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Archive for the ‘altruistic suicide’ Category

Suicides Represent a Net Gain for Society

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Or, Altruistic Reasons to Commit Suicide


Arguing against suicide, a correspondent writes:

By choosing to live one can prevent much more suffering than by killing oneself (hundreds or thousands times more!). Everyone who thinks about suicide knows how horrible suffering can be (and therefore should know how important it is to prevent as much of it as possible). I agree that it is better not to be born at all, but now that we are alive, we have the choice. If I kill myself I can spare myself some amount of suffering, but if I choose to live and dedicate my life to helping others I can spare them hundreds or thousands times more suffering.

I have previously indicated that one of the reasons I have not committed suicide to date is that I know my death would cause considerable pain to others. But this made me wonder: what is, in fact, the net effect of suicide?

Actually, it turns out that suicides are probably on balance good for society. A 2007 study found that considering all the economic impacts of suicide, the 30,906 suicides completed in 1990 actually saved the United States $5.07 billion – in 2005 dollars (about $160,000 per suicide). That’s right – suicides, on balance, represent an economic gain for society.

What about the environment? An American produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year. A 33-year-old female like me, with 50+ years left of her natural lifespan, could presumably prevent 1000 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere by packing it in early.

That is not to mention the many other harmful effects that people, particularly first-world people, have on the environment and its inhabitants.

I have argued that the possibility of doing good for others is extremely limited, partially by what I term the altruistic treadmill. I am highly skeptical of the claim that a person can sustainably increase the well-being of other people. (See, e.g., Lykken and Tellegen’s “Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon.”) I suspect that a real-life It’s a Wonderful Life would be much more ambivalent than the theatrical version. At any rate, such an increase in well-being would have to outweigh the concrete, measurable gains to society from ending one’s life – $160,000, a thousand tons of carbon dioxide, and one less mouth to feed – not to mention never, ever again triggering an ostracism response in another human being, nor hurting anyone or anything again, ever.

You would have to be a pretty stellar human being to make up for that. I’m mostly speaking for myself here, but I doubt most people who have gotten to the point of considering suicide have the capacity to drastically improve the lives of others in a sustainable way, to reach a magnitude large enough to offset the very real gains to society that their suicides would entail.

Also: this is probably the point where I should get the hell off of blogspot before they delete all my shit.

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Written by Sister Y

May 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

The Public Thinks (Or Not) About Suicide

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In a pair of comment threads, anonymous citizens confront two police suicides: one about an officer who killed himself after he was involved in a car accident that killed a fellow officer, and one about an officer who killed himself after he was involved in a deadly tasering incident.

Written by Sister Y

October 2, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Akrasia Plus Insight: More On Altruistic Suicides

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Some suicides – what we might think of as “heroic suicides” or “altruistic suicides” – are committed for the benefit of others, perhaps to save others from death. Often, these are not even seen as belonging to the same class as regular suicides.

When considering altruistic suicides, does it matter whether the harm (perhaps death) the suicide saves others from would come from outside circumstances, or the suicide’s own future actions if he were to stay alive?

Generally, people recognize the value of not harming others. Sociopathic personality disorder may be associated with many types of harm to others, but it seems reasonable to acknowledge that there are many people who, despite understanding that it is wrong to harm others, nevertheless go on doing so out of weakness of will. Some people cannot help themselves, in a practical sense, from doing serious wrong (as may be the case with some rapists). They know it is wrong and feel empathy for their victims, but go on harming people anyway. And some of these people, we might assume, have insight into their akratic condition – not only do they know that it is wrong to harm others, but they realize that they are likely to do it, no matter how much effort they expend to avoid doing so. I propose that when a person such as this commits suicide for the purpose of preventing his future harm to others, his suicide is altruistic. Note that this doesn’t cover cases where, for example, convicted child molesters commit suicide upon release because of difficult living conditions, or even out of guilt for prior crimes. Many suicides might have the unintended consequence of avoiding harm to others, but I would only classify those as altruistic that have the purpose of preventing harm to others.

I mention this to show that the category of “altruistic suicides” might be broader than it appears.

Written by Sister Y

July 2, 2008 at 1:10 am

Altruism and the Value of Life: Another Response to Velleman

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Intentionally causing one’s death in order to save another is a type of action often excluded from classification as suicide. Heroic “suicides” – pushing a child out of the way of a train, thereby killing oneself, or undertaking a military mission that benefits one’s country but guarantees death, or jumping out of a leaking lifeboat in order to save one’s companions – do not seem to be of a kind with suicides whose sole end is one’s death. As Jacques Choron puts it,

Heroic suicides are obviously quite different from those brought on by serious illness, grief, or an unbearable situation and in this sense are outside the scope of an investigation primarily for the purpose of preventing suicide as an undesirable psycho-social phenomenon. [p. 17, Suicide: An Incisive Look at Self-Destruction, by Jacques Choron. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1972.]

Heroic suicides – or, perhaps, “altruistic suicides” – are just not the same thing as “suicide” at all.

The fact remains, however, that altruistic suicides are trading their lives for something else, so that it becomes necessary, in Velleman’s terms, to examine the exchange to see if it undermines dignity. Most altruistic suicides would probably pass muster under Velleman’s terms, because in many cases what is exchanged is life for life – one’s life (and thereby essential dignity) may be exchanged to preserve the life (and thereby essential dignity) of another. The goods exchanged are of the same kind.

However, what about an altruistic suicide that was committed not to save a life, but for some other altruistic purpose? A suicidal act committed to save a child from rape or torture, for instance, or to prevent the release of classified information the leakage of which would result in mass suffering, cannot be said to exchange dignity for a good of a like kind. Suicide undertaken to prevent harm to another short of death must be seen as exchanging one’s life and dignity for “mere” interest-dependent values (such as other people not suffering or not being raped), in conflict with the inherent interest-independent value of life. Of course, we must, in Velleman’s view, allow for an exception where a suicide is committed in order to preserve someone else’s rational faculties – for that purpose, unlike preventing torture, is of a kind with life and dignity (as rational faculties are the condition precedent to dignity).

Three possibilities present themselves. First, we might maintain the strange position that heroic suicide for any purpose other than the preservation of the life of others is wrong – that it is wrong to die to prevent children from being tortured and raped – but that it is not wrong to die to preserve someone’s rational faculties for choosing their ends. Or, in the second case, in recognizing the moral propriety of heroic suicide, we can question whether “exchanging life for mere interest-dependent values” is necessarily a moral harm. Third, we might try to argue that acting in the interest of others in the heroic suicide case is somehow a like exchange after all.

I feel that this response will have little to say to those who see no problem with the first option, and can maintain a position that appears so strongly counter-intuitive and contrived. The more interesting question, for me, is whether an argument can be made that sacrificing one’s life in the mere interests of others – unconnected to maintaining their dignity – is somehow different from sacrificing one’s life in one’s own mere interests.

There seem to be cases where sacrificing oneself in another’s interest would be horrible, perhaps even so horrible as to cheapen the value of human life – such as dying to prevent minor property damage. There cannot be a blanket exception for suicide for the benefit of others. What the distinction seems to me to be is the strength of the interest – dying to prevent or relieve great suffering, in oneself or others, seems to be a morally acceptable option, whereas it’s easy to see how dying to prevent someone from chipping a nail could be morally objectionable.

Velleman indicates that suicide is wrong, even to end severe pain, as long as the pain isn’t so severe as to interfere with one’s rational faculties. I would like to know if it is also wrong, in his view, to die to end severe pain, or prevent serious suffering, in others.

Written by Sister Y

June 30, 2008 at 10:15 pm