The View from Hell

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Liberty and the "Real" Decision Maker

with 23 comments

One of the really interesting ethical questions about suicide (among other actions) is, what counts as the choice of the real person – especially if a person making a decision is shown to have conflicting desires and motivations?

Most of the time when we make decisions, we have conflicting motivations – such is the nature of a decision. Cognitive science research suggests that, most of the time, we don’t even know why we make a particular decision. We may feel that we are carefully weighing the pros and cons of action and inaction based on carefully considered criteria, but most of the time that is not how our brain apparatus actually works. (In fact, some suggest that decisions based on instinct are usually better than decisions made based on more rational criteria.)

Given this background of conflict, should we sometimes forcibly prevent a decision maker from acting until he is certain?

With many decisions and consequent actions – whether to eat a cheeseburger, whether to go to work, whether to get a divorce – people have many conflicting motivations, conscious and unconscious. There’s some value to waiting to make a decision until one is sure – which could include a friend forcibly preventing someone from making a decision until the decision maker is sure – especially since many decisions, like suicide, are irrevocable. But there’s also a cost to waiting to be certain (e.g. time spent being hungry until you eat the cheeseburger or being miserable until you get a divorce/commit suicide).

Taking an action is a decision between two options – acting and not acting. Both have consequences. Forcing someone to not act is making a decision for him and imposing the costs of that decision upon him without his consent.

I think a waiting period for serious decisions (like California’s 48-hour waiting period for marriage) – which amounts to forcing someone to take more time to think about a decision (and imposing the costs of that time on him) – is acceptable if the costs of the waiting period were found to be, on average, smaller than the costs of poor decisions without the waiting period. But this would have to be from a perspective of maximizing happiness, rather than promoting liberty. Waiting periods are paternalistic – I’m not a hardcore libertarian, so I think that can be okay at times where it’s not very intrusive. Ultimately, though, I think not only the decision of whether to act, but the decision of how long to wait before acting, should rest with the actor. And the costs (in terms of suffering) of being forced not to commit suicide are substantial – the longer the delay, the higher the potential costs.

The weirder question, which I’ve been struggling with, is what to do about people whose desire to commit suicide changes over time? If I sign something at age 18 that says I want to be forcibly prevented from committing suicide if I ever try it, should that be enforced when I’m 80 and want to die peacefully? If I want to die at 18, should it make a difference that I might change my mind later? I don’t have much of a framework from which to answer that one.

Chip’s suggestion – that we go with the “one that’s speaking, whenever” – is attractive in its simplicity, humanity, and apparent respect for liberty. But if our society followed it strictly, it would prevent us from ever increasing our happiness by binding ourselves. The whole idea of a contract (from sales to employment to marriage) is to increase our overall happiness by binding the actions of our future selves. Similarly, if I had a fairly happy life but very occasionally went into a despairing funk and wanted to die, I might think I’d be better off if I could prevent myself from committing suicide during that period. (Just as I, in my real incarnation, would feel myself better off if I could prevent my future addled self from docilely swallowing the activated charcoal if a future suicide attempt proved unsuccessful.) Are present and future benefits and costs allowed to weigh against each other?

Do I owe anything to my future self – since, in a sense, it is me? Can I take anything from my future self – again, since it is me – by either imposing suffering by not committing suicide, or removing its “chance at life” by committing suicide? Ethically, do I stand in relation to my future self as toward my present self, or as toward a totally different person?

In response to an email from reader Elizabeth, who also pointed me to the Wilson book – thanks!


Written by Sister Y

February 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

23 Responses

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  1. As might be gathered from my wayward comments, I’m thrilled to see your inquiry taking this direction, touching as it does upon concerns about self-transparency which, thus far, appear to lead me to draw, from intuitions about suicide I think we share, conclusions that are less ambitious than yours when it comes to prospects of cultural or institutional reform.My current sense (which your ongoing immersion in the relevant literature may well prove to be unfounded) is that the more deeply one delves into these empirically-informed metaphysical questions about self-hood, the less confidence one should have in either the prospect Constant raises of “contractualism help[ing] us suspend such metaphysical questions”, or Chip’s (indeed) “temptingly cheap and tasty” proposal of generally prioritizing “the [voice] that’s speaking”.If anyone’s interested, Wilson has a couple papers available from his web page that summarize his picture of the state-of-the-art in the understanding of the adaptive/cognitive unconscious (e.g. ‘Self-Knowledge’), and a couple other contemporary psychologists whose work has also been invoked as confirmation of the soundness of Nietzsche’s conception of the unconscious (in contrast to Freud’s dubiously dynamic conception) are Daniel Wegner and David Rosenthal: to this particular issue of how one should regard a future self, I wonder if the diachronic/episodic distinction explored by Galen Strawson doesn’t play a part in how one assesses the claims of a future self:, a fellow episodic, discusses his experience with depression in this fine and accessible piece “Why I Have No Future”:


    February 15, 2009 at 4:53 pm

  2. The construction of a persisting “self” that could bind itself over time in this way is arguably, and in large part, an artifact of the exigencies of personal relationships and the need for social coordination. As Will Wilkinson < HREF="" REL="nofollow">puts it<>, “If we’re going to be active units that can choose ends, make plans, enact those plans, and coordinate with others in a way that benefits us, we need a relatively stable self-conception.”If that’s right, then we don’t in fact owe our past or future “selves” anything. We engage in the fiction because our thinking that we have a self that “keeps promises” and so forth turns out to be a net benefit. (To <>whom<>? To this living, experiencing body.) That benefit, however, seems to run out when the issue is whether to commit suicide. Thus, the framework that normally organizes our deliberations about what promises to make (and keep), and about to whom we ought to make them, doesn’t apply.My sense, then, is that the legitimacy of a waiting period for suicide will be grounded (if it is grounded in anything) in the power of society to enforce individual commitments made to it. Society still at least believes in and adheres to the institution of contracts; whereas the individual who has chosen suicide has lost all faith in promises.

    Michael Drake

    February 15, 2009 at 5:25 pm

  3. Michael, I may be misreading, but I’m still puzzled as to how society’s power to maintain individuals’ participation in the contract-structured relationship in which they (individuals) stand to it (society) is supposed to confer legitimacy on a waiting period if suicide is essentially an opting out of that relationship altogether. It doesn’t seem that suicide could <>ever<> be legitimate on the basis of such a minimalist conception, unless sanctioned by society in terms of its own interests (cf. Shohei Imamura’s <>Narayama bushiko<>).


    February 15, 2009 at 7:11 pm

  4. Cheeseburger or die dilemmas are useful to corner a foundational problem, but most of the time — and perhaps even in instances where survival is contingent upon action — certainty remains a chimera. This is part of what it means to be a rational being. Options are weighed amid the noise of conflicting emotional and cognitive stakes, by neurological processes that may loosely be represented as selves. The value of freedom and dignity must at some point be meted in the blurry context legal or political disputation, no side of which is presently equipped to adjudge the shifting matrix of contradictory impulses and intuitions that motivate a given actor. Faced with what may be an insoluble problem, the strong libertarian default thus serves as a practical failsafe. Slippery slopes are real, and knowledge is fettered. To withhold constraint in deference to “the voice that is speaking” is to side against the conceit of certitude. We’re nowhere near sorting out the problem of the self, and further still from knowing what to do with such information assuming it can be reliably captured.Conservative arguments — in this case for an individual liberty interest in suicide — ascend in their appeal when knowledge is slippery. And I can think of few problems more slippery than those that hinge on questions of accurate versus inaccurate subjective appraisals of preference. At every turn, the argument confronts uncertainty. The Szaszian (or the Hayekian conservative) simply accepts that the problem is beyond our ken. He sides with the general principle of autonomy, or freedom. Aside from the romance that may attach, it is a principle that has served humanity well enough, even if it is presented and enforced in terms that may seem crude or superficial when viewed from the vantage of neuro-ethics.Contracts are imperfect instruments, but their enforcement is tellingly less problematic in instances where an obligation exists between parties, whether that obligation is a debt or a service. Moreover, the consequences of a breach are addressed through the normative process of institutional adjudication, usually via torts. A contract that contemplates the primacy of an agent’s once-stated desire as to his fate under such and such circumstance, seems very different. It just seems safer — and more reasonable — to assume that the signatory should be able to change his mind, or, if you prefer, to impose the will of his new self over that of the old. If such is a breach, it is a breach by the agent, at least superficially, and the only aggrieved party is a hypothetical past self who may not even exist. Maybe when and if that party surfaces again, he can sue the other self for damages. I have no idea.The libertarian option simply throws up its arms in the face of such proposed hierarchies of rational autonomy. It says something like, “look, the guy isn’t hurting anyone and if he wants to off himself, then our hands are tied; let him be to act in accordance with his desire, however that desire is weighted.” If there is a means of teasing out the value of one desire against another in the context of an individual decision, we have yet to discover it. And if such means, once discovered, proves faulty, I say that prudence favors liberty. In the face of layers of uncertainty, the value of freedom is reasonably upheld. The alternative may entail consequences that elude our imagination. And the alternative is always grounded in conceit. BTW, regarding “waiting periods,” Hubert Selby’s final novel takes a most pessimistic view of the problem of unintended consequences.


    February 15, 2009 at 7:31 pm

  5. Rob, thanks for the references.The second Strawson piece provides a counterpoint to Nagel’s < HREF="" REL="nofollow">“Death.”<> When normal and non-depressed, Strawson thinks a painless death is neither a benefit nor a harm. Nagel thinks a painless death is a harm. Intuitively, I’m apart from both of them – even when non-depressed and happy, I think a painless death is always a benefit.At the same time, I realize that this is a peculiarity of my own psychology. The fact that others have conflicting intuitions is good reason for me not to act on my intuition (e.g., to go around killing people). Intellectually, it seems most reasonable to say that a painless death may be a harm, a benefit, or neither, depending on whether the potential decedent is like Nagel, me, or Strawson. Michael – <>That benefit, however, seems to run out when the issue is whether to commit suicide.<>I don’t think it does – in fact, when I am happy and still wish for death, my primary objective is to <>provide a benefit<> to my “future self,” who I know will suffer greatly if I wait around instead of committing suicide. Some think that a benefit must be experienced to count as a real benefit, but I don’t see this as necessarily true. (I’m with Nagel on that one.) I think preventing painful existence can be as much of a benefit as causing positive experience. Also – why has a suicide lost faith in all promises? I don’t think this is true at all. I’ve written about potential obligations of a suicide < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>.At any rate, I’m not sure that ordinary individual commitments to society justify the extreme remedy of forcing a suffering person to remain alive. Allowing suicide is like allowing divorce, bankruptcy, and abortion (and, for that matter, not allowing punitive damages in contract actions) – it is a reasonable recognition that sometimes the consequences of an intentional action or contract are too great to force an individual to bear. A society without mercy is a harsh society to be born into – and we are all born into it without so choosing.

    Sister Y

    February 15, 2009 at 7:54 pm

  6. Chip – <>Conservative arguments — in this case for an individual liberty interest in suicide — ascend in their appeal when knowledge is slippery. And I can think of few problems more slippery than those that hinge on questions of accurate versus inaccurate subjective appraisals of preference.<>No comment, I just think this bears repeating.

    Sister Y

    February 15, 2009 at 8:02 pm

  7. Chip makes a compelling and, perhaps, irresistible case when applied at the institutional level, but at the interpersonal level, I still have reservations as to how desirable it would be for the spirit of the conservative arguments to flourish, where cherished complexity might be lost.


    February 15, 2009 at 8:52 pm

  8. Rob, I just have in mind the standard reliance rationale behind contract enforcement. Suppose A contracts with B to purchase B’s services. Later, A forswears the institution of contract. No one would say that in virtue of opting out A is no longer bound by the contract, and most would recognize society’s ongoing interest in the institution of contract, which is what legitimizes society’s stepping into the breach to ensure performance.Y, on the deflationary, fictionalist view of the self I outlined, the pressure to forge a diachronic self arises from the practical imperatives of social coordination. If you choose to commit suicide now, it seems to me that those practical imperatives become immediately inoperative, and the social ground of selfhood dissipates. What’s left is the current equilibrium of drives, affects, and occurrent “subjectivity.” It may be that this residue is imbued with a persisting sense of duty toward your loved ones (as you argue in your post on voluntary isolation), and it certainly does seem desirable to inculcate such sentiments, but I see little reason to suppose that they link up in any interesting way with the mandates of your former “selves.”

    Michael Drake

    February 16, 2009 at 1:27 am

  9. I think painless death can be a harm or a benefit depending on whether you want it or not.<>Do I owe anything to my future self – since, in a sense, it is me?<>I think this should read “Do I owe anything to my future self – since, in a sense, it is <>not<> me?”.And of course, the question of whether you are allowed to remove its “chance at life” is trivial…I’m still lost in the jungle that results from the fact that personal “identity” seems to be neither transitive nor reflexive…As for the problem of contracts, which appears in the article, I again dream of circumventing the metaphysical question. And approach that it seems to me to be worthwhile trying is to attempt to justify contract law on contractualist grounds irrespective of metaphysical considerations. Unfortunately, it would be a huge and demanding philosophical project to work this out in detail… So it’s probably just a dream of mine.That much for now, it’s really late (here in Europe)…


    February 16, 2009 at 1:29 am

  10. Of course it’s completely arguable that I’ve overstated the importance of social coordination in motivating selfhood, in which case the binding of future “selves” becomes less problematic. You could think of such a contract as a constitutional charter ratified by your current self which binds subsequent generations. (Cf. the intergenerational problem in constitutional metatheory.)

    Michael Drake

    February 16, 2009 at 1:34 am

  11. Rob,I worry that I have misunderstood your point, but the conservatism I have in mind is the Hayekian kind, which favors maximal liberty in part because interpersonal action is always a matter of profound complexity. I know it’s a loaded word, but I think the point goes to the problem of “confidence” that you rightly identify. I’ll check out the Wilson papers before saying anything further.


    February 16, 2009 at 5:26 am

  12. <>If you choose to commit suicide now, it seems to me that those practical imperatives become immediately inoperative, and the social ground of selfhood dissipates.<>I’m not sure if I’m understanding you, but I wonder if your point is similar to Velleman’s position in his paper < HREF="" REL="nofollow">“A Right of Self Termination?”<> (which I write about in a rather loopy manner < HREF="" REL="nofollow">here<>).Basically, Velleman posits that there is something that inheres in every person by virtue of being a person – Kantian dignity – that is the necessary reason that we should even care about what is good for a person (and defer to people’s judgments about what is good for them). He argues that, by committing suicide to lessen his pain, a person claims not to <>have<> this inherent value – but that the value is not his to assign or deny. That’s not a very good summary of his article, but I wonder if it’s the same line of thinking that you have here – subsituting a socially constructed selfhood for “dignity.” (In other words, I’m not sure if I’m understanding what you’re saying.)

    Sister Y

    February 16, 2009 at 6:49 am

  13. Chip,I think I understood your point, and it’s well-taken. That you will, or should, find cause in the Wilson material for revising it is very doubtful to me. The reservations I’ve registered are probably just an inappropriate residual expression of a morbid fascination with the complexities of self-awareness, and gloomily deflated view of autonomy that seems to follow from it…As to Michael’s discussion, it seems to me that on a contractual view of the basic relation in which the individual stands to society, because the individual is <>always already in<> (to use Heideggerian-speak) that relationship, and is thus always in the position of the debter to the creditor, there’s a fundamental sense in which he has no claim to suicide on the basis of his own discrete interests, because his redemption from that relationship is something that can only be effected by the mercy or interest of the creditor. In another words, it seems that thicker ethical content (of a libertarian streak) needs to be layered into the interests or purposes of society for suicide, undertaken on the basis of an individual’s discretely-defined interests, to have any legitimacy. (Maybe none of this is at odds with your points.)


    February 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

  14. <>because the individual is always already in (to use Heideggerian-speak) that relationship, and is thus always in the position of the debter to the creditor<>I can’t quite follow this inference… The individual has not asked for this relationship (after all, it’s “always already” in it, so there’s no way to avoid it), so why should it, on <>this basis<>, be in the position of a debtor? It seems to me that you have to actually do something to incur a debt. (As opposed to an obligation. But I don’t see what obligations follow from the fact of “always already” standing in a relationship with society either.)


    February 17, 2009 at 1:21 am

  15. Constant:I was thinking along the same lines on my way home from work this evening. Where’s the signature on this contractual obligation, indicating the party entered this ‘legal relationship’ willingly, and with eyes open? The whole thing smacks of an after-the-fact justification for servitude, to me.


    February 17, 2009 at 1:48 am

  16. Constant, I’m assuming that a truly balanced or symmetrical creditor-debtor relationship is one in which both parties have ‘voluntarily’ entered into — meaning that they’ve endorsed the terms of the relationship <>before<> entering into it, or from a position external to it. This seems to me importantly different from the relationship in which the individual stands to society, since negotiations between the parties occur within a relationship initially established by one of them. Isn’t this an inherently asymmetrical relationship? Another way of putting it is that the individual’s very capacity to renegotiate the terms of the contract are predicated on the advances he’s already (long) been involuntarily accepting from the creditor.(As Jim notes, this does smack of servitude, especially if you cherish hopes of the normative outstripping the description, but I think it smacks simply of reality, and I’m gratefully amazed we’ve managed to create institutions in the liberal democratic tradition that appear to stray so far from it.)


    February 17, 2009 at 2:10 am

  17. I see the affinities with Velleman, but I end up in a very different place (if I didn’t start off from a very different place). I want to suggest that the reason we commit ourselves to our “selves” is social integration. That integration is a benefit only to those who exhibit stable “selves” that others can “count on” for the purposes of coordinating fruitful exchange, and it’s only in the welter of a social world like this that our “self” (at least in the fullest sense) is forged. Suicide at least seems like a profound opting-out of that social framework, and so the pressures that elicit and even sustain our self-(dis)simulations no longer obtain. The <>raison d’etre<> of selfhood being discarded, then, we can no longer be said to have any duty to our former selves (if we ever could).I don’t want to seem unrealistically internalist about any of this. The contrivance of a self (as opposed, say, to a persona) is obviously not something anyone sets out to do. Nor, for the same reason, is a self something one could choose to discard (well, at least not without years of extended, meditative effort, anyway). That’s what I meant in in my second comment above about the “residual” affective inertia that would sustain the sense of duty to others (and perhaps to oneself) even after the framework in which duty finds its intelligible place has been rejected. (There may be an analogy here to the incomprehensibility of Western values that persist even after their Judeo-Christian underpinnings have collapsed. Or not. Just riffing.)Also, I may be unrealistically focusing on one species of suicide to the exclusion of others. When I think of this “opting out,” I have in mind the forlorn existentialist (call him a “Type I” suicide), who happens to base his choice on a global judgment about the absurdity of the human predicament (and, for that matter, the predicament of < HREF="" REL="nofollow">any imaginable agent<>). Whereas a suicide motivated by more personal concerns — a terminal cancer diagnosis, say, or just lousy prospects for the future generally — (call this a “Type II” suicide) wouldn’t necessarily be committed to the kind of global rejection of value, in which case the point of maintaining a self (and preserving the second-order commitments that flow from having a self) would persist unto death.Broadly, the only point I originally wanted to make was that at least with regard to Type I suicides, if you suppose that the ground of <>selfhood<> has dissipated, then if anything underwrites the legitimacy of imposing a waiting period for such suicides (and maybe nothing does underwrite it), it can’t be a supposed duty between selves. I don’t at all mean to suggest that this means society can legitimately frustrate the prospective suicide’s intentions, nor did I mean to implicate Heideggerean embeddedness, Socratic citizenship, or the like, even though these might be fruitful avenues to go down when thinking about the role of the community or state in regulating prospective suicides. (The contractual angle I followed was in response to Y’s musing about “sign[ing] something at age 18 that says I want to be forcibly prevented from committing suicide if I ever try it.”)

    Michael Drake

    February 17, 2009 at 2:33 am

  18. Recently some conservatives were < HREF="" REL="nofollow">shocked, shocked<> to hear Jacob Levy grant any plausibility to a rationalist attack on the autonomy granted to certain persons. I wonder how many would carry their offense to suicide? One got his dander up at the seeming equivalence Levy suggested between favored and unfavored groups of the commenter’s. I find myself driven toward the radical “pluralist” position because I don’t really see a sensible ground on which we can say that some people not be granted agency without denying it to everyone (including ourselves).


    February 18, 2009 at 2:09 am

  19. TGGP, I like that guy’s fancy words like “self-direct.”Would a radical pluralist think the state should intervene to prevent parents from, e.g., genitally mutilating their daughters?Re: the above discussion – it has always struck me as intuitive that the social contract thingy is on stronger ground if there’s an opt-out available.

    Sister Y

    February 19, 2009 at 4:19 am

  20. TGGP’s link reminds me of a brief mail correspondence I once engaged with a self-described “National Socialist feminist” where, in response to some bad point I had made, she said that being taught to read was a form of brainwashing. I had to pause over that one.


    February 19, 2009 at 5:38 pm

  21. I think Judith Jarvis Thompson’s arguments regarding permissibility of abortion are particularly relevant to the question of responsibility to your future self.This question is particularly funny to me, as a classical liberal who would prefer not to die on anyone’s terms, even my own. If possible, I would like to suspend my own right to commit suicide, and preserve everybody else’s.

    Thom Blake

    February 19, 2009 at 11:22 pm

  22. I’m completely in favor of the right to suspend your right to suicide (e.g., advance directives asking for forced treatment). Perhaps the example of the 18-year-old and the 80-year-old just tells us that the time span should be limited.

    Sister Y

    February 19, 2009 at 11:37 pm

  23. Thom, your attitude towards your death is quite a remarkable one to me. In preferring not to die on anyone’s terms, including your own, do you mean that you would prefer a death resulting from factors which can’t be attributed to any directly intentional human actions? Death on (non-human) nature’s terms? (A [late-]Heideggerian death in contrast to a Nietzschean death.)


    February 20, 2009 at 12:55 am

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