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Status, Empathy, Dignity

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From Am Yisrael Chai/Israel Is Living by Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach:

Reb Zusia was a poor humble rebbe and on this particular day he looked it. He was taking a coach to the city and waited to board with a few other passengers.

One of the passengers was a rich man and he was looking at Zusia, thinking to himself ‘Ah ha, now here is a man I can make fun of; . . and that is what he did.

They arrived in the city and thousands of people gathered around the coach. Zusia stepped off and disappeared into the crowd. The rich man got off and asked someone what was going on. He said that Reb Zusia has come and we’ve gathered to greet him.

When the rich man found out the man he had been making fun of was Reb Zusia he went up and apologized.

Reb Zusia said, “It’s not me you should be apologizing to . . it’s all the poor people of the world you’re insulting. You have to ask every poor person for forgiveness.”

Memento mori

Written by Sister Y

April 29, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Posted in dignity, empathy, poverty, status

Respecting and Erasing

with one comment

Ending something does not entail denying its value.


In 1959, the artist Robert Rauschenberg asked the much older and more established artist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. Eventually, de Kooning gave him a drawing, executed in heavy crayon, grease pencil, graphite, and ink. Over the course of a month, Rauschenberg erased the drawing and mounted it in a gold frame. View a large image of it here, on Boing Boing – it’s a beautiful object, evocative and moving in its silence.

I relate this here, first, because it is beautiful, and I don’t want to hear any crap about the decadence of modern art and blah blah blah – it is beautiful, it is moving, it is haunting, that is enough. Second, I relate it in response to J. David Velleman, whose “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628) presents an ethical argument against a moral right to suicide, at least suicide committed in order to make things better for oneself.

The core of the paper’s argument is that it is wrong for a person to kill himself in his own interest, because by doing so, he devalues that which inheres to him – his dignity, in Kantian terms – that is not his to evaluate, but belongs rather to all of humanity. Velleman thinks that we ought to defer to a person as to a judgment of what is in his interests – he just does not think that killing oneself in one’s own interest is morally permissible “solely on the grounds of the benefits [one] will thereby obtain or the harms [one] will avoid.”

Velleman proposes that there is a special kind of value to every person, that logically must exist if his interests are to matter. It is an answer to the question, why should we act in the interests of other people? The answer is, because people matter. This mattering Velleman equates with Kantian dignity, which is further equated with man’s rational nature. (The capacity to rationally choose one’s ends is what gives a person dignity, in Kantian terms.)

Dignity is the reason we respect people (and respect their wishes). Velleman argues that suicide is a form of rejecting this dignity – and that we don’t have the right to do that, because it is not ours to reject, exactly, but a feature of humanity. This dignity, says Velleman, is “a value that [a person] possesses by virtue of being one of us, and the value of being one of us is not his alone to assess or defend. The value of being a person is therefore something larger than any particular person who embodies it.” Therefore we don’t have the right to destroy it. It’s not just that suicide is failing to treat oneself with the respect due to persons, though it is certainly that, according to Velleman – it’s that suicide undermines respect for persons in general.

The story of the paper is this. Professor Velleman had cancer (in real life). A few years ago he was sitting around after dinner at a philosophy conference with some colleagues and a few people were smoking. One of the smoking professors said something about how he knew smoking would probably kill him, but that his enjoyment of smoking outweighed the probable early death it would cause him. Velleman, fresh from the chemo table, was deeply offended. Over the years, he came to realize that, by joking about trading life for pleasure, the professor was implying that human life lacks serious value (dignity), dehumanizing not only himself but Professor Velleman as well. The core of the paper, as I see it, is this:

My host’s remarks implied that an early death, of the sort he was risking and I was hoping to forestall, would be a loss to him that could be offset by sufficient gains. But what would it matter how much I lost or gained if I myself would be no loss? My gains or losses would merit concern only on the basis of concern for me – which, being the basis of concern for them, could not then be offset by that concern. Hence my gains or losses wouldn’t matter unless I had value that could not be offset by their.

My host was implicitly denying the existence of such a value. For he claimed that death was worth worrying about only in respects for which he could be compensated by the pleasures of smoking. He was thus implicitly denying the interest-independent value of a person, without which it couldn’t really matter whether I lived or died.

In an appendix to the piece, Velleman responds to criticisms from Professor F. M. Kamm, in her article “Physician-Assisted Suicide, the Doctrine of the Double Effect, and the Ground of Value” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 586-605).

Kamm calls one of Velleman’s arguments the Exchange Argument, and interprets it to mean (correctly, says Velleman) that it is forbidden to exchange the intrinsic value of one’s humanity merely to benefit one’s interests, as in suicide or some kind of voluntary slavery. But, Kamm says,

According to Kant, beautiful things (e.g., art) have a value beyond price, though not the dignity that persons have. Most would say (though perhaps Kant would not, given his theory of beauty) that beautiful things have intrinsic value, even if no one cares about them and they satisfy no human interests. Yet we may permissibly exchange beautiful things for money or food. The permissibility of exchanging them for things that have interest-relative value and a market price does not imply, I believe, that they only have interest-relative value. It implies that what has intrinsic aesthetic value has only finite value and could be permissibly exchanged for what has only interest-relative value (e.g., food). But this does not show that beautiful things have only interest-relative value rather than intrinsic aesthetic value. That we can exchange one thing for another does not mean that they share the same essential nature or type of value. The same might be true of persons.

Velleman responds that the painting analogy fails, because when we sell a painting, we are not destroying it, but entrusting it into the care of another art appreciator. A better analogy, says Velleman, would be burning a painting in the fireplace because one has run out of kindling. “But then,” says Velleman, “burning an artwork for kindling would ordinarily be objectionable. Not coincidentally, it’s also what would be analogous to self-interested suicide.”

But I think that analogy fails as well. I am so glad I heard about that empty, erased de Kooning drawing, because there is the proper analogy for a suicide, and, I think, my greatest objection to Velleman here. The act of erasing or destroying does not imply a lack of respect. There is such a thing as respectful erasing. Rauschenberg could believe heartily in the value of de Kooning’s drawing – in fact, the drawing’s artistic value is key to the work’s success – and still, with the consent of de Kooning, erase it. Similarly, I think it is possible to commit suicide without implying that human life, and even one’s own life, lacks value or dignity.

In many cases, as with the de Kooning, the absence of the thing is what heightens its value. When I saw the erased de Kooning, I immediately thought of Miller Williams’ poem “The Curator,” in which a young assistant curator at the Hermitage in Leningrad comes up with a scheme to ship all the paintings out of the city to avoid their destruction by the German bombs. They ship the paintings out, but leave the frames up to make it easier to put things back in their place when the war is over. Williams says:

Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.

Russian soldiers come to the Hermitage from all over Russia, and are disappointed that the paintings are gone, so the staff gives tours despite their absence. And gradually the tour of this “Unseen Collection” becomes more popular:

We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves.

Eventually, blind people begin to come for the tour. Eventually, of course, the war is over and the paintings are replaced, but the blind people never come back, and people don’t pay quite as much attention as before.

Can one erase a person in such a manner? Certainly, many who have been erased by death are still valued. Although rational choosing must cease at death, I do not believe that the thing that causes people to matter ceases at death. It is strange that one’s biological life – and, especially, one’s rational capacity – should be the basis for one’s intrinsic claim to matter.

It might even occasionally be true that killing someone else could be done out of respect for his dignity, as in Sharon Olds’ poem “Things That Are Worse Than Death,” in which the speaker imagines killing her son in order to save him from being tortured by the police. An excerpt:

You are speaking of Chile,
of the woman who was arrested
with her husband and their five-year-old son.
You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child,
in front of each other,
“as they like to do.”
Things that are worse than death.
I can see myself taking my son’s ash-blond hair in my fingers,
tilting back his head before he knows what is happening,
slitting his throat, slitting my own throat
to save us that.

And in the recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road, a father in a post-apocalyptic horror of a world is constantly aware that he might have to kill his son to spare him from being raped, tortured, and eaten by cannibals. Late in the novel, the father and son find a baby lying abandoned over a smoldering cooking fire. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that the father’s actions, in keeping his son alive in such a world, are wrong – that he has failed to respect his son’s dignity and value by keeping him alive even more than the baby’s parents have failed to respect his dignity by burning him as if to eat him. (In reality, of course, evolutionary biology-minded studies of familicide, especially data regarding the virtual male monopoly of familicide compared with more equal gender ratios in killings of children alone, seem to suggest that real killings of children are generally motivated by proprietary feelings, rather than committed out of concern for the children’s dignity. But the possibility remains.)

And many of us feel that such a world – such an unending stream of horrors – is already upon us, and perhaps has been since humanity’s inception. For many of us, the only way to genuinely respect ourselves is to erase ourselves.

I feel compelled to point out that I’m not a fan of Cormac McCarthy and I think his writing is crap. But his book is important, even if he unflinchingly uses words like “vermiculate” and “torsional” and “wimple” (as a VERB) and never met an abstract noun he didn’t want to turn into a verb. I hate “lyrical” writing and I hate McCarthy’s rhythm. But his miserable writing style only partially detracts from the quality of his novel, in this case.

Written by Sister Y

June 30, 2008 at 1:49 am

Suicide, Reeducation, and Reformed Suicides

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Deng Xiaoping’s self-criticism during the Cultural Revolution, leading to his rehabilitation (re-acceptance into the Communist Party):

Whenever I think of the damages caused by my mistakes and crimes to the revolution, I cannot help but feel guilty, shameful, regretful, and self-hateful. I fully support the efforts to use me as a negative example for lasting and penetrating criticism in order to eradicate the evil influence left by me over long years . . . . No punishment is too much for a man like me. I promise that I will never seek to reverse the verdict on me and I will never be a remorseless capitalist roader. My greatest wish is to be able to stay in the Party and I am begging the party to assign me a tiny and insignificant job at an appropriate time . . . I warmly cheer the victory of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. [Deng Xioaping’s autobiography, quoted in David L. Shambaugh, Deng Xioaping: Portrait of a Chinese Statesman, p. 30.]

Langston Hughes, under questioning by the McCarthy-era Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations:

Mr. COHN. Let us see if we can get an answer to this: Have you
ever believed in communism?
Mr. HUGHES. Sir, I would have to know what you mean by communism to answer that truthfully, and honestly, and according to the oath.
Mr. COHN. Interpret it as broadly as you want. Have you ever believed that there is a form of government better than the one under which this country operates today?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir, I have not.
Mr. COHN. You have never believed that?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir.
Mr. COHN. That is your testimony under oath?
Mr. HUGHES. That is right.
. . . .
Mr. HUGHES. . . . Did you write something called Scottsboro Limited?
Mr. HUGHES. Yes, sir, I did.
Mr. COHN. Do you not think that follows the Communist party line very well?
Mr. HUGHES. It very well might have done so, although I am not sure I ever knew what the Communist party line was since it very often changed.
Mr. COHN. Mr. Hughes, when you wrote Scottsboro Limited, did you believe in what you were saying in that poem?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir, not entirely, because I was writing in characters.
Mr. COHN. It is your testimony you were writing in character and what was said did not represent your beliefs?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir. You cannot say I don’t believe, if I may clarify my feeling about creative writing, that when you make a character, a Klansman, for example, as I have in some of my poems, I do not, sir.
Mr. COHN. How about Scottsboro Limited, specifically. Do you believe in the message carried by that work?
Mr. HUGHES. I believe that some people did believe in it at the time.
Mr. COHN. Did you believe in it?
Mr. HUGHES. Did I?
Mr. COHN. Did you personally believe? You can answer that. Let me read you, ‘‘Rise, workers and fight, audience, fight, fight, fight, fight, the curtain is a great red flag rising to the strains of the Internationale.’’ That is pretty plain, is it not?
Mr. HUGHES. Yes, indeed it is.
Mr. COHN. Did you believe in that message when you wrote, it?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir.
Mr. COHN. You did not believe it?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir.
. . . .
Mr. COHN. Do you remember writing this: ‘‘Good morning, Revolution. You are the very best friend I ever had. We are going to pal around together from now on.’’
Mr. HUGHES. Yes, sir, I wrote that.
Mr. COHN. Did you write this, ‘‘Put one more ‘S’ in the USA to make it Soviet. The USA when we take control will be the USSA then.’’
Mr. HUGHES. Yes, sir, I wrote that.
. . . .
Mr. COHN. What I asked was if the quote that appears in the Daily Worker from your article is a statement by you, ‘‘If the 12 Communists are sent to jail, in a little while they will send Negroes to jail simply for being Negroes, and to concentration camps just for being colored.’’ . . . . Do you believe that today?
Mr. HUGHES. No, sir, I would not necessarily believe that today.
Mr. COHN. When did you change your views?
Mr. HUGHES. It is impossible to say exactly when one changes one’s views. One’s views change gradually, sir.[From the Executive Sessions of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations, Volume 2]

Regarding actor Owen Wilson, following Wilson’s suicide attempt:

A source told People magazine: “Owen is in bad mental shape but said he is thankful to be alive.”

“He knows he came close to ending his life, and he is happy that he was saved from himself.”

“He is basically at home with people watching him 24/7.”[Via Fametastic.]

Re-education is usually successful after suicide:

Proof that most individuals attempting suicide are ambivalent, temporarily depressed, and suffering from treatable disorders is the fact that so few, once rescued and treated, ever actually go on to commit suicide. In one American study, less than 4% of 886 suicide attempters actually went on to kill themselves in the 5 years following their initial attempt[32]. A Swedish study published in 1977 of individuals who attempted suicide at some time between 1933 and 1942 found that only 10.9% of those eventually killed themselves in the subsequent 35 years[33]. This suggests that intervention to keep an individual alive, is actually the course most likely to honor that individuals true wishes or to respect the person’s “autonomy.”[Burke J. Balch and Randall K. O’Bannon, “Why We Shouldn’t Legalize Assisted Suicide,” on the National Right to Life Committee’s website. Citations omitted.]

Written by Sister Y

June 9, 2008 at 5:45 am