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Archive for the ‘forced life’ Category

Selling Life-Years

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Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior has an interesting piece on whether we should be able to sell years of our lifespans.

This is, I think, exactly the question addressed by J. David Velleman in his article Against the Right to Die, wherein he argues that giving people a choice can make them less well-off, even if, given the choice, they choose correctly. Velleman is concerned with assisted suicide – shortening lifespan to avoid suffering near the end of life. Ozimek is concerned with shortening lifespan to promote other values, but the moral logic is, I think, the same. I respond to Velleman’s article in my piece Velleman’s Sorrow of Options.

Also exactly on point is Velleman’s related article A Right of Self-Termination? in which he argues that it is morally unproblematic to force people to remain alive, because by choosing to shorten our lifespans, we somehow abrogate human dignity, which belongs to everyone, not just to ourselves. Velleman thinks, for instance, that accepting a shorter lifespan in exchange for the pleasure of smoking is morally wrong and an affront to all humanity. I respond to this in my piece Respecting and Erasing, essentially challenging the notion that limiting the span of something in time denies its dignity.

Other writers think that dignity, as distinct from autonomy, is just stupid.

Written by Sister Y

September 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Society for the Protection of Possible Future People

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Adam Ozimek at Modeled Behavior applies the successive-selves metaphysics suggested by neuroscience (examined in detail in, among others, Jennifer Radden’s 1996 book Divided Minds and Successive Selves: Ethical Issues in Disorders of Identity and Personality) to the issue of suicide. He argues:

If one seriously considers the future self as a separate self, it seems to me a serious challenge the Szaszian idea that mental illness is just extreme preferences and that suicide should be respected and allowed as a legitimate exercise of choice; if our future selves are separate selves, then suicide is murder. [Emphasis mine.]

TGGP disagrees on the ground that our present selves and future selves have such united interests that they should be thought of as a single entity. Practically speaking, “If suicide is murder, then spending in the present is theft from a future self, sex is rape and a boxing match is battery,” says TGGP.

This is certainly the reason that “successive selves” thinking will never catch on, true as it may be. Then we couldn’t lock people up for rapes and murders for long periods of time. (How do you punish a past self?) The entire justification for contract enforcement is destroyed.

But I think there’s a deeper reason that the suicide/murder analogy fails. I respond:

My future self is not anything other than a possibility. It’s a possible self. Even accepting the successive-selves view, suicide is no more murder than is abortion or contraception.

There’s a distinction between protecting the “right” of merely possible people to come into existence on the one hand, and protecting the interests of future people provided they come into existence on the other (as we do when we consider, e.g., environmental protection, budget deficits, etc.).

Written by Sister Y

April 1, 2010 at 3:41 am

Liberty and the "Real" Decision Maker

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One of the really interesting ethical questions about suicide (among other actions) is, what counts as the choice of the real person – especially if a person making a decision is shown to have conflicting desires and motivations?

Most of the time when we make decisions, we have conflicting motivations – such is the nature of a decision. Cognitive science research suggests that, most of the time, we don’t even know why we make a particular decision. We may feel that we are carefully weighing the pros and cons of action and inaction based on carefully considered criteria, but most of the time that is not how our brain apparatus actually works. (In fact, some suggest that decisions based on instinct are usually better than decisions made based on more rational criteria.)

Given this background of conflict, should we sometimes forcibly prevent a decision maker from acting until he is certain?

With many decisions and consequent actions – whether to eat a cheeseburger, whether to go to work, whether to get a divorce – people have many conflicting motivations, conscious and unconscious. There’s some value to waiting to make a decision until one is sure – which could include a friend forcibly preventing someone from making a decision until the decision maker is sure – especially since many decisions, like suicide, are irrevocable. But there’s also a cost to waiting to be certain (e.g. time spent being hungry until you eat the cheeseburger or being miserable until you get a divorce/commit suicide).

Taking an action is a decision between two options – acting and not acting. Both have consequences. Forcing someone to not act is making a decision for him and imposing the costs of that decision upon him without his consent.

I think a waiting period for serious decisions (like California’s 48-hour waiting period for marriage) – which amounts to forcing someone to take more time to think about a decision (and imposing the costs of that time on him) – is acceptable if the costs of the waiting period were found to be, on average, smaller than the costs of poor decisions without the waiting period. But this would have to be from a perspective of maximizing happiness, rather than promoting liberty. Waiting periods are paternalistic – I’m not a hardcore libertarian, so I think that can be okay at times where it’s not very intrusive. Ultimately, though, I think not only the decision of whether to act, but the decision of how long to wait before acting, should rest with the actor. And the costs (in terms of suffering) of being forced not to commit suicide are substantial – the longer the delay, the higher the potential costs.

The weirder question, which I’ve been struggling with, is what to do about people whose desire to commit suicide changes over time? If I sign something at age 18 that says I want to be forcibly prevented from committing suicide if I ever try it, should that be enforced when I’m 80 and want to die peacefully? If I want to die at 18, should it make a difference that I might change my mind later? I don’t have much of a framework from which to answer that one.

Chip’s suggestion – that we go with the “one that’s speaking, whenever” – is attractive in its simplicity, humanity, and apparent respect for liberty. But if our society followed it strictly, it would prevent us from ever increasing our happiness by binding ourselves. The whole idea of a contract (from sales to employment to marriage) is to increase our overall happiness by binding the actions of our future selves. Similarly, if I had a fairly happy life but very occasionally went into a despairing funk and wanted to die, I might think I’d be better off if I could prevent myself from committing suicide during that period. (Just as I, in my real incarnation, would feel myself better off if I could prevent my future addled self from docilely swallowing the activated charcoal if a future suicide attempt proved unsuccessful.) Are present and future benefits and costs allowed to weigh against each other?

Do I owe anything to my future self – since, in a sense, it is me? Can I take anything from my future self – again, since it is me – by either imposing suffering by not committing suicide, or removing its “chance at life” by committing suicide? Ethically, do I stand in relation to my future self as toward my present self, or as toward a totally different person?

In response to an email from reader Elizabeth, who also pointed me to the Wilson book – thanks!

Written by Sister Y

February 14, 2009 at 10:44 pm

She Let The Tumors Eat Her Face

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Note: Steven Ertelt respectfully commented that the original version of this piece misstated his position, and upon reflection, I agree, and have re-written this piece to hopefully come closer to his position and make my objections clearer.

Chantal Sébire committed suicide by taking black market Nembutal in March of 2008. Before that, she had achieved notoriety by (unsuccessfully) petitioning the French president to allow her physician-assisted suicide. She suffered from the disease esthesioneuroblastoma, a disease that caused tumors to deform and destroy her face.

Pro-forced-life blogger Jill Stanek includes a post by Steven Ertelt about Madame Sébire. Back in April of 2008, Ertelt said that Mme. Sébire was properly denied PAS, and that we should limit our sympathy for her, because she refused treatment and voluntarily allowed the tumors to eat her face:

Well, now come to find out she a) refused medical treatment, b) refused offers of surgery to correct the problem and lead a normal life, and c) refused both drugs and palliative care to help her deal with the pain.

Sadly, this woman appeared to have a death wish and appeared more interested in promoting the pro-euthanasia political agenda than genuinely seeking legitimate medical care. . . .

Sebire’s situation was certainly heart-wrenching and she originally deserved all the support in the world, but these new revelations make it tough to consider her anything but a political opportunist. [Emphasis mine.]

A majority of people support a right to suicide for those with an incurable illness. Those with ideologies that favor forcing people to stay alive, no matter what their state, see their position threatened by this trend; indeed, Washington and Montana have recently joined Oregon in allowing so-called assisted suicide for the terminally ill. A great deal of the support for suicide rights for the incurably ill must come from people’s sympathy for the ill and dying – the empathetic response that if one were dying, or in Mme. Sébire’s condition, one would want the right to die, too. Support for a blanket right to suicide is much less common.

Ertelt wishes to challenge the empathetic response to Mme. Sébire, on the grounds that she was not really incurably ill. But I think Mme. Sébire’s case can increase ordinary, non-suicidal people’s empathetic understanding of the plight of healthy people who nonetheless suffer so severely that they wish to die. She wanted to die more than she wanted to live a normal life. Is that not enough to allow her to die?

How much would a person have to be suffering to willingly allow tumors to destroy her face, in the hopes that she could thereby achieve a peaceful death? How many people are there, right now, in this condition – healthy, but suffering so greatly that death is overpoweringly desired? Do we really want to force such people to stay alive?

Let’s say Madame Sébire really did refuse treatment for her tumors with death in mind. I have considered this horrible possibility myself, though with trepidation: if only one were to get a horrible disease, then they would have to give one Nembutal. Or one could refuse treatment and opt for palliative care, for the haze of morphine, ordinarily denied to a “healthy” person. But what if one were to get cancer and then develop a love for life and a fear of death? It is the most terrible thing.

But Madame Sébire retained her courage through Hell, showing us that it is possible, that the commitment to death is not necessarily a caprice.

No one should have to die this way. No one should have to let tumors eat her face in order to achieve a peaceful death. Peaceful death should be available to all those who are in such pain as to seriously desire it, whether that pain is physical or emotional.

Written by Sister Y

December 12, 2008 at 7:27 am

An Interview With Me

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Chip Smith of The Hoover Hog recently conducted an interview with me. The resulting document is an excellent synthesis of, and introduction to, my strange ideas.

The Repugnance of the Forced Life Position

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Washington is considering an assisted suicide measure similar to Oregon’s. Predictably, churches, especially the Catholic Church, have spoken out against the measure. The Most Rev. Carlos Sevilla, quoted in the Yakima Herald, provides one of the most repugnant, cruel, mean-spirited defenses of the forced life position I have yet heard:

Initiative 1000 is an attack on our most fundamental beliefs and teaching, and placing it on the November ballot would contradict our proclamation of the gospel of life . . . Pain and suffering and illness are important parts of our faith experience. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, suffering people who don’t share his religious beliefs should not have the right to die – in a democracy – because his religious beliefs place a value on suffering! God likes suffering, so suck it up.

Meanwhile, in India, lawmakers consider repealing a law that makes attempted suicide a criminal offense. Its Law Commission offers this compassionate analysis:

If a person has the right to enjoy his life, he cannot be forced to live that life to his detriment, disadvantage or disliking. If a person is leading a miserable life or is seriously sick or having an incurable disease, it is improper as well as immoral to ask him to live a painful life and to suffer agony. It is an insult to humanity. [Emphasis mine.]

Indeed, an insult to humanity in the name of God is exactly what Rev. Sevilla is offering.

Analytically, Sevilla’s position appears similar to Velleman’s, in that a particular value that “belongs to humanity” cannot be violated, even if upholding that value causes great suffering to individuals. Compassionate followers of Christ also recently opposed the right of an 11-year-old Romanian girl who was raped by her uncle to get an abortion. The interest-independent value of life, and all that.

Written by Sister Y

June 28, 2008 at 8:09 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