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Attitudes Toward Suicide

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Note: If you are interested in evolutionary biology, please see my article on Thomas Joiner and the evolutionary psychology of suicide.

The question:

227. Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person: a. Has an incurable disease?

The General Social Survey, available through the Survey Documentation & Analysis project at the University of California, Berkeley, tracks how attitudes of Americans vary with time and against other variables. The answer to the question above, known as SUICIDE1, tracks attitudes toward a special kind of suicide right – that for the incurably ill. Answers vary strongly with age and over time.

The trend over time indicates that more people are favoring the right to suicide in the case of incurable illness. This chart indicates the percentage of people in the 50-60 age group responding to the above question – red for yes on suicide rights, blue for no on suicide rights – for the years 1972-2006, in five-year increments:

Attitudes within the 50 to 60 age range are clearly changing. Support for suicide rights climbs steeply until 1996, when it flattens out.

Similarly, attitudes toward suicide rights upon incurable illness vary with age; the chart below tracks answers to the above question by age group in ten-year increments, for the years 2002-2006.

Generally, the older the respondent, the less he favors suicide rights for the incurably ill, up until the 71-80 age range – the only age range in which a majority of respondents disfavor suicide rights. This is consistent either with (a) stable attitudes over the lifespan, set at an early age; or (b) changing attitudes over the lifespan toward disfavoring suicide rights – perhaps over concerns with one’s own mortality. However, the data above suggesting that attitudes are changing in favor of suicide rights, controlling for age, makes the first hypothesis more likely.

Interestingly, the direct correlation between age and negative attitudes toward suicide has an exception: the 81-90 age group. 81-90 year olds are more likely to favor suicide rights for the incurably ill than not, and they favor suicide rights more than the 71-80 age group. This may be suggestive of attitudes changing over the life span in response to events (in this case, advanced aging).

Sadly, there seems to be little to no progress in attitudes about suicide when someone is “tired of living.” Attitudes on the question known as SUICIDE4, as follows:

227. Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person: d. Is tired of living and ready to die?

show little change over time:

There is, unsurprisingly, a strong correlation in religion (THEISM) and attitudes toward suicide. The more one agrees with the question

1387. Do you agree or disagree with the following. . . a. There is a God who concerns Himself with every human being personally.

the more one disfavors suicide rights, both on incurable illness

and when one is tired of living:

What about education? Education is associated with favoring suicide rights. Here is the response to SUICIDE1 (suicide rights for people with incurable illnesses) against highest year of school completed:

The correlation for suicide rights for those tired of living is present but not as strong:

Interestingly, the correlation to college major (COLMAJR1) is the opposite of what I would have predicted: those with a major in fuzzy studies – English, literature, foreign language, fine arts, or other humanities (values 1-4) – were much more likely to favor suicide rights for the incurably ill than were those who majored in science or math (values 8-9):

Written by Sister Y

December 7, 2008 at 1:00 am

Idea Contamination

with 5 comments

In an eloquent comment on my piece, “Is Suicide Selfish?Jim says,

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! [Emphasis mine.]

I think Jim correctly identifies the source of the vitriol that citizens often direct toward proponents of suicide rights and antinatalism. The suicide, by his act, is making a statement that life is not worth living – and this challenges the deeply held, but largely unexamined, belief that most people seem to have, that life is a precious gift. Even for those of us who have long questioned life’s value, it’s easy to imagine the feelings of discomfort and fear that might come from being forced to confront, for the first time, the possibility that life is not so great. Suicide, even a mere discussion of suicide, forces people to confront the reality that many people do not think that life is worth living. (I previously posted on the fascist East German government’s response to its high suicide rate, a challenge to the government’s image, which was to at once vilify and ignore suicide.) The evidence from the “suicide contagion” studies shows that, indeed, suicide acts as a powerful social proof that life might not be worth living, that its value is at least questionable.

It is possible that people hate the idea that life is not worth living because many of them have invested a great deal of cognitive energy in believing that life is worth living, and have built ways of life on top of that fragile foundation. I’m reminded of the recent words of Ill. Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), in arguing that atheism is a dangerous idea and children should not know that atheists exist:

It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat! . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

I must admit, it is possible that God and the value of life are what “the state was built upon.” But that does not conjure them into existence, nor render it morally wrong to challenge their existence.

Written by Sister Y

June 3, 2008 at 10:51 pm