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Suicides Represent a Net Gain for Society

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Or, Altruistic Reasons to Commit Suicide


Arguing against suicide, a correspondent writes:

By choosing to live one can prevent much more suffering than by killing oneself (hundreds or thousands times more!). Everyone who thinks about suicide knows how horrible suffering can be (and therefore should know how important it is to prevent as much of it as possible). I agree that it is better not to be born at all, but now that we are alive, we have the choice. If I kill myself I can spare myself some amount of suffering, but if I choose to live and dedicate my life to helping others I can spare them hundreds or thousands times more suffering.

I have previously indicated that one of the reasons I have not committed suicide to date is that I know my death would cause considerable pain to others. But this made me wonder: what is, in fact, the net effect of suicide?

Actually, it turns out that suicides are probably on balance good for society. A 2007 study found that considering all the economic impacts of suicide, the 30,906 suicides completed in 1990 actually saved the United States $5.07 billion – in 2005 dollars (about $160,000 per suicide). That’s right – suicides, on balance, represent an economic gain for society.

What about the environment? An American produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year. A 33-year-old female like me, with 50+ years left of her natural lifespan, could presumably prevent 1000 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere by packing it in early.

That is not to mention the many other harmful effects that people, particularly first-world people, have on the environment and its inhabitants.

I have argued that the possibility of doing good for others is extremely limited, partially by what I term the altruistic treadmill. I am highly skeptical of the claim that a person can sustainably increase the well-being of other people. (See, e.g., Lykken and Tellegen’s “Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon.”) I suspect that a real-life It’s a Wonderful Life would be much more ambivalent than the theatrical version. At any rate, such an increase in well-being would have to outweigh the concrete, measurable gains to society from ending one’s life – $160,000, a thousand tons of carbon dioxide, and one less mouth to feed – not to mention never, ever again triggering an ostracism response in another human being, nor hurting anyone or anything again, ever.

You would have to be a pretty stellar human being to make up for that. I’m mostly speaking for myself here, but I doubt most people who have gotten to the point of considering suicide have the capacity to drastically improve the lives of others in a sustainable way, to reach a magnitude large enough to offset the very real gains to society that their suicides would entail.

Also: this is probably the point where I should get the hell off of blogspot before they delete all my shit.

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Written by Sister Y

May 24, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Suicide and Justice

with 10 comments

Is a potential suicide a “flight risk”?

Woman charged with causing fatal I-95 crash put on suicide watch

STAMFORD — A Superior Court judge on Monday set bond at $35,000 for the Hartford woman accused of causing a crash that killed two people over the weekend on Interstate 95 in Darien.

Yadira Torres, 26, of 100 Benton St., Hartford, was put on suicide watch after her arraignment at state Superior Court in Stamford, where she faces two counts of second-degree manslaughter and single charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. Around 6 a.m. Saturday she was driving a rented 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT north on I-95 when she tried to pass a tractor-trailer but lost control and hit it, according to a State Police accident report. (ctpost.com)

The most interesting thing is that the prosecutor argued that the defendant is a flight risk in large part based on her being “distraught” over what happened:

Before the ruling Assistant State’s Attorney David Applegate argued Torres was a flight-risk.

“The defendant does pose a flight risk due to the serious charges and the anxiety that attorney Crosland has pointed out,” Applegate said, referring to earlier remarks from Crosland that detailed his client’s distraught state of mind over the fatal crash.

Is killing yourself the same as flight from justice?

In response to an article describing a particularly spectacular suicide, that is, a leap from the world’s tallest building, one commenter asserts:

The man surely needed psychological help. Sane people do not commit suicide unless they’re evading public humiliation & arrest (avoiding justice).

The commenter implicitly accepts a dichotomy: suicide is either the result of insanity, or a moral wrong.

Seemingly sane people commit suicide all the time in order to avoid “public humiliation & arrest” or other forms of social death. It is impossible to maintain the conviction that only insane people commit suicide when the plain evidence is to the contrary: sane people frequently commit suicide for completely understandable reasons.

People who commit certain actions must suffer the socially-imposed consequences we deem appropriate. We chase them down if they run away. We lock them up. We force them to participate in our reality.

For the good of whom, though? Certainly not their own. The good of the victims, perhaps – if any remain – although it must be an ambivalent and diffuse sort of “good,” in that case.

Perhaps it is for the good of the future victims of similar actions. If people knew they could just commit suicide instantly and painlessly at any moment – like switching a computer game off – would that be incredibly dangerous? Would people commit massively antisocial acts knowing they can always unplug if shit gets too real?

I think they might. And I think this shows us something very important about existence:

In actual, real-life decisions that we can observe, people do seem to choose death over negative social consequences.

This demonstrates that life is inherently less valuable, to individuals, than avoiding social pain.

It puts an upper bound on the value of the so-called precious gift of life.

Written by Sister Y

May 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Press: Traumatic Brain Injury Makes Suicide Rational

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From a story on a professional athlete who committed suicide, suspecting he had traumatic brain injury:

BOSTON — The suicide of the former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson became more alarming Monday morning, when Boston University researchers announced that Duerson’s brain had developed the same trauma-induced disease recently found in more than 20 deceased players.

What is amazing about this story is this: there is no recommendation for greater mental health screening, detection, and services among former professional athletes. There are recommendations, however, to actually SOLVE THE PROBLEM that made the guy’s life hell in the first place.

Duerson shot himself Feb. 17 in the chest rather than the head so that his brain could be examined by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which announced its diagnosis Monday morning in Boston.

In this case, the reporter seems to clearly accept the proposition that the former athlete’s suicide was caused by his traumatic brain injury – but NOT because his traumatic brain injury made him insane. Rather, it seems that his traumatic brain injury made his life bad enough that it’s impossible to completely reject the notion that he committed suicide rationally.

The medical model of suicide – the idea that suicide is a pathological symptom of a curable medical condition – has always been dubious, but it is clear from accounts like this that not even the media (repeatedly warned by well-meaning bullies to self-censor) fully buy the story. Everyone knows that there are good reasons to commit suicide. What few acknowledge is that most genuinely good reasons to commit suicide are not as easy to verify as this former athlete’s brain injury.

As David Foster Wallace describes it in Infinite Jest:

Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who’s being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who’s not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. [Emphasis mine.]

Written by Sister Y

May 2, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Chinese Factories Make Workers Promise Not To Kill Themselves

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Workers in the miserable Chinese factories with embarrassingly high suicide rates are being made to sign “suicide contracts” agreeing that they won’t commit suicide, and that their families will get only minimal damages if they do.

Lots of folks in these factories want to commit suicide, and it’s easy to understand why, especially with a basic understanding of the causes of suicide (that is, failed social belonging and perceived burdensomeness). Workers may not talk to each other, stand for 12-hour shifts, work for subsistence wages, and must work upwards of 40 hours of overtime a week, which breaks even the minimal worker treatment laws in freaking CHINA. “Badly performing workers were humiliated in front of colleagues,” says the article ominously.

Conditions at the factories seem basically designed to create the “subsistence conditions” Robin Hanson imagines for his “ems” – conscious AI human brain emulators that must work to pay for their existence, competing against ever-more-efficient creatures being created all the time.

But Robin Hanson seems sure his em-creatures will be fine. Apparently, American middle- and upper-class workaholics are a better model for them than Chinese iPhone factory workers.

Written by Sister Y

May 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm

91-Year-Old Woman Selling Suicide Kits Online Claims First Official Fictim

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From the Daily Beast:

A shadowy online company selling suicide kits recently claimed its first confirmed victim. Winston Ross talks exclusively with the entrepreneur behind it: a grieving 91-year-old woman.

People who wish to kill themselves and who order a kit THROUGH THE FREAKIN’ MAIL to enact those wishes are not “victims.”

People who die in an automobile collision caused by a man attempting suicide, who was unable to commit suicide by other means, are victims.

People who are forced to remain alive when they want to die, often in horrible circumstances like akinetic mutism (can’t move or speak) after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, are victims. (That goes double when they have medical experiments performed on them without their consent, as happened in the case linked above. There was no ethical outcry; the study was widely touted as a breakthrough. It makes me want to vomit.)

People who want to die and commit suicide are just lucky.

I envy the fictim in this case, Nick Klonoski, a 29-year-old man with chronic pain and depression. However, his bereaved brother Zach sees things differently. He testified at a hearing:

“In a society where so many people suffer from depression and other mental-health disorders,” Zach said, “this company has found their niche in the market by peddling death. This is analogous to putting a gun-vending machine next to a depression clinic. The Gladd company, so named as to avoid suspicion in case family members happen to sign for or come across the package, made $60 off my brother’s death.”

What about the people making money off our misery – like the medical industry, which makes billions every year forcibly “treating” would-be suicides in an often horrific manner? What is wrong, exactly, with “peddling death” when death is heartily desired? None of us asked to be here.

The fact is that while people’s willingness to pay to improve people’s lives is extremely limited, their willingness to demand regulation to prevent people from taking their own lives is nearly infinite. In essence, this is an involuntary, uncompensated transfer of wealth from suicidal, miserable people, the worst off of society, to their nonsuicidal friends and relatives. It is all done under the flag of the medical model of suicide, which is treated as a religious fact rather than examined as a scientific proposition (since examined as such it is clearly erroneous).

One important piece of information here: the helium thing apparently works (here’s a video, even). I wonder how long it will take for forced life advocates to make helium illegal. Oh wait – it’s already happening.

Written by Sister Y

April 28, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Elements of Suicide

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David Foster Wallace, who killed himself by hanging in 2008, gave this phenomenological account of “depression” in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest:

And re Ennet House resident Kate Gompert and this depression issue:

Some psychiatric patients — plus a certain percentage of people who’ve gotten so dependent on chemicals for feelings of well-being that when the chemicals have to be abandoned they undergo a loss-trauma that reaches way down deep into the soul’s core system — these persons know firsthand that there’s more than one kind of so-called ‘depression.’ One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges. The gourmand is off his feed. The sensualist finds his beloved Unit all of a sudden to be so much feelingless gristle, just hanging there. The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overtly painful its deadness is disconcerting and . . . well, depressing. Kate Gompert’s always thought of this anhedonic state as a kind of radical abstracting of everything, a hollowing out of stuff that used to have affective content. Terms the undepressed toss around and take for granted as full and fleshy — happiness, joie de vivre, preference, love — are stripped to their skeletons and reduced to abstract ideas. They have, as it were, denotation but not connotation. The anhedonic can still speak about happiness and meaning et al., but she has become incapable of feeling anything in them, of understanding anything about them, of hoping anything about them, or of believing them to exist as anything more than concepts. Everything becomes an outline of the thing. Objects become schemata. The world becomes a map of the world. An anhedonic can navigate, but has no location. I.e. the anhedonic becomes, in the lingo of Boston AA, Unable To Identify. . . .

* * *

Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that . . . dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she Withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names — anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton’s melancholia or Yevtuschenko’s more authoritative psychotic depression — but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also throughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.

It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever even begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.

The authoritative term psychotic depression makes Kate Gompert feel especially lonely. Specifically the psychotic part. Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who’s being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who’s not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. Thus the loneliness: it’s a closed circuit: the current is both applied and received from within.

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

But and so the idea of a person in the grip of It being bound by a ‘Suicide Contract’ some well-meaning Substance-abuse halfway house makes her sign is simply absurd. Because such a contract will constrain such a person only until the exact psychic circumstances that made the contract necessary in the first place assert themselves, invisibly and indescribably. That the well-meaning halfway-house Staff does not understand Its overriding terror will only make the depressed resident feel more alone.

One fellow psychotically depressed patient Kate Gompert came to know at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton two years ago was a man in his fifties. He was a civil engineer whose hobby was model trains — like from Lionel Trains Inc., etc. — for which he erected incredibly intricate systems of switching and track that filled his basement recreation room. His wife brought photographs of the trains and networks of trellis and track into the locked ward, to help remind him. The man said he had been suffering from psychotic depression for seventeen straight years, and Kate Gompert had had no reason to disbelieve him. He was stocky and swart with thinning hair and hands that he held very still in his lap as he sat. Twenty years ago he had slipped on a patch of 3-In-1-brand oil from his model-train tracks and bonked his head on the cement floor of his basement rec room in Wellesley Hills, and when he woke up in the E.R. he was depressed beyond all human endurance, and stayed that way. He’d never once tried suicide, though he confessed that he yearned for unconsciousness without end. His wife was very devoted and loving. She went to Catholic Mass every day. She was very devout. The psychotically depressed man, too, went to daily mass when he was not institutionalized. He prayed for relief. He still had his job and his hobby. He went to work regularly, taking medical leaves only when the invisible torment got too bad for him to trust himself, or when there was some radical new treatment the psychiatrists wanted him to try. They’d tried Tricyclics, M.A.O.I.s, insulin-comas, Selective-Serotonin-Reuptake-Inhibitors, the newand side-effect-laden Quadracyclics. They’d scanned his lobes and affective matrices for lesions and scars. Nothing worked. Not even high-amperage E.C.T. relieved It. This happens sometimes. Some cases of depression are beyond human aid. The man’s case gave Kate Gompert the howling fantods. The idea of this man going to work and to Mass and building miniaturized railroad networks day after day after day while feeling anything like what Kate Gompert felt in that ward was simply beyond her ability to imagine. The rationo-spiritual part of her knew this man and his wife must be possessed of a courage way off any sort of known courage-chart. But in her toxified soul Kate Gompert felt only a paralyzing horror at the idea of the squat dead-eyed man laying toy track slowly and carefully in the silence of his wood-panelled rec room, the silence total except for the sounds of the track being oiled and snapped together and laid into place, the man’s head full of poison and worms and every cell in his body screaming for relief from flames no one else could help with or even feel.

The permanently psychotically depressed man was finally transferred to a place on Long Island to be evaluated for a radical new type of psychosurgery where they supposedly went in and yanked out your whole limbic system, which is the part of the brain that causes all sentiment and feeling. The man’s fondest dream was anhedonia, complete psychic numbing. I.e. death in life. The prospect of radical psychosurgery was the dangled carrot that Kate guessed still gave the man’s life enough meaning for him to hang onto the windowsill by his fingernails, which were probably black and gnarled from the flames. That and his wife: he seemed genuinely to love his wife, and she him. He went to bed every night at home holding her, weeping for it to be over, while she prayed or did that devout thing with beads.

The couple had gotten Kate Gompert’s mother’s address and had sent Kate an Xmas card the last two years, Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Feaster of Wellesley Hills MA, stating that she was in their prayers and wishing her all available joy. Kate Gompert doesn’t know whether Mr. Ernest Feaster’s limbic system got yanked out or not. Whether he achieved anhedonia. The Xmas cards had had excruciating little watercolor pictures of locomotives on them. She could barely stand to think about them, even at the best of times, which the present was not.

— David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, pp. 692-998 (Little, Brown, 1996). Footnotes omitted.

When I first read Infinite Jest, around 1999, I felt particularly comforted by this passage. I was comforted at seeing the thing It named and described, but on a more practical level, I was comforted by the reminder that I could always try ECT, and maybe even surgery. (I read about the practice of trepanation with longing.) Something about this thought seemed a little traitorous to me, believing as I did at that point that suicide was wrong. Is there, at the most essential level, any difference between suicide on the one hand, and attempting to erase one’s experience with electroconvulsive therapy or psychosurgery on the other? What is the difference, if there is one, between suicide and having one’s capacity to feel emotion removed?

I suspect that many people who would want to prevent Ernest Feaster from committing suicide would want to allow him to get his desired emotion-destroying psychosurgery. This, I think, is inconsistent.

The most essential thing another human being is to us is a co-experiencer. To experience ourselves and to have a truly human experience of the world, we need to see ourselves and our environments reflected through the eyes of another person. A body without an experiencer within is but an animate doll, of no use to the doll himself, and by that fact of no morally appropriate use to those who love him.

If we want to offer mercy to a man by ridding him of painful aspects of his experience, how different, then, to allow him to rid himself of all aspects of his experience, if all he experiences is pain? What reason, save religion or cruelty, to force a man to experience pain against his will?

Written by Sister Y

April 14, 2011 at 3:14 am

Why Don’t You Just Kill Yourself?

with 10 comments

On 3QuarksDaily (cool article by Tauriq Moosa btw), commenter Louise Gordon asks the question that’s on everybody’s mind: why don’t philanthropic antinatalists just kill themselves? She asks:

If you are an anti-natalist and think being alive is hell and suffering and an overwhelming bummer, why are you still alive? Is there some life instinct that’s driving you to stick around or you’re just not ready to check out yet?

I explain:

Let me explain by analogy. Two birthdays ago, my friends had a surprise party for me. I was in a very antisocial mood at the time, and it was a very unpleasant experience – but I suffered through it because I didn’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings. I didn’t just walk out and leave the party (though I feel I morally could have done, if it were bad enough for me). But mostly I wish they hadn’t had a party for me in the first place – I would have been better off if they hadn’t.

Ditto my mom giving birth to me. I wish she hadn’t, but my family and friends would be very sad if I peaced out of the party (though I still have a moral right to commit suicide).

Another problem is that killing oneself is hard. Barbiturates are tightly controlled these days. You’d be amazed how easy it is to survive a gunshot wound to the head. And then they keep you alive and do medical experiments on you without your consent. Not a pretty picture.

In more general terms, the question may be phrased as: If you have been the victim of injustice and a solution to your subjective suffering exists, why not take it? And the answer is: because the proffered solution (a) through no fault of mine, harms others whose interests I care about, and (b) through no fault of mine, will very likely put me in a situation that is worse than my current situation.

Written by Sister Y

March 16, 2011 at 7:47 pm