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Is Suicide a Waste?

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A highly publicized suicide of an attractive or talented person is commonly greeted with the sentiment, “what a waste!” The substance that is wasted may be named as talent, intelligence, beauty, or life itself, or may not be named. But, whatever is “wasted,” is it fair to blame a suicide for “wasting” it?

“Waste,” in this sense, connotes an immoral misuse of resources that might have been better directed elsewhere. It is wrong to misuse or fail to use scarce resources, because they might be better used by others. Wasting may often involve depriving someone else of the resource that is wasted.

The problem with describing suicide as a “waste” is that to do so engages the same fallacy a clever child detects in his mother’s command to eat his food, because children are starving elsewhere. “Can I send them this food, then?” the clever child might ask, pointing out that waste is only a genuine moral issue if the resource is truly transferable.

If a clueless benefactor buys me a non-transferable plane ticket for a vacation in Tanzania, but I can’t go because I’m an albino, it can’t be said that I have wasted the plane ticket (except maybe in a sort of visceral, aesthetic sense). I did nothing to waste the plane ticket – it was a useless gift, and could not be transferred to others with pressing business in Tanzania. The waste was committed by the person who ill-advisedly bought me the ticket – the money used to buy it could have been transferred to more worthy endeavors.

Where the substance allegedly wasted by the suicide is “life,” waste in the moral sense is clearly not present. Until laws are changed so that we suicides may donate our organs prior to suicide, life, like the ticket to Tanzania, is a non-transferable resource. The waste, in the case of a suicide, occurred when the suicide’s parents made the decision to give the “gift” of life to a person who, it turns out, had no use for it.

What if the substance “wasted” is not life itself, but rather talent, intelligence, or beauty? All these are scarce things, and others in the community may have benefited from the beauty or talent of a suicide, had he not decided to end his life. The potential to benefit is lost.

There are two responses to the idea that a suicide “wastes” his talent or beauty. One is the same response a wealthy person might make to a poor person in justifying his decision to “waste” money on a tenth automobile rather than buy the poor person a house; that is, “it’s not yours.” Or, to put it a different way: it is radically collectivist to think that we have a right to the resources of others – beyond perhaps guaranteeing a certain level of subsistence for all, we do not have a right even to each others’ money. Why should we have a right to each others’ physical and personality characteristics? Is a Muslim woman who veils committing a wrong by hiding her beauty from others? The person who, on finding out about a suicide, says “what a waste,” is really saying – “it’s too bad, I could have used him (or her).” This is hardly a noble sentiment.

The second response is the utilitarian calculation at the community level, including the suicide himself. While others may have benefited from a would-be suicide’s continued existence, their benefit would come only at an extreme cost to the suicide himself. If the overall cost of utilizing goods exceeds the benefit to be gained thereby, how can it be a “waste” to fail to use them?

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Written by Sister Y

October 15, 2008 at 3:40 am