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At Last We Know What Causes Suicide

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It’s not personal agency. It’s not mental illness. It’s mixing booze and caffeine:

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Phusion Projects Inc. after a Florida man got drunk on Four Loko, a controversial alcoholic energy drink, and shot himself in the head with a pistol.

The family of Jason Keiran, 20, filed the Four Loko lawsuit in Orange County Circuit Court on Friday, less than a week before the FDA issued warning letters to Phusion and other energy drink makers that it considers caffeine an unsafe additive for alcoholic beverages, which will shut down the entire alcoholic energy drink industry. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Does this mean I can sue the bar for serving me Irish coffee or Continental Airlines for serving me DVRs?

While my inner plaintiff’s attorney loves this (my students will definitely be hearing about this when we cover product liability in a couple of weeks), I think it functions best as an example of how people are willing to elide considerations of causation when the consequence is suicide, as opposed to some other act. Imagine if the decedent in this case had killed, not himself, but his estranged girlfriend or a rival, and blamed his action on drinking caffeine-laced booze. I doubt we would be so quick to attribute causation to the cocktail in that case; voluntary intoxication and other “Twinkie defenses” to real crimes or torts, as opposed to suicide, tend to get laughed out of court.

Why do people get intellectually lazy when it comes to suicide? Why are people unwilling to attribute causation to anything but personal agency for most actions, but very willing to attribute causation to other factors when the action is suicide?

I suspect that part of it has to do with the commonly-held idea that suicide is actually mysterious. Because non-suicidal people find the act of suicide so puzzling, I think, they are willing to accept the shakiest excuse as a “reason” for the suicide, without the skepticism that is normally present when addressing questions of causation for more understandable events. The task is to make suicide less mysterious and to point out problems in the evidence for causation.

Another reason I have considered for this species of intellectual laziness is that it follows from the mental gymnastics required to pretend that suicides are not actually responsible for their actions, but that suicide is a result of mental illness and outside the control of the actor. As I have previously written:

The more an actor is seen as the agent of his actions, the less outside influences are seen as affecting his actions. Therefore, in cases where moral responsibility is strongly attributed to an actor, outside influences are unlikely to be taken seriously as a cause of his actions – and, therefore, it is not necessary to censor these “outside influences” (such as media reports).

It is my belief that the widespread voluntary censorship of reports of suicide – from use of politically correct language to pervasive norms of message content – are the result of the modern trend to exculpate suicides from moral responsibility and redefine suicide as an act of insanity. There is, however, little evidence that suicides are any less morally responsible for their actions than murderers. Certainly, many other behaviors are media-contagious – but they are not censored, nor are many of them even studied.

I think that one possible explanation is that, at a deep level, people understand that suicide is just not that bad compared to actual acts of violence – despite hysterical language describing suicide as “self-murder.” We want to exculpate people from acts to which we are sympathetic. While we often refuse to define acts outside of societal norms as “not wrong,” we may nonetheless refuse to attribute full moral responsibility to these acts. However, this sort of sympathy backfires in our society. People who are “not responsible for their actions” must be “protected,” often in painful and dehumanizing ways; and society is responsible for their “protection,” often to the detriment of freedom.

Unfortunately, policy recommendations are often built on these shaky connections.

Plus, we all know that it’s actually internet video game addiction that causes suicide.

Thanks Chip.

Written by Sister Y

November 18, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Posted in causation, suicide, tort law