The View from Hell

Just another site

Archive for the ‘selfishness’ Category

Amy Alkon on Negative Externalities of Breeding

with 5 comments

Pamela Root got [a] free flight and [a $300 travel] voucher, plus an apology from Southwest, after her 2-year-old kept screaming [“Go, plane, go!” and “I want Daddy! I want Daddy!”] at the top of his little lungs as their San Jose-bound flight was about to take off. In fact, little Adam reportedly screamed so loudly that the safety announcements couldn’t be heard and the pilot turned the plane back to the gate in Amarillo, Texas, where the two were booted off.

. . . Unbelievably, Root demanded the apology she eventually got from the airline (shame, shame, Southwest) and hit it up for the cost of diapers and the portable crib she says she had to buy for the overnight stay. Even more unbelievably, there’s still no word of any apology from Root to the other passengers.

There is a notion, reflected in numerous blog comments about the incident, that other passengers should “just deal” and “give a kid a break.” This notion is wrong. Parents like Root and others who selfishly force the rest of us to pay the cost of their choices in life aren’t just bothering us; they’re stealing from us. Most people don’t see it this way, because what they’re stealing isn’t a thing we can grab on to, like a wallet. They’re stealing our attention, our time and our peace of mind.

From “Screaming kids and airplanes: Mayday! Mayday!” in the Los Angeles Times, November 24, 2009.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Written by Sister Y

November 25, 2009 at 6:19 pm

An Interview With Me

leave a comment »

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.

In Defense of the Man Whose Wife Finds Him Hanged

with 3 comments

Selfishness and cowardice are traits attributed almost reflexively in our culture to the act of suicide. And what could be more selfish than committing suicide in a manner such that one’s spouse, lover, relative, or close friend will be the first to stumble upon the shocking scene of one’s dead body?

In this piece, I wish to examine the alleged selfishness of this action, with reference to the practicalities of committing suicide in light of the general suicide prohibition, and to the options available to a suicide.

In light of the suicide prohibition, if one attempts suicide and is interrupted before death is final, one is at risk of being “rescued” and forcibly kept alive. Few methods of suicide are instant (even suicides committed by gunshot carry a risk of survival, especially if discovered and “rescued” soon after the act). Get discovered prior to death, and you stand a good chance at ending up like Patient X from the Annals of Neurology study, forever in a twilight coma while doctors perform medical experiments on your unresponsive body. Therefore, in a society that attempts to forcibly prevent suicide, the single most important consideration for a suicide is to have a controlled environment without the risk of interruption. One’s home is often the only place where one is familiar enough with the routines surrounding it to reasonably guarantee against interruption for the crucial hours or even days necessary to ensure successful suicide. What are the other options? Hotels? The outdoors? Unfamiliar environments carry major risks of discovery. Some of the risk is from lack of information and familiarity; some of the risk is from lack of control. But one’s home is one’s castle, and familiarity and control are both reasonably assured.

But what about those who choose to die far away from loving folk who might discover their dead bodies? There is a risk on the other side: that of subjecting one’s family to unnecessary worry and uncertainty prior to discovering one’s suicide, during the period that one is missing. Jake Baysinger’s family wondered about his whereabouts for weeks (while his dog famously guarded his remains) after he committed suicide way out in a rural field, where his wife would not discover his body. Which is more cruel?

The pain of not knowing, and the pain of being confronted with death, are different sorts of pain. But both of these aspects of suicide’s “selfishness” – discovering the shocking scene of the dead body of a close friend or relative, or experiencing the fear and worry of not knowing his whereabouts for weeks – are both artifacts of the suicide prohibition. Legal, physician-assisted suicide for everyone would, in addition to requiring potential suicides to think maturely about their actions, eliminate the fear of not knowing and the shock of discovery.

The suicide is not the selfish party in these situations. He has no other option but to live, and that, for many, is no option at all.

For many survivors of a friend or relative’s suicide, the suicide comes as a shock. Survivors may feel angry at the suicide for “abandoning” them, or for not saying goodbye. But the conversation preparing one’s family for one’s suicide is one that cannot happen, is in effect forbidden from happening, in an environment of suicide prohibition. We cannot say goodbye if we are truly suicides. Saying goodbye or having a serious conversation about one’s potential suicide would be perceived as a “cry for help,” and carries the risk of forced hospitalization and other miseries.

It is the suicide prohibition, and not the suicide himself, that is responsible for a large part of the pain inflicted on those left behind. I am sorry for the wife who discovers her husband hanged. (Can you imagine your own lover, face drained of blood and distorted, lifeless, hanging dead in your house – when you had expected to come home and have a conversation and cuddle?) But, in his defense, he had little choice. The blame for a great part of her suffering lies with the policies of coercive suicide prevention.

Written by Sister Y

September 17, 2008 at 2:43 am

Children Are Starving

with one comment

Please do not read this if you are sensitive to impolite ideas.

The classic response to a child who does not wish to eat his dinner is that children are starving in other parts of the world. This assurance is supposed to make the child realize that he is lucky to have boiled peas, and should therefore want to eat them.

Of course, this gambit is rarely successful in its psychological aim. The child, if he has any spunk and kindness at all, must think, I have this thing I do not want; why could I not give it to someone who is starving and wants it? And this is the psychological response of the suicide when thinking about those who wish to live, but can’t.

From the United States Department of Health and Human Services:

The number of people needing a transplant continues to rise faster than the number of donors. About 3,700 transplant candidates are added to the national waiting list each month. Each day, about 77 people receive organ transplants. However, 18 people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t take place because of the shortage of donated organs. There are now more than 92,000 people on the waiting list.

From the Centers for Disease Control:

More than 32,000 suicides occurred in the U.S. [in 2004]. This is the equivalent of 89 suicides per day; one suicide every 16 minutes or 11.05 suicides per 100,000 population.

There is an added dimension to the messy, painful ethical problem of suicide that is rarely spoken of, and which it may well be crass to speak of. It is the fact that there are far more completed suicides than there are people who are waiting for organ transplants. Every day, a massive number of people pray for death (and around 89 of them actually die); but, every day, a smaller number of people pray for life. Rarely can those with unwanted life – suicides – donate organs to those who want to live, but need organs. Those who would defend a suicide prohibition – a prohibition on physician-assisted suicides for non-terminally-ill patients – must realize that this prohibition essentially leads to the unwanted death of thousands. The organ transplant shortage could be completely eradicated, I argue, if the suicide prohibition were lifted. Organ donation need not be mandatory for a person to qualify for physician-assisted suicide, of course, and care must be taken that it is not coerced. But coercion into remaining alive is a fact of life in our current system, and also the unwanted death of thousands of people in need of organ transplants. It is crass to mention it, it is impolite to talk about it. Perhaps only a would-be suicide, lying awake at night and wishing for death, and sorry for those who desire life and can’t keep it, would even think such a scandalous thought.

Written by Sister Y

May 13, 2008 at 10:59 pm

Is Suicide Selfish?

with 11 comments

Suicide is commonly characterized as a “selfish” act. Sherwin B. Nuland, author of How We Die (who revealingly refers to suicide as “self-murder”), describes his response to a suicide thus:

How could she do it to her friends and to her family and to the rest of those who needed her? How could such a smart kid commit such a dumb act and be lost to us? There is no place for this kind of thing in an ordered world—it should never happen. Why, without asking any of us, would this beloved young woman just go ahead and take herself away?

Those who characterize suicide as “selfish” tend to focus, as Nuland does, on its effect on those left behind, rather than on the pain of the suicide, and whether it is fair to expect her to continue living so that her friends will not be deprived of her company. (Note that it is also common for them to characterize the suicide in demeaning ways, such as “dumb,” “stupid,” or “cowardly.”)

Duty, Self-Interest, Reasonable Generosity, and Selflessness

It is important to figure out what we mean when we call an act selfish. One possibility is that “selfishness” occurs when someone violates a duty to another. As I will explain, this is not the sense in which we usually use the term “selfishness.” In addition, even under this definition, the act of suicide is not in violation of a duty.


Selfishness does not entail the violation of a duty. For instance, we might speak of someone as “selfish” if he does not share his popcorn with his friend. He owes no duty to share his popcorn, and the friend has no right to the popcorn, but we may nonetheless properly characterize his failure to share as selfish. “Selfish” must therefore have another meaning.

However, even though we must look elsewhere to figure out whether suicide is selfish, we can briefly touch on the question of whether suicide entails the violation of a duty. The identification of continued life as a duty must mean that, on the other side, others have a right to our continued life. However, it is very strange to think of someone as having a right to our company, care, or even presence in the world (with the exception of our children, as I have explained before). In most cases, bodily autonomy and self-determination are held to be more fundamental rights than any “right” to be free from the emotional pain of someone’s absence. Given that bringing someone into existence is a serious wrong, I am not sure what distinguishes the suicide case from the escape-from-slavery case. In both cases, the agent removes himself from a horrible situation after a serious wrong has been done to him. In the process, he harms those with an interest in his remaining in the horrible situation (friends and family for the suicide, the slave owner for the escaping slave). But it would be very strange to say that the interests of the people left behind are sufficient to create a duty not to leave the horrible, unfair situation.

Taking Self-Interest as More Important than the Interests of Others

Another candidate for a definition of “selfish” might be taking the interests of oneself as more important than the interests of others. By this definition, we are selfish if we ever put our own interests ahead of those of others. But this definition must also fail, as it gives ludicrous results. Mainly, the definition fails to take into account that the interests of oneself and the interests of others may be of objectively different strengths. If I suffer a serious fall and yell to my neighbor to help me, I am putting my interests (in summoning an ambulance) ahead of my neighbor’s interest (in not being bothered with my problem). But it is ridiculous to call my action selfish. Similarly, if I end a romantic relationship because I no longer love the other person, I am putting my interests in being free from a loveless relationship ahead of his interests in having my continued company. But, again, rarely would we characterize this personal decision as selfish. In fact, it would be selfish of my neighbor to refuse to help me (assuming he hasn’t anything more important to do), or for my lover to demand that I remain in a loveless relationship. Therefore selfishness must refer to making a wrong judgment about the relative strengths of my own interests and that of others. One way to say this is that it is selfish, all things considered, to put a minor interest of my own ahead of a serious interest of someone else. Another way to put it, and one that captures more dimensions of the problem, is to say that it is selfish to fail to show that generosity that can reasonably be expected of people in a particular relationship.

Reasonable Generosity

When someone fails to share his popcorn with his friend, he is not violating a duty, but rather failing to show that level of generosity that can be reasonably expected of someone in a friendly relationship. The generosity that can be reasonably expected must take into account the magnitude of the sacrifice that is demanded, and the strength of the interest in whose name the sacrifice is to be made. If the sacrifice is slight or even roughly equal to the interest served, then, depending on the relationship, it might be selfish not to make it.

And this is the essential disagreement as to the selfishness of suicide: whether it is reasonable to expect someone to continue to live a miserable life for the sake of the feelings of his friends and family. I suspect that most people, like Dr. Nuland, cannot imagine that life could be so bad that one’s suffering could outweigh that of one’s friends left behind. These are the people that David Benatar characterizes as “cheery” (he means it as a swear). It may be impossible to accurately measure or assess the difference in suffering between the would-be suicide who remains alive despite wanting to die, on the one hand, and the friends and family deprived of the deceased suicide, on the other (but see my previous post on qualia of happiness). Almost certainly, it varies. (An interesting outcome of this way of looking at things is that, by this definition, the suicide of a person with no friends or relatives is not selfish at all, even if he is only experiencing slight suffering, whereas the suicide of a person with many friends and relatives may be very selfish, even if he is suffering severely.) But certainly it is a bit rich to assume that, in all cases, the suffering of the would-be suicide is outweighed by the possible suffering of his friends and family from being deprived of his company. In fact, in many cases it must be that it is selfish – even indecent – for a suffering person’s friends and family to expect him to continue living, if his suffering is so serious that it outweighs their interest in his continued company.


Some people who feel that their lives are not worth living, and who would very much like to die, nonetheless continue living for the sake of saving their friends and family the sorrow that their suicide would entail. Is this merely what is expected of them? Or might we characterize their action in continuing to stay alive as particularly selfless? If selfishness is failing to exhibit even a reasonable minimum of generosity, selflessness must be exhibiting an especially high level of generosity, much more than is ordinarily expected. If one’s suffering is so great that one prays for death every day, and yet continues to live to spare one’s friends and family the pain of the lack of one’s company, we must certainly say that for that person, merely living is a selfless act.

The Trap of Existence

Suicide is not easy, practically or ethically. One reason to avoid having children, as Benatar points out in his conclusion to Better Never to Have Been, is that even if one’s child suffers so much that he wishes to die, he may be prevented from ending his suffering by generous ethical considerations, such as the worry that his suicide will cause pain to those around him. Benatar refers to this as a kind of trap: after suffering the harm of being brought into existence, we cannot end it without causing still more harm in the horrible, blighted, wretched universe into which we have been cast.

Written by Sister Y

May 13, 2008 at 8:55 pm

The Parable of the Sexy Librarian

with 2 comments

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