The Suicide’s Wager

By Jin-yeong Yi


In late 2006, Ludwig Minelli, a Swiss lawyer and the founder of Switzerland-based assisted dying organization Dignitas, provoked controversy when he advocated for clinically depressed Britons the right to assisted suicide. Argued Mr. Minelli:

“I think we should find a modern attitude to the problem of suicide.
“We should see in principle suicide as a marvellous possibility given to human beings because they have a conscience to withdraw themselves from situations which are bearable for them.
“If you accept the idea of personal autonomy, you can’t make conditions that only terminally ill people should have this right.”[1]

British anti-assisted suicide organization Care Not Killing points out that there is always the future possibility that those suffering from depression, including the terminally ill, will change their minds about taking their lives. Of the latter, a spokesman said, “Almost invariably, they change their minds over time… and die in due course peacefully and with dignity.”[2]

The argument that someone could change their minds later on is interesting and worthy of consideration. That we do change our minds is a given. Two lovers might get married, each of them completely convinced that the other is “the one,” only to experience disillusionment and divorce a few years later. One might ask, should a father refuse to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to her lover because either of them “might” change their mind at some point down the road?

I do not deny that suicide is another animal altogether. Some decisions, such as the acceptance of a position at a company or the purchase of a new car, can be reversed upon changing one’s mind. But the termination of one’s existence can never be reversed.

As a thought experiment, I’ll put forth a wager that is, structurally, not unlike Pascal’s Wager. It goes something like this:

(0) There is no afterlife in which you will be punished for committing suicide. Death is final. (Assumption)

(1A) If you commit suicide, and your future would have been worthwhile, then you have lost.

(1B) If you commit suicide, and your future would not have been worthwhile, then you have neither gained nor lost.

(2A) If you don’t commit suicide, and your future turns out to be worthwhile, then you have gained.

(2B) If you don’t commit suicide, and your future does not turn out to be worthwhile, then you have neither gained nor lost.

(3) Either way, there is no permanent gain or loss, as death is final. The only question that remains is the amount of time that separated one state from another.

As you may have noticed, this wager ignores the consequences that the potential suicide’s actions might have on other people. It is generally assumed that it is “better” for everyone else–or at least not harmful–if a potential suicide continues to live, but admittedly we cannot know this for sure. There’s no telling what events the combination of genetic-environmental factors and happenstance will give rise to during the course of one’s life. John Smith’s suicide might mean the financial ruin of his struggling family, but his survival might mean the unpremeditated murder of his dictatorial boss. The possibilities are endless. Causality might lead him to drive drunk and accidentally hit someone 18 years later. Causality might lead him to get married and produce a prodigy that will go on to make vital contributions to theoretical physics. That is perhaps the chief weakness of a purely consequentialist ethic: as there is no reliable way to predict the future, there is no telling just how one’s existence and choices will impact the world one inhabits, and whether it will ultimately be for the “better” or for the “worse.”

If I have a point, it is this: that we simply don’t know, and that there’s no way of knowing whether the decisions we make are ultimately the “best” ones, and this is because the future is always uncertain. Every action we take or do not take is a gamble to some degree. Suicide is no exception. All we really have are our thoughts and emotions in the present, the fragmented memories of the thoughts and emotions we had in the past, and our clumsy speculations about what might be and what might have been.





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