Killing suicides so that they may live

Many suicidal people are eventually grateful they didn’t kill themselves. This is sometimes used as an argument in favor of preventing people committing suicide, as Scott recently alluded to. A few years down the line, the argument goes, they’ll be thanking you for pulling them back from the edge, you should feel justified in doing so now. In the past they didn’t want to commit suicide – in the future they’ll be glad they didn’t commit suicide. Their current mental state is a temporary aberration, which we should not hold them accountable for; rather, we should protect their ‘true self’ from it.

There are many examples of similar arguments being used in different contexts.

  • People sometimes stage ‘interventions’ with alcoholics. In the past the alcoholic did not want to drink such excessive quantities. And post-intervention, the ex-alcholic will appreciate their newfound control over their life – they’ll be glad you took away the rum. Their current mental state is a temporary aberration, which we should not hold them accountable for; rather, we should protect their true self from it.
  • Pro-abortion campaigners often claim that, while abortion is terrible, it is sometimes necessary to prevent even worse consequences for the woman. However, pro-life campaigners point out that most women denied abortions are later pleased to have a child, describing the child they would have killed as being the love of their life – as even pro-abortion researchers agree. In the past the woman didn’t plan on having an abortion, and in the future she will be glad her request to have one was denied. Her current mental state is a temporary aberration, which we should not hold her accountable for; rather, we should protect her true self (and her child) from it.
  • Another application is disability. People generally over-estimate how unhappy becoming disabled will make them. Ought we conclude from this that becoming disabled is not as bad as we thought?
  • Or re-education camps. Suppose some enemies of the state, having been perverted by reading Ayn Rand novels, are sent to re-education camps in Siberia for being evil capitalist enemies of the revolution. The camps are very effective: 100% of survivors become devout believers in Neo-Bolshevism. In the past they didn’t want to betray the revolution, and in the future they’ll be glad for the re-education. Their current individualistic mental state is a temporary aberration, which we should not hold them accountable for; rather, we should protect their true proletariat self from it.

I am not a fan of these arguments in general. Part of what constitutes our identity is our beliefs and values. To the extent that these change over time for reasons we would not endorse, to the extent we suffer value drift, [we have to some degree died.](http://lesswrong.com/lw/2zj/value_deathism/) Dying is bad. Perhaps a heroic sacrifice to save something you care about deeply might be worthwhile – but if it is, being made to abandon your value is all the worse.

And if dying if bad, then murder is yet worse. And yet that is what our benevolent busybodies are doing – destroying some small part of their friend, and replacing it with another.

And yet! – this is not nearly so bad in the suicide case. A large part of what makes murder morally wrong is that the victim does not wish to die. In the case of suicide, (at least part of) the victim longs for the embrace of death. By intervening and turning them from suicide, you are killing precisely the part of them that wanted to die. Since it wanted to die, killing it is presumably significantly less immoral. You are basically allowing the suicidal person to commit1 suicide, and then recycling their body for the benefit of a new (or at least slightly different), life-loving person.

So I think that this argument is significantly stronger in the case of suicide than in other cases.


  1. How strange that one ‘has’ an abortion, yet ‘commits’ suicide. Yet when I try to change the language it reads so awkwardly I have to change it back. 
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3 thoughts on “Killing suicides so that they may live

  1. unorganised hypolipoproteinemia says:

    What if you are infected by a worm that causes you to uncontrollably repeat “I do not wish to be cured of this parasite”?

    My intuition is that with suicides and alcoholics, we’re intervening against an something that has temporarily taken hold over somebody, distorting them from the person they were before, and the intervention is about “changing them back”.

    You might say that the old person is already gone and our intervention is only destroying the new person, hence still unjustified. But I think as with the worm example, in case of suicides and alcoholism, the “old person” is in some important sense “still in there”.

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    • Interesting idea. Here’s a example on the opposite side. Suppose my uncle Javid, now 43, has been an alcoholic since he was 18, a major source of shame for the family. Then, one day, he has a revelation and swears of drink for the rest of his life. A month later he’s still dry and is much healthier. Is the sobriety something that has temporarily taken over, distorting them from the person they were before, and a pro-drink intervention is required to “changing them back”?

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  2. Hm. says:

    The argument against suicide from later gratitude is problematic because those reports are all anecdotal. In order to be really glad you didn’t die, often you’ll need financial resources or some equivalent from other people. Someone has to pay the bills. So you’re really transferring quality of life away from those other people, and to the formerly suicidal person who would still be suicidal if not for this parasitic transfer. (Those other people might not be grateful!)

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