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Scab, Snitch, Slut

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On the use of aesthetic “moral” taboos to enforce compliance in large coordination problems

Part One: An Introduction to Coordinaton Problems

  • A scab is someone who works for an employer despite an ongoing strike by a union.
  • A snitch is someone who testifies against a criminal – sometimes for personal gain.
  • A slut is a female who has sex (or gives the appearance of being willing to do so) without demanding marriage, monogamy, or other social concessions in return.

These fun but ugly Germanic words have something in common: their aesthetic power enforces taboos that are perceived by users of the words to be ethical, but are, in reality, only solutions to large coordination problems. Enforcing these taboos is not morally justified – it only feels that way because a large group of people benefits from enforcement of the taboos. In fact, enforcing the taboos harms large groups of people at the expense of the benefiting group, and in these cases, there is no base-level ethical justification for that harm.

Intro to Coordination Problems: Shit

People are social animals. They live in large groups. In any particular instance, what is best for the group is not what is best for a particular individual. Paradoxically, if everyone in the group does what’s best for the group, then each individual in the group is better off than if each individual maximized her own utility separately.

It’s best for us all if we do what’s best for the group. But each one of us has an incentive to cheat in particular situations.

Take defecation. It’s annoying to have to only crap in certain places – an individual might be better off crapping wherever he felt like it, as opposed to only in designated latrines. But if everyone crapped wherever he felt like it, there would be shit everywhere, and everyone would be worse off. Society asks us to make a trade-off between our individual desire to shit freely on the one hand, and our mutual need for clean water (and sidewalks) on the other.

We spend a large amount of time alone, though, and so we may occasionally be tempted to violate this scatological provision of the “social contract.” That is where taboos come in: (1) they facilitate the emotion of shame on the part of would-be taboo violators, enough to offset a minor expected individual gain from a taboo violation; and (2) they turn the entire society into “taboo enforcers” by giving moral color to the situation, thereby enabling the enforcers to punish the taboo violator (i.e., inflict retribution out of proportion to the harm the violation actually causes).

The no-shitting-in-the-spring taboo is a pretty good one, I think; it may even deserve its moral color. However, the taboos represented by my titular words merely represent a certain group in society claiming that moral power for themselves, at great cost to other groups. It is my position that these taboos have no genuine ethical power, because (1) they do not protect universal human needs (like clean water and freedom from torture), and (2) the harm occasioned to the “out-group” is unjustifiably great.

Enforcement of these taboos isn’t altruistic, though it is often felt to be so by taboo enforcers. Following the taboo may be altruistic, in that it trades one’s own happiness for the happiness of the group. Enforcing the taboo is more complicated: while taking on the cost of enforcement oneself for the benefit of the group may be altruistic, at the heart of enforcing a taboo like this is placing the needs of one’s own group above those of another group – just like nepotism, racial discrimination, and genocide. Hardly altruistic, in the philosophical sense.

End of Part One.

Memento mori.

It is interesting to me that the people who tend to violate the “no shitting outside designated latrines” rule are homeless people – people (1) for whom the cost of following the taboo is great, and (2) who do not particularly benefit from enforcement of the taboo. It’s good for everybody to have clean sidewalks, but the cost is greater for some than for others.


Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Is Moral Feeling the Same as Conscience?

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In my piece “Problems with Compassion,” I explained a way in which moral goodness and compassion – a desire to do what is best for others in accordance with one’s own values – could get in the way of allowing others to do what is best according to their values.

In the case of suicide, hardly anyone – not even myself – is willing to counsel a particular person that suicide would be a good thing for him to do. And yet, I genuinely believe that suicide can be a moral choice that a person may rationally decide is in his best interests, as do many others. Is this belief in conflict with such unwillingness to apply it in particular cases? Is this unwillingness to advise particular people to commit suicide evidence that suicide is wrong?

Visceral feeling is often in conflict with intellectual understanding of moral issues. When a coyote wanders into my neighborhood, I desperately want to (and, honestly, once did) give it a hot dog out of affection and generosity, even though intellectually I know giving it a hot dog is probably not in the coyote’s best interests in the long term. In a related case, we often can’t help feeding our pets human food, again out of affection, generosity, and perhaps empathy – even though intellectually we know it’s not good for them.

Emotional intuition is, I think, a starting point for moral reasoning. But it is not the end of it. And there are some emotional feelings that are so strong that, in terms of inducing action, not even clear intellectual arguments can overcome them. I think, as with coyotes and hot dogs, this is a sort of akrasia. But, in the case of not being willing to counsel in favor of suicide, I think that it is a relatively benign form of akrasia, so long as one does not go around force-feeding or forcibly hospitalizing or lobotomizing or performing involuntary ECT on people, or supporting these coercive practices.

For a person considering suicide, it can be extremely irritating to hear only an anti-suicide message, and to perceive that one’s doubts about life’s value are not being taken seriously by others. I have often found myself on both sides of this – being irritated, and being the cheery irritator – and I am moved toward greater tolerance toward people who have a hard time taking the right to suicide seriously in any specific case. Still, I have taken a great deal of comfort from #alt.suicide.bus.stop over the years, and I think it is extremely important that a place exists for seriously discussing the possibility of one’s suicide without the usual bias. And I think it has to be anonymous, because nonpartisanship is too much to ask of one’s friends in the matter of one’s suicide.

Written by Sister Y

January 11, 2009 at 7:49 am

A Response to on the Right to Suicide

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Kevin Caruso, in a piece titled “Don’t I Have the Right to Die by Suicide?” attempts to scare people into calling a suicide hotline on the grounds that there is, in fact, no moral right to commit suicide. (Note that Caruso is the one who says we should use the unnatural phrase “die by suicide” instead of the more natural construction “commit suicide” because the latter is hurtful to the friends and family of people who commit suicide.)

Many of Caruso’s questions are answered more formally in my essay, “The Harms of Suicide.” But I think it is worthwhile to have a single document answering a representative set of (implied) pro-forced-life arguments.

Caruso poses questions (typeset in bold), to which I propose answers (typeset in regular typeface):

Do you have the right to devastate your family?

We often “devastate” our families by exercising our rights. Some “devastate” their families by coming out of the closet, or by refusing to be doctors, or by moving across the country, or by refusing to have children. Where concerns of personal autonomy and suffering outweigh the interests of others in maintaining our company, then we do indeed have the right to “devastate” others.

Do you have the right to cause intense, almost unbearable pain for all of the loved ones that you leave behind?

Everyone dies. Nothing we can do will prevent our own death, nor the suffering our death will cause to those close to us. Suicide merely causes this pain to be experienced earlier.

In fact, the policy of suicide prohibition and prevention – not the act of suicide itself – must be seen as a major cause of the special pain and grief suffered by suicide survivors. (Also, not everyone is lucky enough to have “loved ones.” Are lonely people free to commit suicide, according to Caruso?)

Do you have the right to take away any possibility that you would get better?

Who has the right to decide whether a given treatment is in one’s best interests, or not? With physical illnesses like cancer, the decision rests with the patient as to whether a given treatment is worth the suffering it entails. We have the right to refuse treatment. With good reason – many treatments for suicidality, while possibly effective, are so damaging as to simply not be worth the cost. And, as with cancer, for some people, nothing works.

Do you have the right to take away all of the wonderful things in life that you have yet to experience?

Who but me has a right to decide whether the suffering the rest of my life will entail exceeds the value of the “wonderful things in life” I have yet to experience?

Do you have the right to take an action that is a permanent solution to a temporary problem?

One of the most common mushy-headed objections to suicide is that it is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” In reality, for many of us, suffering is an all-too-permanent problem.

Do you have the right to cause irreversible brain damage to yourself if your suicide is not completed?

Damage to oneself as a result of an unsuccessful suicide attempt is entirely an artifact of the suicide prohibition. Given a genuine right to comfortable, reliable suicide, this would simply not occur.

Do you have the right to cause yourself to become disfigured if your suicide is not completed?

See above. And, yes, one has the right to cause oneself to become “disfigured” by body modification. But an unchosen disfigurement caused by a suicide attempt is a sad consequence of the immoral suicide prohibition.

Do you have the right to cause yourself permanent paralysis if your suicide is not completed?

See above. Paralysis and akinetic mutism caused by suicide attempts are tragic consequences of the suicide prohibition, not of suicide.

Do you have the right to end your life instead of focusing on ending your pain? (It is the pain that you want to end, not your life.)

The pain may well be permanent. Caruso naively assumes that a given suicide has not done anything to try to alleviate his pain. But, yes, one has the right to decide when one has done enough to try to alleviate one’s pain, and when the pain appears permanent enough that a permanent solution is indicated. One’s life is one’s own.

Do you have the right to not receive treatment for the mental illness that you probably have — the treatment that will make you better?

Generally, we do have the right to refuse treatment – even potentially life-saving treatment – in the interest of bodily autonomy.

Again, “treatment” for mental illness is not a sure-fire way of relieving the suffering that leads to suicidality. Caruso assures us that treatment “will make you better,” but that is hardly the case for all suffering people. It is unfair and cruel to cheerfully assume that anyone can get better if he just tries the next experimental treatment.

I have written extensively on the mistaken idea that suicide is caused by mental illness. Even Thomas Joiner proposes that suicide is not caused by mental illness on its own, but rather by the alignment of the ability to commit suicide with the desire to commit suicide.

And mental illness causes severe suffering. Don’t the mentally ill, as much as the physically ill, have a right to end their pain?

Written by Sister Y

December 16, 2008 at 1:37 am

Is Suicide a Waste?

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A highly publicized suicide of an attractive or talented person is commonly greeted with the sentiment, “what a waste!” The substance that is wasted may be named as talent, intelligence, beauty, or life itself, or may not be named. But, whatever is “wasted,” is it fair to blame a suicide for “wasting” it?

“Waste,” in this sense, connotes an immoral misuse of resources that might have been better directed elsewhere. It is wrong to misuse or fail to use scarce resources, because they might be better used by others. Wasting may often involve depriving someone else of the resource that is wasted.

The problem with describing suicide as a “waste” is that to do so engages the same fallacy a clever child detects in his mother’s command to eat his food, because children are starving elsewhere. “Can I send them this food, then?” the clever child might ask, pointing out that waste is only a genuine moral issue if the resource is truly transferable.

If a clueless benefactor buys me a non-transferable plane ticket for a vacation in Tanzania, but I can’t go because I’m an albino, it can’t be said that I have wasted the plane ticket (except maybe in a sort of visceral, aesthetic sense). I did nothing to waste the plane ticket – it was a useless gift, and could not be transferred to others with pressing business in Tanzania. The waste was committed by the person who ill-advisedly bought me the ticket – the money used to buy it could have been transferred to more worthy endeavors.

Where the substance allegedly wasted by the suicide is “life,” waste in the moral sense is clearly not present. Until laws are changed so that we suicides may donate our organs prior to suicide, life, like the ticket to Tanzania, is a non-transferable resource. The waste, in the case of a suicide, occurred when the suicide’s parents made the decision to give the “gift” of life to a person who, it turns out, had no use for it.

What if the substance “wasted” is not life itself, but rather talent, intelligence, or beauty? All these are scarce things, and others in the community may have benefited from the beauty or talent of a suicide, had he not decided to end his life. The potential to benefit is lost.

There are two responses to the idea that a suicide “wastes” his talent or beauty. One is the same response a wealthy person might make to a poor person in justifying his decision to “waste” money on a tenth automobile rather than buy the poor person a house; that is, “it’s not yours.” Or, to put it a different way: it is radically collectivist to think that we have a right to the resources of others – beyond perhaps guaranteeing a certain level of subsistence for all, we do not have a right even to each others’ money. Why should we have a right to each others’ physical and personality characteristics? Is a Muslim woman who veils committing a wrong by hiding her beauty from others? The person who, on finding out about a suicide, says “what a waste,” is really saying – “it’s too bad, I could have used him (or her).” This is hardly a noble sentiment.

The second response is the utilitarian calculation at the community level, including the suicide himself. While others may have benefited from a would-be suicide’s continued existence, their benefit would come only at an extreme cost to the suicide himself. If the overall cost of utilizing goods exceeds the benefit to be gained thereby, how can it be a “waste” to fail to use them?

Written by Sister Y

October 15, 2008 at 3:40 am

The Suicide Prohibition is Humiliating and Cruel

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In a just society, a Nembutal prescription would be available to any adult who asked for it and could articulate a clear wish to die, along with a non-delusional reason for wanting to die.

There is no compelling moral reason to force people to stay alive who do not wish to live. A few serious ethical justifications have been offered for the assisted suicide prohibition for the terminally ill, but it is doubtful that these complex ethical arguments, or the <a href="http://www.ncd.go
insert blockquotev/newsroom/publications/1997/suicide.htm”>paternalistic arguments offered on behalf of people with disabilities, are what’s really behind the general suicide prohibition in its political form. The suicide prohibition exists because policy has almost no thought for ethics, except for the poorly-realized “folk ethic” that is as far into ethical thought as most human beings ever get. “Folk ethics” allows people to tolerate things like slavery, female subjugation, and marriage prohibition for gay people. Real ethics does not.

A religious justification is not an ethical justification. In a democracy, a religious justification has about as much genuine ethical power as an appeal to aesthetic preferences. Religious people who wish to make policy arguments must still do meta-ethics. In our society, they rarely bother to do so.

People feel bad when they hear about suicide. Since suicide is sad, people wish to prevent it for sentimental reasons. They fail to consider things like autonomy and the suffering of people who are forced to stay alive against their will. These concepts are not as easy for a primate brain to grasp as the folk-ethical appeal of the suicide prohibition. The suicide prohibition existed long before our modern model enshrined mental illness as the sole possible cause of suicide; like the practice of circumcision, the suicide prohibition is a practice in search of a reason.

But there is no reason.

In regard to the suffering and humiliation of those forced to stay alive against their will, here’s an Australian news video about an elderly Australian man with incurable mesothelioma flying to Mexico with his wife to illegally take home the veterinary drug Nembutal for the purpose of suicide. The wife wonders angrily why he can’t just buy it in Australia.

Despite the humiliation and exertion of this effort, they are the lucky ones. Apparently, according to some reports, even this method is now closed to those who wish to die.

Written by Sister Y

July 3, 2008 at 10:03 pm