The View from Hell

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Archive for the ‘information’ Category


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One of the most serious ethical reasons offered for preventing a suicide is that the suicide will one day be grateful – that is, that a person’s values change over time. The suicide might wish to die now – might value death, or an end to suffering or experience, above all else – but perhaps once rescued and medicated, or perhaps years from now, the person will value life again, and will be happy to have been saved. Today’s suicide could be tomorrow’s reformed suicide.

Some have modeled human existence as consisting of a set of successive selves, such that we might describe the different values, characteristics, and interests of a person at time t, compared to those of that “same” person at time t-sub-one. Is it permissible, then, for an outsider to forcibly intervene in a person’s action at time t, in the interests of protecting the interests of that person at time t-sub-one?

Certainly, I have heard reports of people attempting suicide, being “rescued,” and eventually being grateful and glad to be alive after the fact. It is often assumed that the status of being grateful in the future is a good reason to intervene with force. But the accident of whether someone at time t-sub-one is, in fact, grateful for the intervention at time t seems like a poor justification for intervening at time t. First, there is a problem with whether the outsider actually has better information than the person at time t. Second, as I alluded to in my earlier post on depressed cognition and value, there is a question as to whether this “better information” might not, in fact, be a different set of values held by the outsider and mentally imposed on the hypothetical person at t-sub-one. Third, even if the outsider really possesses better information than the actor at time t, “better information” is not a complete justification for forcibly intervening in the actions of another. (I know alcohol is bad for you; please hand over that pitcher of Pliny the Elder, thank you very much, it’s for your own good. Give me those garlic fries, too. Very high in fat.) And why would it be appropriate to force the person at time t to suffer unbearably for the benefit of the person at time t-sub-one?

My proposition has two parts: first, those who would forcibly intervene to prevent a suicide are unlikely to have better information than the suicide about his future values; second, even if outsiders have better information than the suicide and can somehow prove that the suicide will be happy in a few years’ time, that still does not justify forcing the person to remain alive.


Written by Sister Y

June 2, 2008 at 9:36 pm

The Parable of the Sexy Librarian

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Imagine a librarian with dual master’s degrees in library science and women’s studies. Our librarian works at a public library by day, but moonlights as a call girl. She sees her sex work as a lucrative and liberating activity, and her decision to do sex work came after long thought into ethics, psychology, feminism, and personal soul-searching.

Now imagine that this librarian has a collection of materials addressing the ins and outs of becoming a prostitute, and explaining how to be successful as a prostitute. Despite her deep belief that being a prostitute is not wrong, mightn’t she feel a bit of hesitation before making this collection of materials widely available, even to children and teenagers? Indeed, mightn’t our sexy librarian wonder whether those seeking the information might be harmed by it?

I write this because it was recently called to my attention that searchers sometimes reach my work after a Google search on “how to successfully commit suicide.” However, luckily for me (or unluckily, depending on how you look at it), I am not in the same ethical position as the sexy librarian, because I have no information to offer. If I had information that could help ordinary people commit suicide surely and painlessly, I would have an ethical dilemma over whether to post that information (assuming I didn’t just immediately put the technique into practice on myself). But I do not.

Our society, of course, has such information, and such means. Any doctor could help any one of us to a painless death, but even if the doctor wished to do so, he would be prohibited from doing so by our society’s criminal laws. Our society – the people around us – prefer that we suffer. This should fill us all not with despair, but with anger.

I make no judgment as to whether any given suicide is proper or not. Many impute selfish motives to the suicide – that the suicide took her own interest in not suffering as being more important than the (questionable) interest of her relatives in her continued company. I do not believe it is selfish to commit suicide. But I’d encourage those looking for a way out of their suffering to also consider their fellow sufferers – those who pray for death and cannot achieve it. Very few of us are speaking out and advocating for ourselves. We are largely invisible to society, partially because our view is considered offensive and harmful, even illegal, and partially because many of us simply leave the world without advocating on behalf of all would-be suicides. The sexy librarian is in a dilemma when deciding whether to make “How To Be A Prostitute” available to anyone who wants to see it, including, perhaps, twelve-year-olds. But, I would argue, she is in no such dilemma when she advocates for the legalization of prostitution, and attempts to publicize the suffering of prostitutes under criminalization.

I encourage others to do the same for would-be suicides (and for those who have not yet suffered the harm of being brought into existence).

Written by Sister Y

May 12, 2008 at 8:08 pm