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Archive for the ‘heroic suicide’ Category

Suicide as a Religious Act

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In her laudably dangerous article, “Religious Suicide in an Investor’s World,” Rita Polevoy dares to take suicide seriously. Suicide, says Polevoy, is often a religious act – a conscious act, in protest against the evils of the world, and in preservation of a different kind of dignity than J. David Velleman has in mind in his papers on suicide.

Polevoy, identified as “a student at Loyola University Chicago,” writes:

Suicide, as historian of religion David Chidester reminds us in Salvation and Suicide, his seminal study of the People’s Temple, is frequently a religious act, invested with religious motivations and following a religiously understood logic. The Jewish zealots at Masada, for instance, facing death (or, worse, torture, rape, forced conversion, and slavery) at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE took their own lives as a way of escaping with their religious identity and dignity intact. Likewise, when the utopian community at Jonestown drank poison in 1978, a ruling interpretation among those who participating willingly was that this act of suicide was in protest of “the conditions of an inhumane world.” Suicide presented a means of remaining fully human in the face of a society defined by race, class, and gender divisions and, thus, intent on dehumanization. [Emphasis and links mine.]

In response to the suicide of Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, we have seen the predictable, safe ruminations on selfishness and mental illness. And yet, with shocking boldness, de la Villehuchet’s brother, Bertrand, told the press that his brother’s suicide was an “act of honor.”

Advocates of suicide censorship abhor any consideration of the idea that suicide might sometimes be honorable or right. Douglas Faneuil, who claims to “work in the field of suicide prevention,” writes that “Praising a suicide as honorable may come with an extremely high price: namely, more suicides.” He encourages censorship (though you’re not supposed to call it censorship, he says, but rather “putting it in context”) of suicide coverage and justifies that by clinging to the idea of suicide contagion. (I have previously argued that there is clinical evidence that suicide contagion might not exist, and that even if it does, it does not justify censorship.)

But rather than failing to put suicide “in context,” Polevoy is merely describing a genuine aspect of many suicides, including de la Villehuchet’s. She writes,

Villehuchet’s suicide was a public act, an utterance aimed, surely, to resonate throughout the media and thus voice the outrage and despair of many anonymous investors, in the process focusing public attention on the very real ramifications of this white collar crime.

Not all suicides are idealistic, but certainly some are. Polevoy acknowledges a truth; to insist that all suicides are the product of mental illness, that there is never honor in suicide, is to sacrifice truth for the sake of political correctnessbullshit in the strict Frankfurt sense.

Update: An anonymous commenter points to a note by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan) on the suicide of his acquaintance, de la Villehuchet. Note 106, “On Killing Oneself,” reads in part:

This is an aristocratic act coming from an aristocratic character: you take your own life when you believe that you failed somewhere — and the solution is to inflict the ultimate penalty on yourself. It is not the money; but the embarrassment, the shame, the guilt that are hard to bear. Someone callous, indifferent to the harm done to others would have lived comfortably (“it is all about money”). A life of shame is not worth living. Christianity never allowed suicide; the stoics did –it allows a man to get the last word with fate.

Thierry, veuillez recevoir l’expression de mon respect le plus profond. [Emphasis in original.]


Written by Sister Y

January 16, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Altruism and the Value of Life: Another Response to Velleman

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Intentionally causing one’s death in order to save another is a type of action often excluded from classification as suicide. Heroic “suicides” – pushing a child out of the way of a train, thereby killing oneself, or undertaking a military mission that benefits one’s country but guarantees death, or jumping out of a leaking lifeboat in order to save one’s companions – do not seem to be of a kind with suicides whose sole end is one’s death. As Jacques Choron puts it,

Heroic suicides are obviously quite different from those brought on by serious illness, grief, or an unbearable situation and in this sense are outside the scope of an investigation primarily for the purpose of preventing suicide as an undesirable psycho-social phenomenon. [p. 17, Suicide: An Incisive Look at Self-Destruction, by Jacques Choron. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1972.]

Heroic suicides – or, perhaps, “altruistic suicides” – are just not the same thing as “suicide” at all.

The fact remains, however, that altruistic suicides are trading their lives for something else, so that it becomes necessary, in Velleman’s terms, to examine the exchange to see if it undermines dignity. Most altruistic suicides would probably pass muster under Velleman’s terms, because in many cases what is exchanged is life for life – one’s life (and thereby essential dignity) may be exchanged to preserve the life (and thereby essential dignity) of another. The goods exchanged are of the same kind.

However, what about an altruistic suicide that was committed not to save a life, but for some other altruistic purpose? A suicidal act committed to save a child from rape or torture, for instance, or to prevent the release of classified information the leakage of which would result in mass suffering, cannot be said to exchange dignity for a good of a like kind. Suicide undertaken to prevent harm to another short of death must be seen as exchanging one’s life and dignity for “mere” interest-dependent values (such as other people not suffering or not being raped), in conflict with the inherent interest-independent value of life. Of course, we must, in Velleman’s view, allow for an exception where a suicide is committed in order to preserve someone else’s rational faculties – for that purpose, unlike preventing torture, is of a kind with life and dignity (as rational faculties are the condition precedent to dignity).

Three possibilities present themselves. First, we might maintain the strange position that heroic suicide for any purpose other than the preservation of the life of others is wrong – that it is wrong to die to prevent children from being tortured and raped – but that it is not wrong to die to preserve someone’s rational faculties for choosing their ends. Or, in the second case, in recognizing the moral propriety of heroic suicide, we can question whether “exchanging life for mere interest-dependent values” is necessarily a moral harm. Third, we might try to argue that acting in the interest of others in the heroic suicide case is somehow a like exchange after all.

I feel that this response will have little to say to those who see no problem with the first option, and can maintain a position that appears so strongly counter-intuitive and contrived. The more interesting question, for me, is whether an argument can be made that sacrificing one’s life in the mere interests of others – unconnected to maintaining their dignity – is somehow different from sacrificing one’s life in one’s own mere interests.

There seem to be cases where sacrificing oneself in another’s interest would be horrible, perhaps even so horrible as to cheapen the value of human life – such as dying to prevent minor property damage. There cannot be a blanket exception for suicide for the benefit of others. What the distinction seems to me to be is the strength of the interest – dying to prevent or relieve great suffering, in oneself or others, seems to be a morally acceptable option, whereas it’s easy to see how dying to prevent someone from chipping a nail could be morally objectionable.

Velleman indicates that suicide is wrong, even to end severe pain, as long as the pain isn’t so severe as to interfere with one’s rational faculties. I would like to know if it is also wrong, in his view, to die to end severe pain, or prevent serious suffering, in others.

Written by Sister Y

June 30, 2008 at 10:15 pm