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A List of My Responses to J. David Velleman Articles

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This is a list of various responses I have made to arguments that J. David Velleman advances against a right to suicide.

Life Rights and Death Rights – in which I briefly introduce, and more briefly consider, Velleman’s argument that giving (terminally ill or disabled) people a right to die harms them even if they are fully rational and can be trusted to make choices that maximize their various interests.

Velleman’s Sorrow of Options – in which I review Velleman’s pro-forced-life argument in more detail, attempt to identify problems with the argument, and apply the argument given different starting conditions to get shocking conclusions.

Respecting and Erasing, in which I respond to J. David Velleman’s pro-forced-life paper “A Right of Self-Termination?” In his article, Velleman proposes that suicide is nearly always morally wrong, because by taking one’s own life, one acts in such a way that denies the inherent value of a person in general. I argue that killing oneself (and destroying something in general) does not at all require denying a person’s (or a thing’s) value, and that a person or a thing that is absent often paradoxically has a high value.

Altruism and the Value of Life: Another Response to Velleman – in which I challenge the ideas set forth in “A Right of Self-Termination?” in a different way, this time by contrasting Velleman’s position (that suicide to end suffering is wrong because it involves trading “mere” agent-relative benefits for a human life) with the commonly-held intuition of the moral worthiness of altruistic suicides.

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Written by Sister Y

July 17, 2008 at 6:25 am

Akrasia Plus Insight: More On Altruistic Suicides

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Some suicides – what we might think of as “heroic suicides” or “altruistic suicides” – are committed for the benefit of others, perhaps to save others from death. Often, these are not even seen as belonging to the same class as regular suicides.

When considering altruistic suicides, does it matter whether the harm (perhaps death) the suicide saves others from would come from outside circumstances, or the suicide’s own future actions if he were to stay alive?

Generally, people recognize the value of not harming others. Sociopathic personality disorder may be associated with many types of harm to others, but it seems reasonable to acknowledge that there are many people who, despite understanding that it is wrong to harm others, nevertheless go on doing so out of weakness of will. Some people cannot help themselves, in a practical sense, from doing serious wrong (as may be the case with some rapists). They know it is wrong and feel empathy for their victims, but go on harming people anyway. And some of these people, we might assume, have insight into their akratic condition – not only do they know that it is wrong to harm others, but they realize that they are likely to do it, no matter how much effort they expend to avoid doing so. I propose that when a person such as this commits suicide for the purpose of preventing his future harm to others, his suicide is altruistic. Note that this doesn’t cover cases where, for example, convicted child molesters commit suicide upon release because of difficult living conditions, or even out of guilt for prior crimes. Many suicides might have the unintended consequence of avoiding harm to others, but I would only classify those as altruistic that have the purpose of preventing harm to others.

I mention this to show that the category of “altruistic suicides” might be broader than it appears.

Written by Sister Y

July 2, 2008 at 1:10 am

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

Respecting and Erasing

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Ending something does not entail denying its value.


In 1959, the artist Robert Rauschenberg asked the much older and more established artist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. Eventually, de Kooning gave him a drawing, executed in heavy crayon, grease pencil, graphite, and ink. Over the course of a month, Rauschenberg erased the drawing and mounted it in a gold frame. View a large image of it here, on Boing Boing – it’s a beautiful object, evocative and moving in its silence.

I relate this here, first, because it is beautiful, and I don’t want to hear any crap about the decadence of modern art and blah blah blah – it is beautiful, it is moving, it is haunting, that is enough. Second, I relate it in response to J. David Velleman, whose “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628) presents an ethical argument against a moral right to suicide, at least suicide committed in order to make things better for oneself.

The core of the paper’s argument is that it is wrong for a person to kill himself in his own interest, because by doing so, he devalues that which inheres to him – his dignity, in Kantian terms – that is not his to evaluate, but belongs rather to all of humanity. Velleman thinks that we ought to defer to a person as to a judgment of what is in his interests – he just does not think that killing oneself in one’s own interest is morally permissible “solely on the grounds of the benefits [one] will thereby obtain or the harms [one] will avoid.”

Velleman proposes that there is a special kind of value to every person, that logically must exist if his interests are to matter. It is an answer to the question, why should we act in the interests of other people? The answer is, because people matter. This mattering Velleman equates with Kantian dignity, which is further equated with man’s rational nature. (The capacity to rationally choose one’s ends is what gives a person dignity, in Kantian terms.)

Dignity is the reason we respect people (and respect their wishes). Velleman argues that suicide is a form of rejecting this dignity – and that we don’t have the right to do that, because it is not ours to reject, exactly, but a feature of humanity. This dignity, says Velleman, is “a value that [a person] possesses by virtue of being one of us, and the value of being one of us is not his alone to assess or defend. The value of being a person is therefore something larger than any particular person who embodies it.” Therefore we don’t have the right to destroy it. It’s not just that suicide is failing to treat oneself with the respect due to persons, though it is certainly that, according to Velleman – it’s that suicide undermines respect for persons in general.

The story of the paper is this. Professor Velleman had cancer (in real life). A few years ago he was sitting around after dinner at a philosophy conference with some colleagues and a few people were smoking. One of the smoking professors said something about how he knew smoking would probably kill him, but that his enjoyment of smoking outweighed the probable early death it would cause him. Velleman, fresh from the chemo table, was deeply offended. Over the years, he came to realize that, by joking about trading life for pleasure, the professor was implying that human life lacks serious value (dignity), dehumanizing not only himself but Professor Velleman as well. The core of the paper, as I see it, is this:

My host’s remarks implied that an early death, of the sort he was risking and I was hoping to forestall, would be a loss to him that could be offset by sufficient gains. But what would it matter how much I lost or gained if I myself would be no loss? My gains or losses would merit concern only on the basis of concern for me – which, being the basis of concern for them, could not then be offset by that concern. Hence my gains or losses wouldn’t matter unless I had value that could not be offset by their.

My host was implicitly denying the existence of such a value. For he claimed that death was worth worrying about only in respects for which he could be compensated by the pleasures of smoking. He was thus implicitly denying the interest-independent value of a person, without which it couldn’t really matter whether I lived or died.

In an appendix to the piece, Velleman responds to criticisms from Professor F. M. Kamm, in her article “Physician-Assisted Suicide, the Doctrine of the Double Effect, and the Ground of Value” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 586-605).

Kamm calls one of Velleman’s arguments the Exchange Argument, and interprets it to mean (correctly, says Velleman) that it is forbidden to exchange the intrinsic value of one’s humanity merely to benefit one’s interests, as in suicide or some kind of voluntary slavery. But, Kamm says,

According to Kant, beautiful things (e.g., art) have a value beyond price, though not the dignity that persons have. Most would say (though perhaps Kant would not, given his theory of beauty) that beautiful things have intrinsic value, even if no one cares about them and they satisfy no human interests. Yet we may permissibly exchange beautiful things for money or food. The permissibility of exchanging them for things that have interest-relative value and a market price does not imply, I believe, that they only have interest-relative value. It implies that what has intrinsic aesthetic value has only finite value and could be permissibly exchanged for what has only interest-relative value (e.g., food). But this does not show that beautiful things have only interest-relative value rather than intrinsic aesthetic value. That we can exchange one thing for another does not mean that they share the same essential nature or type of value. The same might be true of persons.

Velleman responds that the painting analogy fails, because when we sell a painting, we are not destroying it, but entrusting it into the care of another art appreciator. A better analogy, says Velleman, would be burning a painting in the fireplace because one has run out of kindling. “But then,” says Velleman, “burning an artwork for kindling would ordinarily be objectionable. Not coincidentally, it’s also what would be analogous to self-interested suicide.”

But I think that analogy fails as well. I am so glad I heard about that empty, erased de Kooning drawing, because there is the proper analogy for a suicide, and, I think, my greatest objection to Velleman here. The act of erasing or destroying does not imply a lack of respect. There is such a thing as respectful erasing. Rauschenberg could believe heartily in the value of de Kooning’s drawing – in fact, the drawing’s artistic value is key to the work’s success – and still, with the consent of de Kooning, erase it. Similarly, I think it is possible to commit suicide without implying that human life, and even one’s own life, lacks value or dignity.

In many cases, as with the de Kooning, the absence of the thing is what heightens its value. When I saw the erased de Kooning, I immediately thought of Miller Williams’ poem “The Curator,” in which a young assistant curator at the Hermitage in Leningrad comes up with a scheme to ship all the paintings out of the city to avoid their destruction by the German bombs. They ship the paintings out, but leave the frames up to make it easier to put things back in their place when the war is over. Williams says:

Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.

Russian soldiers come to the Hermitage from all over Russia, and are disappointed that the paintings are gone, so the staff gives tours despite their absence. And gradually the tour of this “Unseen Collection” becomes more popular:

We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves.

Eventually, blind people begin to come for the tour. Eventually, of course, the war is over and the paintings are replaced, but the blind people never come back, and people don’t pay quite as much attention as before.

Can one erase a person in such a manner? Certainly, many who have been erased by death are still valued. Although rational choosing must cease at death, I do not believe that the thing that causes people to matter ceases at death. It is strange that one’s biological life – and, especially, one’s rational capacity – should be the basis for one’s intrinsic claim to matter.

It might even occasionally be true that killing someone else could be done out of respect for his dignity, as in Sharon Olds’ poem “Things That Are Worse Than Death,” in which the speaker imagines killing her son in order to save him from being tortured by the police. An excerpt:

You are speaking of Chile,
of the woman who was arrested
with her husband and their five-year-old son.
You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child,
in front of each other,
“as they like to do.”
Things that are worse than death.
I can see myself taking my son’s ash-blond hair in my fingers,
tilting back his head before he knows what is happening,
slitting his throat, slitting my own throat
to save us that.

And in the recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road, a father in a post-apocalyptic horror of a world is constantly aware that he might have to kill his son to spare him from being raped, tortured, and eaten by cannibals. Late in the novel, the father and son find a baby lying abandoned over a smoldering cooking fire. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that the father’s actions, in keeping his son alive in such a world, are wrong – that he has failed to respect his son’s dignity and value by keeping him alive even more than the baby’s parents have failed to respect his dignity by burning him as if to eat him. (In reality, of course, evolutionary biology-minded studies of familicide, especially data regarding the virtual male monopoly of familicide compared with more equal gender ratios in killings of children alone, seem to suggest that real killings of children are generally motivated by proprietary feelings, rather than committed out of concern for the children’s dignity. But the possibility remains.)

And many of us feel that such a world – such an unending stream of horrors – is already upon us, and perhaps has been since humanity’s inception. For many of us, the only way to genuinely respect ourselves is to erase ourselves.

I feel compelled to point out that I’m not a fan of Cormac McCarthy and I think his writing is crap. But his book is important, even if he unflinchingly uses words like “vermiculate” and “torsional” and “wimple” (as a VERB) and never met an abstract noun he didn’t want to turn into a verb. I hate “lyrical” writing and I hate McCarthy’s rhythm. But his miserable writing style only partially detracts from the quality of his novel, in this case.

Written by Sister Y

June 30, 2008 at 1:49 am

Velleman’s Sorrow of Options

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In most liberal moral philosophies, freedoms, rights, and choices are accorded high value, whether or not rights are seen to be important only to the extent that they promote overall welfare. Sometimes, however, it is argued that rights should be curtailed because agents may make “wrong” choices if given certain rights. For instance, if people have a right to eat fatty foods, they may irrationally choose to over-indulge, causing themselves harm, because they lack the cognitive ability to make the “correct” decision that does not harm them. To the extent that the right is removed to benefit the agent, rather than to benefit others he might harm (such as the public health system), this is known as paternalism. Paternalism substitutes the state’s decision for that of the actor, presumably on the grounds that the actor lacks the ability to make the decision that will best promote his goals. Paternalism obtains when there is a fear that the actor will choose wrongly.

In contrast to this, J. David Velleman, in “Against the Right to Die,” presents an admirable non-paternalistic argument about how being given a choice may harm an agent – that is, that merely having a choice may harm an agent, even if he is perfectly rational and makes the “correct” decision one hundred percent of the time. Velleman takes an example from the world of negotiation from Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict:

. . . having an option can be harmful even if we do not exercise it and – more surprisingly – even if we exercise it an gain by doing so . . . . The union leader who cannot persuiade his membersship (sic) to approve a pay-cut, or the ambassador who cannot contact his head-of-state for a change of brief, negotiates from a position of strength; whereas the negotiator for whom all concessions are possible deals from weakness. If the rank-and-file give their leader the option of offering a pay-cut, then management may not settle for anything less, whereas they might have settled for less if he hadn’t had the option of making the offer. The union leader will then have to decide whether to take the option and reach an agreement or to leave the option and call a strike. But no matter which of these outcomes would make him better off, choosing it will still leave him worse off than he woudl have been if he had never had the option at all.

Velleman relates another option from Ronald Dworkin’s paper, “Is more choice better than less?”: a night cashier in a convenience store is made worse off by the option to open the safe, because his having this option makes him an attractive target for robbers. Once robbed, he’s better off opening the safe, but overall, he’d certainly be much better off – less likely to be robbed in the first place – if he didn’t have the option to open the safe!

Velleman also discusses a dinner party invitation as a potentially harmful choice. Given an invitation, I may refuse or accept, but I am denied the option of simply not going without answering – I have to either accept or hurt the host’s feelings, and even if I “correctly” chose the best option of those two, I might be yet better off having never been offered the invitation.

Velleman’s target, obviously, is assisted suicide in cases of severe disability or terminal illness. A terminally ill person without the right to die has, in a sense, the “right to live” – and need not justify his “exercise” of that right to anyone. He simply lives, and hasn’t the option to die. However, given a right to die, there is a sense in which he loses the right to live without explicitly choosing to do so. People in this scenario (and Velleman is only talking about the terminally ill and the severely impaired, so his argument does not apply to ordinary suicides) frequently depend on others to care for them, and may be concerned about imposing a burden on others by living. This burden can only be said to be imposed by the ill person if he has some choice not to impose it – that is, a choice to die. The ill person may be best off with no choice, continuing to live and be cared for by others. But given the choice between imposing a burden on others and taking his life, he may rationally choose to die, though he would have preferred not to have the choice at all. Velleman notes that not only the burden of care, but also the exhaustion of the ill person’s assets (which may be expected to pass to his heirs on his death) may be considered, rationally, by the ill person in deciding whether to die. In the situation where an ill person enjoys living and wishes to live, but not so much that he would impose a burden on his family, the right to die makes him worse off, even if he makes a rational decision once the right is offered. “I am arguing that we must not harm others by giving them choices,” says Velleman, “not that we must withhold the choices from them lest they harm themselves.”

While Velleman elicudates a valid and real concern for some terminally ill or severely disabled people, even Velleman himself recognizes that the argument should not prevent assisted suicide in all cases. His proposed solution is to do nothing, and leave the current system in place, where there is no institutional right to die, but some suffering people may still (illegally) be offered euthanasia at their doctor’s discretion. (Velleman does not address the social injustice of allowing this service to be offered only to those with a relationship with a doctor, that is, wealthy people.) Velleman also founds his argument on a Kantian belief that it is immoral to commit suicide, which I obviously reject. He says:

. . . if I believed that people had a moral right to end their lives, I would not entertain consequentialist arguments against protecting that right. But I don’t believe in such a moral right . . .

My interest in Velleman’s argument – the sorrow of choice – is that it applies in unexpected ways and in unexpected places, depending on where one puts the initial assessment of value.

Now that I’ve explained the argument in detail, I’m going to put in in a shorter outline form, so we can see how the moving parts work, and apply it to new problems. I’m going to be putting things in what might sound like flippant language – I do this in the interest of clarity, and not in any way to disparage Velleman, who is like a god to me.

  • The right to live is morally important, and the right to die is not.
  • Given the right to die, people who are a burden on their caretakers might choose to die rather than be a burden, even if what they really wanted was to live without having to explicitly choose to live.
  • Therefore, the freedom to die harms the person.
  • It’s wrong to harm people, even to harm them by giving them choices.
  • No right to die.

An interesting feature of this argument, which I alluded to in my previous post on life rights and death rights, is that, given different starting conditions, it might act as an argument against a right to live.

Some people, of course – I put myself on this list – would prefer to die, but might not wish to explicitly choose death. Given that we are stuck with a “choice” to live, many of us continue to live, miserably, rather than bear the responsibility for the harm our deaths may cause. We are certainly harmed by having the option to continue living; we wish that we might die or be killed in our sleep, but we are denied our best option by a “right” to continue to live. If we started with the assumption that the right to die was more important than the right to live in many circumstances, the sorrow of choice would act in favor of euthanasia – even without consent.

This argument – and I don’t mean it either as a reductio or as a serious statement of my position – goes like this:

  • The right to die is important, more so than the right to live.
  • Given the right to survive (on a respirator, say), people who wish to die will suddenly bear responsibility for choosing death, and may choose to go on suffering in life instead, even though they’d prefer to die, all things considered.
  • Therefore, the suffering person is harmed by the choice to remain alive.
  • It’s wrong to harm people, even by giving them choices.
  • Euthanasia for everyone.

Although Velleman says he doesn’t recognize a moral right to die, he indicates that as part of his consequentialist “sorrow of choice” project that he’d be happiest to distinguish between those who would be harmed by the right to die, and those who wouldn’t be harmed, and offer the choice only to those who wouldn’t be harmed by it. (Velleman would leave this discretion in the hands of doctors, who would be acting illegally in the cases in which they offered assisted suicide.) If choice is such an important harm, and can be a harm in either direction, perhaps it would be best to try to distinguish between four groups: (1) those who would be harmed by having the option to die; (2) those who wouldn’t be harmed by the option to die; (3) those who would be harmed by the option to live; and (4) those who wouldn’t be harmed by the option to live. Group (1) will be forced to remain alive; group (3) will be euthanized without consent; and groups (2) and (4) will be offered appropriate options. (Again, I don’t mean this as a reductio, exactly, nor as a statement of my true thinking – with this argument, just now, we must think of ourselves as playing with philosophical tinker toys, free to see how they might fit together. If it has any purpose other than exploration, this paper is intended as a check on being too sure of our intuitions. Non-suicidal intuitions have been allowed to define the conversation for far too long.)

The sorrow-of-choice argument may be fruitfully applied – in a less shocking manner – to pronatalist and antinatalist concerns. In the antinatalist camp, we might see being brought into existence itself as the harmful choice that is forced upon a person to his detriment. Being brought into existence forces all kinds of choices onto a person – not the least of which is the choice to remain alive. If a person would be best off never having existed – and this is certainly true of many people, even if we don’t admit Benatar’s central claim that it applies to everyone – then bringing him into existence, and offering him choices, even the best of which make him worse off than before he was born, is a harm. The argument would look like this:

  • The interest in not existing is important; the interest in coming into existence is minor compared to it.
  • After having come into existence, some people will be worse off, even if they make every decision perfectly, than if they had not been offered choices by being brought into existence.
  • It is wrong to harm people, even by giving them choices.
  • It’s wrong to have babies.

The harm can be either to the being brought into existence, or to the potential parents. The argument, applied to the interests of potential parents, works either to support outlawing contraception and abortion, or to support outlawing procreation, depending on which is seen as having the greater force as a moral right. Just to sketch out what the arguments would look like in each case:

  • Procreation is an important right, compared to the right not to procreate.
  • The choice not to procreate forces people to justify their reproductive decisions; they may prefer to have ten children without explicitly choosing to do so, but given the choice, opt to have none or to have only two, rather than burden society.
  • They are harmed by being given the choice to procreate or not.
  • It’s wrong to harm people, even by giving them choices.
  • No condoms; babies for everyone. (Interestingly, this could be taken a step further, toward outlawing celibacy or forcing in vitro fertilization for the celibate, but that’s too silly even for the Catholic church, isn’t it?)

In the other direction, the birth-proscription argument goes like this:

  • The right not to procreate is important, compared to the right to procreate.
  • Given the right to reproduce, people who don’t wish to breed may feel they have to justify their decision, to their parents, grandparents, and spouse, for instance. They may rationally choose to procreate rather than be responsible for destroying their families’ procreation interests.
  • They are harmed by the choice to reproduce.
  • Birth control pills in the water.

Given the judo-like nature of the argument, it must be clear by now that everything depends upon where the initial assessment of value is set. But at least this must counter the objection to antinatalism, that birth can be a good thing for the person who is born because it gives him greater freedom and more options, compared to not existing. Options, we have seen, are often in and of themselves a serious harm.

Written by Sister Y

May 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm