Suicide: Scourge or Savior?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Vincent van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows

“That society who has not the ability, or who is not willing to procure man any one benefit, loses all its rights over him; Nature, when it has rendered his existence completely miserable, has in fact, ordered him to quit it: in dying he does no more than fulfil one of her decrees, as he did when he first drew his breath. To him who is fearless of death, there is no evil without a remedy; for him who refuses to die, there yet exists benefits which attach him to the world; in this case let him rally his powers—let him oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses him—let him call forth those resources with which Nature yet furnishes him; she cannot have totally abandoned him, while she yet leaves him the sensation of pleasure; the hopes of seeing a period to his pains.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature 

It seems obvious that the debate on assisted suicide ultimately comes down to the question of whether suicide itself is right or wrong. Many of the arguments against suicide, it seems to me, are predicated on religion. In terms of rhetoric, one probably need not look further than G. K. Chesterton:

“Under the lengthening shadow of Ibsen, an argument arose whether it was not a very nice thing to murder one’s self. Grave moderns told us that we must not even say “poor fellow,” of a man who had blown his brains out, since he was an enviable person, and had only blown them out because of their exceptional excellence. Mr. William Archer even suggested that in the golden age there would be penny-in-the-slot machines, by which a man could kill himself for a penny. In all this I found myself utterly hostile to many who called themselves liberal and humane. Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer’s suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man’s crime is different from other crimes—for it makes even crimes impossible.

“About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. And then I remembered the stake and the cross-roads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.”[1]

While I agree that Archer’s view is dubious (the last time I checked, a “golden age” consisted of mass flourishing, not mass extinction), I also find myself in vehement disagreement with Chesterton’s condemnation.

True, Chesterton himself did contemplate suicide in his adolescence, but in the above passage he speaks as someone who is rationalizing his religious beliefs, not someone who has truly known the power of the desire to die. According to his logic, exterminating 7 billion people pales in comparison, both literally and figuratively, to taking one’s own life without injuring anyone else. It follows that a Vincent van Gogh, say, or a Dimitris Christoulas,[2] commits a far graver crime than a Genghis Khan or a Joseph Stalin. As long as the murderer asks God for forgiveness, he will be given a far more lenient sentence than the suicide, and he will, unlike the suicide, be given a proper burial. Personally, I think that such a notion is breathtakingly ludicrous and silly, and hardly deserves a reply. I must say of Chesterton what Eugene Rose (Father Seraphim) once said of Arthur Schopenhauer: “[He] does not speak to us as one who knows, as one who has truly had a vision of the nature of things.”[3]

I tend to see myself as avoiding both extremes of opinion, the one represented by Chesterton and the other represented by Archer. In other words, I see suicide as being neither an absolute “good” nor an absolute “evil.” In my view, the decision to stay and the decision to leave are more or less equally valid. Let those who wish to live continue their struggle in this world of suffering, and let those who wish to die embark on, ahead of schedule, that great voyage that awaits each and every one of us. I can praise the former for their courage to cling onto life, and the latter for their courage to embrace death.

In an interview, Ludwig Minelli, founder and director Swiss assisted dying organization Dignitas, notes a peculiar pattern he has observed among potential suicides throughout the years:

“Seventy percent of our members which have got provisional green light [for assisted suicide] do never call again. It’s very interesting.

“They are just looking in order to have a choice, to make a choice, because normally they are in a terrible dilemma. … Would I have to go through the whole illness until the so-called natural death, with all the pains, with all the difficulties, or must I make a very risky suicide attempt? When we are getting the provisional green light, this is a sort of opening an emergency exit. So they know, ‘I could go through this emergency exit if really I am in difficulties,’ and this is calming them. …”[4][5]

When I say that suicide saves, I am not being flippant. Of course, the act of suicide destroys, but the possibility of suicide is, as it turns out, a double-edged sword. With it comes the realization that the world has only so much power over you, and that it can rule you only for as long as you allow it to. Those who are truly prepared to die have little left to be afraid of. As strange as it might sound to some, the clear knowledge that one can liberate oneself from an unbearable existence at any moment one chooses can give one not only strength but also a sense of near-invincibility, which can give rise to the will to “oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses”–if only for another day.

Notes

[1] Orthodoxy, Chapter V: The Flag of the World

[2] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/05/greece-suicide-tributes-retired-pharmacist

[3] “Schopenhauer: System; Comment,” quoted from Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works by Hieromonk Damascene

[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/suicidetourist/etc/minelli.html

[5] Mr. Minelli goes on to note: “Not only never come to Zurich, never call again. We never hear from them. Then we get the invoice for the membership fee for the next year, and then they will pay the membership fee, but they will never call again. It’s very, very interesting.”

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The Suicide’s Wager

By Jin-yeong Yi

Craps

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.

Notes

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-406174/Clinically-depressed-allowed-assisted-suicide.html

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/switzerland/5369613/Swiss-suicide-clinic-helped-depressed-man-die.html

Nihilism and the Emotion Machine

By Jin-yeong Yi

Manga emotions

“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb’s fleece dipped in shellfish’s blood; and in matters of sex intercourse, that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations, going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see the kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“The Humean predicament is the human predicament.”

—W. V. Quine

In c. 1935, analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote:

“[T]he fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur. So far we are in agreement with the absolutists. But, unlike the absolutists, we are able to give an explanation of this fact about ethical concepts. We say that the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-concepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.”[1]

About 76 years later, literary critic S. T. Joshi echoed this analysis in his critique of Sam Harris’s updated scientific approach to morality:

All ethical judgments are expressions of a preference. They may be based on facts (or falsehoods), but they are not in themselves facts (or falsehoods).”[2] 

He also effectively explains how having preferences (i.e., not being indifferent to outcomes arising from cause and effect) is consistent with not believing in moral absolutes:

“D’Souza, in What’s So Great about Christianity, maintains absurdly that I would have no reason to object if D’Souza punched me in the face, because I would simply have to maintain that he and I share different moral standards based on our education, upbringing, etc. But my objection would stem from my preference that people not be punched in the face without reason; it violates my moral code even if that code is not itself a fact but a preference. I happen to like my preferences and, in certain circumstances, will go pretty far in defending them. 

Having accepted that there are no intrinsic “ought”s, that there is no inherent reason to favor one outcome over another, one eventually arrives at an unsettling and uncomfortable conclusion: the emotions that drive us are not absolute. While there are natural ways to feel about some things, there is no correct way to feel about anything. We don’t need to feel proud when we overcome an obstacle or achieve something. We don’t need to feel guilty about lying, cheating, or stealing. We don’t need to feel indignant when someone slanders us. We don’t need to feel jealous when a lover or spouse cheats on us. We don’t need to feel envious when a friend wins the lottery. We don’t need to feel horrified when we hear of a murder, rape, or genocide. We don’t need to feel afraid when we are told that civilization will self-destruct tomorrow or next week. Indeed, we don’t need to feel uncomfortable about this conclusion in the first place. It is natural to have these feelings, and it is certainly not “wrong” to have them, but there’s no inherent necessity, no obligation, no reason why we “ought” to have them.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, philosophers Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God on BBC Radio. At one point, the Jesuit priest drove the atheist humanist into a corner:

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

In the end, the absence of objective morality does not change the fact that we are driven by our strongest motives. We act on them and make choices not so much because we are somehow “obligated” to do so, but simply because—we do. Because we are emotion machines. To have reason and nothing but reason is to be a computer. To have reason and emotions is to be human.

Somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, the French Catholic priest and closet atheist Jean Meslier penned these words to conclude his antireligious manifesto:

“After this, let people think, judge, say, and do whatever they want in the world; I do not really care.
Let men adapt themselves and be governed as they want, let them be wise or crazy, let them be good or vicious, let them say or even do with me whatever they want after my death: I really do not care in the least.
I already take almost no part in what is done in the world. The dead, whom I am about to join, no longer worry about anything, they no longer take part in anything, and they no longer care about anything.
So, I will finish this with nothing.
I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.”

To be indifferent is to be dead. To care is to be alive.

“It is obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carried to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident in this case that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion. This consequence is necessary. It is impossible reason could have the latter effect of preventing volition, but by giving an impulse in a contrary direction to our passion; and that impulse, had it operated alone, would have been able to produce volition. Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; and if this contrary impulse ever arises from reason, that latter faculty must have an original influence on the will, and must be able to cause, as well as hinder any act of volition. But if reason has no original influence, it is impossible it can withstand any principle, which has such an efficacy, or ever keep the mind in suspense a moment. Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense. We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

Notes

[1] Language, Truth and Logic by Alfred Jules Ayer

[2] The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism by S. T. Joshi

In Blood Only

By Jin-yeong Yi

“What is Love? Ask him who lives what is life; ask him who adores what is God.”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “On Love”

“[L]ove easily obtained is of little value; difficulty in obtaining it makes it precious.”

—Andreas Capellanus

“Love often attains its most luxuriant growth in separation and under circumstances of the utmost difficulty.”

—Charles Dickens

“The fountains mingle with the river, / And the rivers with the ocean; / The winds of heaven mix forever, / With a sweet emotion; / Nothing in the world is single; / All things by a law divine / In one another’s being mingle:— / Why not I with thine?”

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”

Incestuous relationships, especially ones between brothers and sisters, has fascinated me for a long time. There’s little doubt that this has much to do with the highly taboo nature of incest, which unlike homosexuality has yet to gain widespread acceptance.

Since I don’t believe in moral facts, it would be of little use for me to discuss whether consensual incest is “right” or “wrong.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s neither right nor wrong, like everything else in life. What I will say is that my perception of consensual incest is on the positive side. In the same way that I personally tend to support earnest relationships between people of the same gender, I tend to support the same between people who have been placed in the unusual circumstance of being both blood-related and in love. While I certainly have reservations about the consequences of inbreeding, I don’t see the relationships themselves as being any less “real” or “legitimate” than what most people think of when they hear the word “love.”

Do incestuous relationships, even those between fully consenting adults, hurt people? Of course they do. So do homosexual relationships. So does apostasy from one’s inherited religion or political party. So do non-incestuous heterosexual relationships, even, when there’s a conflict of interest (love polygons; parental disapproval pertaining to ethnicity, religion, and/or class; etc.) involved. Chances are that someone’s always going to get hurt regardless of the nature of the relationship in question.

For me, the ultimate question here is whether two people agree that they wish to be together, that they wish to journey through life side by side as the closest of companions, as partners who honor and cherish one another as they share the gift of life.