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P-Zombie Suicide

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If we accept that each person is the best arbiter of what is in his own best interests, then the primary harm of suicide must be that it is painful to those around us, our friends and family and even, perhaps, our society.

A would-be murderer or rapist who is prevented from murdering or raping by thoughts of the harm that his action would do to his victim may go on living as he wishes, for the most part – he simply may not murder or rape. But a would-be suicide who is prevented from committing suicide by thoughts of the harm his suicide would do to those around him is forced into a different sort of arrangement. He may not go on living as he wishes – he does not wish to live at all. He is living entirely for the benefit of others.

A p-zombie, or philosophical zombie (though David Chalmers at times calls it a phenomenal zombie), is a person who looks and acts just like a regular person, but who has no subjective experience. In explaining a problem in consciousness studies, the exact nature of which is irrelevant to this piece, Raymond Smullyan famously proposed a form of p-zombie suicide:

A man wants to commit suicide but does not want to cause his family any grief. He finds out about an elixir he can take which will kill him, i.e., separate his soul from his body, but leave his body intact to wake up, go to work, play with the kids, keep the wife satisfied and bring home the bacon. [From “zombies and p-zombies” in the Skeptic’s Dictionary.]

Indeed, we would-be suicides who wish to cause as little harm as possible to those around us wait anxiously for news from the promising field of p-zombie therapy.

Unfortunately, in addition to being (arguably) a logical impossibility, a p-zombie is a singularly unsatisfying sort of companion. For those who believe that subjective pleasure is all that matters, p-zombiehood is fine; but for those to whom truth matters – for those to whom there is value beyond subjective experience – to love a p-zombie would be as awful as having a faithless lover whose faithlessness went undiscovered. Denying genuine intersubjectivity to those around us must be practically as cruel as simply killing ourselves.

There is a sense, though, in which all genuine would-be suicides are, sort of, zombies. We are living wholly for others – while we retain experience and genuinely interact with others, we are no longer, in a deep way, agents of our lives. We get up in the morning, work, eat, speak, have sex, do the dishes, not out of desire or will, but, ultimately, out of concern for others. Just as others would be harmed by our turning ourselves into p-zombies without subjectivity, they are harmed by having us around minus the will to live.

In David Rieff’s memoir of the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, he repeatedly expresses his guilt over not doing enough, over going along with her unrealistic fantasy of survival or not going along with it wholeheartedly enough. And yet he recognizes that to live in such a way as to avoid guilt after the death of another – to live always with another in mind above all – is to void oneself. He says,

To live without guilt after the death of a loved one, a person would have to accede to literally everything the other person wanted. And what this really means is living one’s entire life in attendance of the other’s death since there is no way of being an emotional Jain in relation to others. The Jain may decide to always walk bent over sweeping the road so as not to inadvertently kill some tiny insect in his path, but deferring completely to another person is, if anything, an even more impossible project. For such deference would render one without personality – without the very qualities, in other words, upon which one’s relations with the other person are grounded. [Rieff, p. 99-100, emphasis mine.]

Rieff writes about the futility of living wholly for another, with another’s death always in mind. But his words apply equally to the sad project of living wholly for another in a more literal sense – of hesitating to commit suicide out of concern for others. A life lived out of fear for the harm one’s death might do is as awful, and as futile, as a marriage maintained for the sake of the children – a horrible, empty hole which does no good for anyone.

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Written by Sister Y

December 3, 2008 at 4:06 am

Posted in ethics, p-zombies, suicide

7 Responses

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  1. I think something has been overlooked here. The suicide surely has a whole number of preferences. Only the second-to-highest ranked one is to die, and the highest ranked one is not to make those dear to him suffer. The only sense in which he lives “wholly for another” is that the only reason for his living is an altruistic preference. But, since he is already living, there is no reason why he shouldn’t have other preferences, those that are lower ranked than his desire to die, which still make up for a personality.To be problematic, “living wholly for another” would have to mean that your only non-instrumental preferences are phrased in terms of the good of others. And even then, you still have an advantage over the zombie: Your benevolence towards the other. And in fact, I’m not quite sure how problematic even this would be. Sure, it’s difficult to continue a relationship with such a person, because there is no room for reciprocation, but anyway, it’s not quite like the case of the zombie.When the suicide says “I only want to die”, he certainly doesn’t imply that death is his only preference. He only expresses that it’s his highest preference, or maybe even only his highest unfulfilled preference.

    Anonymous

    December 5, 2008 at 12:59 pm

  2. I think that’s fair – it’s not <>quite<> like the case of the zombie. But I think this: “When the suicide says ‘I only want to die,’ he certainly doesn’t imply that death is his only preference.” – to some degree ignores the psychological fact of how constantly present the thought of suicide is for one who wishes to die. On waking, on driving, on drinking coffee, on bathing, on reading, on greeting friends, on going to bed, the suicide constantly thinks “if only I could die.” The “preference,” as you call it, seeps into everything else and poisons all other preferences – though I grant that this wouldn’t be apparent to a non-suicide, nor is it even necessarily the case for all suicides (I have only introspection to go by on this one).

    Sister Y

    December 5, 2008 at 3:50 pm

  3. I have a fucked-up analogy here.D is surprised by a burglar, who offers him a choice: either the burglar will rape D, or will rape D’s daughter.If D agrees to be raped, out of concern for his daughter, then it is equally fair to say that his main preference – or his main unsatisfied preference – is that he not be raped. Also, he may have other preferences – whether his attacker has straight or curly hair, whether the attacker’s hygeine is good or poor, whether the attacker is young or old, brutal or efficient – and yet it seems a bit obscene to even <>talk<> about these other preferences. They seem to pale in comparison to his desire not to be raped – and, certainly, even satisfaction of all of them cannot turn the experience into a worthwhile one.Though it is true he may have other preferences in addition to preferring not to be raped, his main preference overpowers these other preferences and completely determines the nature of his experience.

    Sister Y

    December 5, 2008 at 4:28 pm

  4. I sometimes wonder how many people — if they could get out of life cleanly — would take that option.That is, there may be people who would never consider suicide or don’t want to die but would jump at the opportunity to be replaced by a p-zombie.Consider another possibility: You’re allowed to peacefully fall into a permanent coma and are replaced not by a p-zombie but by a doppelganger with real phenomenal experience who is not only blissfully happy but also incapable of feeling pain. That is, you leave behind a “person” who interacts meaningfully with your family and friends — and derives real pleasure and joy from them — but is not you. It seems to me, any ethical harm that’s done by the “lie” of this arrangement is overwhelmed by the utilitarian benefits. Everyone concerned is better off; only the truth is harmed.People almost never see the death of a very elderly (90-plus) person as a tragedy, and I doubt that the elderly people themselves see their impending deaths as something to be overly concerned about. There’s sadness, but not the sort of garment-rending grief that you see when a young person dies.Why is this? Because the elderly person’s quality of life is so low? Well, the potential suicide’s quality of life is also low and arguably lower. If the loss of phenomenal experience is so tragic, why isn’t it equally tragic when it comes to the elderly? Is it because the elderly person has lived a full life while the young person will “miss out”? Is it then OK for a 40-year-old who has lived a very active and full life to die prematurely but not OK for an asocial, sedentary person? And if it’s necessary for the “normal” person who faces a lifetime of adventure and fulfilling human interaction to stay alive so they don’t “miss out,” why is it not a moral imperative to allow or even encourage the deaths of middle-aged people who have experienced little but misery and face the prospect of little else?I would say the answer lies in our evolutionary history. A young person is “valuable” to the group both as a worker (hunter-gatherer) and a breeding partner. An elderly person — at least when it comes to the survival and propagation of the clan — has pretty much lost his or her worth.Parents mourn their children and people mourn their spouses more than most others because such deaths are a huge blow to their genetic prospects. Whether any individual’s life is worth living for its own sake is pretty much beside the point. We’re programmed to create life and to do whatever we can to keep that life going.If everyone sat down, reflected on the merits of their own phenomenal experience, and performed rigorous utilitarian calculations before having children, the birthrate would likely drop through the floor. Suicide would also likely be much more widespread and accepted. Why not leave the world to the people who really appreciate it? Happy people would likely beget happy offspring, and suicidal people would be eliminated from the gene pool.Of course, we can’t conceive of such a world for the reasons mentioned. To some extent, we all hold each other emotionally hostage. If something like the p-zombie were a real opportunity, I’m guessing far more people would take advantage of it than would ever admit. And in my wildest solipsistic dreams, I wonder if I’m among only a handful of “real” people left.

    Anonymous

    December 11, 2008 at 4:00 pm

  5. Anonymous, that is a beautiful short essay – I especially like the note of lonely mystery at the end.

    Sister Y

    December 11, 2008 at 10:35 pm

  6. “Parents mourn their children and people mourn their spouses more than most others because such deaths are a huge blow to their genetic prospects. Whether any individual's life is worth living for its own sake is pretty much beside the point”

    The dilemna lies if you are a young p-zombie and you can either hurt your family now by committing suicide or drag them through the unreciprocal relationships and being cruel by acting out your zombie-ness and live a life of hell and messing people around and living without subjective experience in a living-hell.

    Sucks to be me. I know it sounds mad, but I really am a zombie running out of places to hide.

    Anonymous

    October 9, 2009 at 1:49 pm

  7. Dear Anonymous – it will be no consolation, but I can assure you that you are not a p-zombie. P-zombies don't experience life as hell, they don't experience it as anything at all. You are obviously experiencing something which you characterize as lacking – perhaps you are lacking affect, or your life is lacking meaning – but the experience of hollowness, emptiness or meaninglessness is quite different from being a p-zombie. A p-zombie is any sort of person, happy or sad, joyous or desolate, but with all the consciousness subtracted from the situation – and subtracted by the philosopher describing this hypothetical situation. In the real world it's probably not even possible. It's an abstract and playful concept. So to sum up, you may be some sort of zombie, but you're not a p-zombie. 🙂

    Mitchell

    October 16, 2009 at 11:08 am


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