? Or might we characterize their action in continuing to stay alive as particularly selfless? If selfishness is failing to exhibit even a reasonable minimum of generosity, selflessness must be exhibiting an especially high level of generosity, much more than is ordinarily expected. If one’s suffering is so great that one prays for death every day, and yet continues to live to spare one’s friends and family the pain of the lack of one’s company, we must certainly say that for that person, merely living is a selfless act.

The Trap of Existence

Suicide is not easy, practically or ethically. One reason to avoid having children, as Benatar points out in his conclusion to Better Never to Have Been, is that even if one’s child suffers so much that he wishes to die, he may be prevented from ending his suffering by generous ethical considerations, such as the worry that his suicide will cause pain to those around him. Benatar refers to this as a kind of trap: after suffering the harm of being brought into existence, we cannot end it without causing still more harm in the horrible, blighted, wretched universe into which we have been cast.

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Written by Sister Y

May 13, 2008 at 8:55 pm

11 Responses

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  1. I really love this piece.You write:“Given that bringing someone into existence is a serious wrong, I am not sure what distinguishes the suicide case from the escape-from-slavery case.”Not much. But if all people are essentially enslaved by life itself, the individual slave’s gravemen must attach rather narrowly to his parents, no? Being then of this special class of slave, a class of slave who may yet choose to forge new voluntary contractual relationships with co-equal slaves, and who may voluntarily incur new debts and obligations, all through autonomous social intercourse and choice . . . seems to at least potentially complicate the view that “escape” trumps duty wrt suicide. I don’t know if this is common, but when I indulge in suicidal ideation, it’s curious how soon my thoughts turn to practical matters to be settled. Unpaid bills. Cats to be fed and cared for. A publishing contract. Some half-forgotten promise. Etc. These may not be the sort of broadly defined duties and obligations that you have in mind, but in a way that seems to make them more relevant. When I consider specific duties tracing only to my own agency and good faith dealings with others, my moral sense tingles. If I borrow money from a friend, I owe it back. If I off myself and fail to pay, I have violated this trust, this duty. Perhaps mom and dad – the slaves who enslaved me – bear some ultimate responsibility, but I tend to think it is better that the buck should stop with individual choices, choices from which even commonplace duties arise. So perhaps there is a duty-bound sense in which suicide may legitimately, if narrowly, be branded as “selfish,” at least in the sense that would apply to absconding debtors and deadbeat dads. Not that it matters in any practical sense, of course.

    Chip

    May 21, 2008 at 3:56 pm

  2. In one sense, it’s hard to imagine ANY action as one purely untainted by SOME selfishness, or self-interest. Even ostensibly sacrificial acts generally contain some element(s) of payback, emotional or otherwise. Thus I think we’re stuck with talking about matters of relative degree ascertained within a specific context. For instance, in your ‘sharing the popcorn’ example-I think most peoples’ possibly negative judgements regarding the situation would soften if it was discovered that the popcorn hoarder hadn’t had a thing to eat for three days. Maybe not; but then, doesn’t the onus of selfishness swing over to the overly self-interested, ‘offended’ party? In the case of the suicide, selfishness seems to be manifested as the failure to honor friends’ and loved ones’ expectations, on the one hand. On the other hand, it might reasonably be asserted that, in the face of the suicide’s obvious suffering, the expectations themselves are selfish ones. It all seems to come down to whose ox is being gored. But I think the suicide’s problem runs deeper, because his action is an affront to the prevailing mythos of the culture i.e. life is intrinsically good; or, at least, intrinsically worth the cost. He’s not only hurting those close to him in a personal, relatively superficial way; he’s actually souring the milk of foundational meaning that everybody’s sucking down. His threat has become transpersonal, and an insult to THE core belief of most of the species. What most people tend to misunderstand is that these mythic structures weren’t originally top-down edifices; they arose from within pre-societies to support and satisfy individual emotional needs and desires en-masse. Of course, these things tend to take on a life of their own, in a feedback loop sort of way, and pretty soon people are hearing their own petty supplications magnified and bouncing back as the voice of God (or some other sort of moral authority; either concretized, or more abstract). So in a sense, the suicide is spitting in the face of God. And you’re not generally gonna get much of a rational…and dare I say, unselfish?… response to THAT!Is suicide selfish? Yes, when we place our own selfishness above the suicide’s. If one of my kids wanted to commit suicide, I would do everything I could to stop it; this apart from the fact that I think life basically sucks, and that my kids would be far better off in a state of non-existence. But I’d stop them out of my own, basic selfishness. I couldn’t help myself; I’m just a little bundle of ‘I wants’, just like everybody else. Of course, I might be challenged in my own antinatalism stance by that very same non-reasonable reason. And that’s why I always try to bring the argument back to self-interest, because I believe that bringing new people into the world works at cross purposes with most folks’ deepest self-interest, which is embodied in their own, personal moral frameworks. See, love, empathy and altruism are nothing more than selfishness grown beyond the boundaries of the finite self to embrace other lives. Thus, ultimate selfishness CAN simutaneously become ultimate sacrifice, and the best kind of sacrifice is where no blood is spilled i.e. DON’T HAVE KIDS!Apologies for going on like that…jim

    jim

    May 21, 2008 at 4:36 pm

  3. Chip: I spent years literally agonizing over the fact that I couldn’t kill myself because of the duties to my children, and others to a lesser degree. In a very real sense, I felt jailed by my own loved ones; imprisoned in an existence I abhorred. I’m sort of beyond that these days, though the feeling still lingers at the fringes, surfacing now and again to have a little fun with me. There’s still the sense of guilt for having brought my kids into existence, which I have to deal with on a daily basis. Yet another good reason, selfish motives notwithstanding, for not having children. I’m also sure that penance has something to do with my efforts in getting the message out…all the better. Doing my duty, and all that.

    jim

    May 21, 2008 at 5:40 pm

  4. Chip, thanks for discussing that in a little more detail than I got into. I think my answer to the question “Is suicide selfish?” is merely “Not necessarily.” I think that things like voluntarily having children and voluntarily taking on other duties (friends, cats, contracts, etc.) can create obligations of various strengths to keep living, despite wishing to die. I see voluntary reproduction as a special case that creates a very serious duty to continue living (I talked more about this in Procreation and Suicide, written before I’d read all of Benatar). I am interested in what other cases might create something like a duty to continue living – serious relationships, for instance. I wonder if there are non-voluntary situations that could create a duty to continue living? Maybe it’s important to distinguish two groups: those who intentionally brought one into existence, whose culpability bars them from having a strong right to one’s continued existence (parents, or captors in the literal slave case), and innocent parties who may have an interest in one’s continued existence, and have no culpability. I’ll think about that.My main claim with suicide is that it is a right on par with bodily integrity, and that even if there are reasons that one may decide to continue living despite wanting to die, there’s very rarely a moral duty to do so. There may be good reasons why I’d want to give someone my kidney, but it’s a little harder to say I have a duty to do so, in any case.Actually, even on the voluntary reproduction case, I’m unsure.

    Sister Y

    May 21, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  5. Jim, I think I may try to write a whole post on paragraphs 3 and 4 of your first comment, unless you want to post it on your site and have the discussion there. I especially love your characterization “souring the milk of foundational meaning that everybody’s sucking down” – that seems to get at the essential value difference. And I think antinatalism is seen as awful for the same reasons: denying that life is essentially worthwhile and meaningful brings the matter up for debate, when most folks prefer to live with their cheery assumptions. I suppose it’s possible that we’re just causing more suffering overall by articulating our arguments than if we just shut up and let people breed/hospitalize suicides in peace.

    Sister Y

    May 21, 2008 at 10:10 pm

  6. Looking forward to reading your post. If the conversation gets really entailed and interesting, we can always duplicate.

    jim

    May 21, 2008 at 10:52 pm

  7. I love this article. I would love to send it to my sister, but I wouldn’t want to start the argument again.I believe that the immense devastating pain that one feels that they are compelled to kill oneself, most definately out weighs any possible ‘selfishness’ for those that remain. My sister said that if I ever feel like killing myself that I should call her and she will take me to the emergency room and drop me off. Now that is the sympathy and empathy that I am truly looking for.

    Anonymous

    March 1, 2009 at 2:30 am

  8. The current system for distributing organs makes no exceptions either for murderers or attempted suicides.

    Over 91% at this poll currently favor exception for killers.

    Curious to know if Curator, and those sympathetic to her position on suicide, think there should be exception for attempted suicides.

    Rob

    July 28, 2010 at 12:06 am

  9. Seeing that most people do not want (or even tolerate) others to commit suicide I think they would (should?) be happy if, after a failed suicide-attempt, that person changes their mind enough to want a lifesaving organtransplant. I see no reason why they should be denied it, if medical indications make them the current best recipent. I guess it is always possible to decline the option, which some suicides might do, if their wish for non-existence prevails. With that in mind I believe it would not be acceptable to force an organtransplant on such a person or to perform it without their explicit consent. That would be a violation of their autonomy and also a huge waste. This would include all cases where, after the suicide-attempt, the person is unconscious and cannot articulate his will. In that case it should be assumed that the last statement, i.e. trying to kill himself, still holds.

    rob

    November 27, 2010 at 6:23 pm

  10. Suicide is an act of thoughtlessness…many times committed by someone who loves to hold others hostage with guilt…ie: if you leave I'll kill myself, etc. To put this act of self-murder in any other perspective is in and of itself…self-serving

    Anonymous

    April 18, 2011 at 5:26 am

  11. “Suicide is an act of thoughtlessness”

    You must have some great psychic powers to claim that all suicides have the same basis as those done to manipulate family members. Actual suicidologists (not pontificating laymen) find that successful suicides usually made the leap after wrestling with the idea after a long time, unlike half-hearted attempters and malingerers.

    “To put this act of self-murder in any other perspective is in and of itself…self-serving”

    Just like your claim that you know better how to deal with others' bodily interests.

    M

    April 18, 2011 at 8:15 pm


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