PHIL 176: Death
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PHIL 176 - Lecture 24 - Suicide, Part I: The Rationality of Suicide
Chapter 1. Introduction to Suicide: Does It Make Sense? Distinguishing Issues of Rationality and Morality [00:00:00]
Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time, we talked about how you should live your life, in light of the fact of our — your mortality. How does the fact that we will die — how should that affect the way that we live? What we’re going to turn to now, our final topic for the semester, is the flip side. The fact of our mortality raises the question as to whether or not we should put an end to our life. Strictly speaking, I suppose it’s not the fact that we’re mortal, per se, it’s one of those extra features of death that I’ve discussed previously, the variability of death. And more particularly still, the fact that we can control how long we live. We face the possibility of ending our life earlier than it would end otherwise. That’s suicide, of course.
And so our final topic is, under what circumstances, if any, does suicide make sense? Under what circumstances, if any, is it an appropriate thing to do? Now, it’s a fairly widespread feature of our culture that suicide is looked upon with such a mixture of disdain, fear, finding it offensive, that it’s very hard, often, to think clearly and discuss the topic clearly. Most people think it’s either that you’ve got to be crazy to kill yourself. The very fact that you are contemplating suicide is evidence that you’re crazy. And if you’re not crazy, then it shows that you’re immoral. Suicide is clearly never, never right, the right thing to do.
So, what I want to propose is that we take some time and look at the questions on both sides with a fair bit of care. And the very first thing to do, I think, in thinking about the topic of suicide, is to distinguish questions of rationality from questions of morality. That is, I want us to take a look at, initially, the question, under what circumstances, if ever, would suicide be the rational thing to do? And then later turn to the question, when, if ever, would suicide be a morally legitimate or a morally permissible or morally acceptable thing to do?
In posing this distinction, I’m obviously presupposing that these questions can come apart, or at least they need to be examined separately. Questions of rationality on the one hand, and questions of morality on the other. These are both questions about oughts, as we might put it. They’re evaluative questions. But at least most people are inclined to think that we are drawing on different evaluative standards when we raise the one set of questions, as opposed to when we raise the other.
In many cases, no doubt, rationality and morality go hand in hand. And there are philosophical views about the nature of rationality and the nature of morality, according to which they always go hand in hand. But many of us are inclined to think that they can come apart. Take, for example, given the season of the year that it is, consider doing your income taxes or, more particularly still, cheating on your income taxes. The rate at which income tax forms get audited is very, very slight. And so — and the fines tend to not be especially egregious, even if you do get caught. So that from a rational point of view, many of us might think it might well be a rational decision to cheat. You’re not likely to get caught. Even if you do get caught, how bad’s the fine anyway? But even if we were to agree that it was rational to cheat, most of us would then immediately want to follow that remark up by pointing out that doesn’t at all mean that it’s morally acceptable to cheat on your income tax. There’s a case perhaps where you’re morally required to do something that you’re not rationally required to do.
Or, take a choice from the other point of view. There you are, trying to decide between — there you are, trying to decide between your various choices of college. And you’ve gotten into Yale on the one hand, and perhaps some crummy school, your second-rate backup school, on the other. And you’re trying to decide what to do there. Well, you might think to yourself, morally I have no obligations here. There’s no particular obligation, moral requirement, to go to the better school rather than the worse school. But for all that, it would be irrational of me, perhaps, to go to the worse school. So there’s a case where there’s no moral requirement, but there’s a rational requirement.
Again, we could debate the details of the two examples, but the point’s just to show that, in principle at least, on the face of it, these two questions can come apart. Sometimes it’s rationally acceptable to do something, but it’s immoral. Sometimes it’s morally acceptable to do something, but it’s irrational. So in thinking about suicide, we need to pose the two questions, one after the other. So, let’s start with the question about the rationality of suicide. When, if ever, is suicide a rational decision to make?
Chapter 2. When Is It Rational to Commit Suicide? Problems with the Two-State Requirement [00:05:14]
Now, once again, the first thing I want to do in thinking about the rationality of suicide is to distinguish two different issues, or two different questions. The first question is going to be this. When, if ever, would it be true that you are better off dead? Could it be the case that your life is going so badly that you’d be better off dead? Second question, assuming that the answer to the first question is, under such and such circumstances, you would be better off dead, we still have to ask, could it ever be rational for you to trust your judgment that this is one of those cases in which you’re better off dead? Could it ever be rational for you to kill yourself? Conceivably, the answer to the second might be no.
Jude, would you please turn off the camera for a moment? Are you ready? Okay. [speaking to the cameraman]
All right. So, the question was this. It’s conceivable you might have a thought like the following. In those circumstances in which life has gotten so horrible that you’d be better off dead, you can’t think clearly. And the very fact that you can’t think clearly would entail that you shouldn’t trust your judgment that you are in one of those cases. Whether that’s a good argument or not is something we’ll have to turn to later. But it’s because of the possibility of that argument that I wanted to distinguish the initial question, could it be true that you’re better off dead? from the secondary question, even if it could be true that you’re better off dead, could it ever be a reasonable or rational decision for you to believe that you’re in one of those situations? Unless we’ve got the two things in place, it doesn’t seem likely that it’s ever going to be rational to commit suicide.
So, the very first topic we have to look at is, could it ever be true that you’d be better off dead? And immediately, there’s a kind of logical worry that may occur to some of you, certainly has been raised by various philosophers. And that’s to say that the very judgment, the very claim, that Jones would be better off dead can’t make any sense. On the assumption that, look, in order to make comparisons — better off, worse off; here he is in such and such a situation; he’d be better off in that other situation — you’ve got to be able to talk about, on the one hand, what condition or state the person is before and what condition or state the person would be in afterwards, if they were to make that choice. Call this the two-state requirement.
Normally, when we make judgments about whether something would leave you better off or worse off, we satisfy the two-state requirement. You’re trying to decide whether or not to lose some weight. And you think, well, here’s how well off I am now, being overweight. Here’s how well off I would be later, if I were to lose that weight. I can compare the two states, say the second state’s better than the first state. That’s what makes it true that I’d be better off. Trying to decide whether or not to marry the person or break up with the person or pick this career or change careers. You’ve got the state you’re in and you compare it to the state you would be in. You compare the two states. That’s what allows us to say, “Yeah, I’d be better off” or “No, I’d be worse off.”
But when we’re talking about cases of suicide, cases where, well, here I am now, the before state requirement’s in place, but if we contrast that with the after state requirement, well, that part’s not met, right? When you — On the assumption that death is the end, that you won’t exist, nonexistence isn’t a state that you will be in. It’s not a condition of you, because states and conditions presuppose existence. We can talk about are you happy? Are you sad? Are you bored? Are you excited? All of those things presuppose your existence. Even are you sleeping? is a state or condition you can be in, because you exist. But if I kill myself, I won’t exist. There is no second state to compare. So, how could we possibly say, the objection goes, how could we possibly say that I’d be better off dead? That seems to presuppose that there’s a second state that we can compare to my actual state. Since there isn’t one, the judgment, I’d be better off dead, can’t even get off the ground. It’s got a logical mistake built right into it. Well, that’s the objection. And, as I say, there are a number of philosophers who are drawn to it. Maybe some of you are drawn to it as well.
It seems to me that it’s mistaken. Consider what we wanted to say when we talked about the deprivation account, the central account of what’s bad about death. For most of us, dying would be bad, because it would deprive us of the good things in life that we would get, if only we didn’t die. That seemed like a natural thing to say. It seemed like an appropriate thing to say. Of course, we might ask, if we believe in the two-state requirement, how could we have said that? After all, given the two-state requirement, to say that death is bad for me, I’d be better off staying alive. If we believe in the two-state requirement, we’ve got to say, Oh, so had I died, I would have been in some state that I could compare to my current state and say that it’s worse. But, of course, death isn’t a state. So, the two-state requirement’s not met.
Well, we might say this should give us some pause. If the two-state requirement — It would be one thing if all that the two-state requirement said was, you know, we can’t ever say we’d be better off dead. But it turns out the two-state requirement’s got more implications than that. It’s got the implication that you can’t even say you’re better off staying alive. And that’s very, very hard to believe.
Imagine that you’ve got some happy person, some incredibly happy person with a wonderful life filled with whatever goods you think are worth having in life — love and accomplishment and knowledge and whatever it is. He’s walking across the street and he’s about to get hit by a truck. And so, at some risk to yourself, you leap into the way, pushing him out of the way, saving his life. And happily, you don’t get hurt either. He looks up, realizes he was this close from death and he says, “Thank you. Thank you for saving my life.”
And now what you have to say is, “I’m afraid you’re rather confused. Because to say ‘thank you’ for my saving your life is to presuppose I’ve benefited you in some way. To presuppose I’ve benefited you in some way is to assume that you’re — it’s a good thing that your life has continued. But, you see, given the two-state requirement, we can’t say it’s a good thing that your life continued, because the two-state requirement says we can only make that kind of remark when there’s a before state and an after state. And the after state would have been nonexistence. So, you see, you’re really rather philosophically confused in thinking that I’ve done you some sort of favor by saving your life.”
I can’t take that argument seriously. It seems to me that — and I hope that none of you would take it seriously, either. Of course, you are doing somebody a favor when you save their life, given the assumption that their life has been and would continue to be wonderful. And what that shows is not that so nonexistence really is a kind of spooky, super thin state or condition. No, of course it isn’t. Nonexistence is nonexistence. It’s no kind of condition or state at all. What it shows is the two-state requirement isn’t a genuine requirement on these sorts of evaluations. We don’t have to say that if you had died — when you point to the person whose life you saved, we don’t have to say that had you died, you would have been in some inferior state. We simply have to say the life you would have had, had I saved you and indeed will have, given that I have saved you, is a great life. Since it’s good, to lose it would be bad. Since losing it would be bad, saving it for you is benefiting you. It’s doing you a favor. Two-state requirement says otherwise. Two-state requirement’s got to go.
But, having gotten rid of it, we can say the same thing in principle on the other side. Imagine there was somebody whose life was horrible, full of pain and suffering and misery. Now, whether there could be such a person, again, that’s a question we’ll turn to in a second. But if there were such a person, then we can say, for their life to continue isn’t good for them; it’s bad for them. Their life is full of misery and suffering and frustration and disappointment. And the more and more of that, the worse and worse the life is. To lead a life of 100 years, where every moment is torture and pain, is worse than a life of 30 years, where every moment is torture and pain. So, if you had such a person, for their life to go longer would be bad. In which case, for their life to be going shorter, would be better for them.
And that’s all we mean when we say they’d be better off dead. Not that there’s some spooky super thin and hard to describe condition that they’d be in if they were dead. But simply, we look back at the two possible lives they could have. Just with the person whose life we saved. The first person, we compare the great life that lasts 100 years versus the great life that only lasts 20 years because you didn’t save their life. We say, oh, the life of 100 years, better life. And so, saving their life is a good thing for them. Similarly, we compare the lives of misery, the long life versus the short life of misery. And we say, oh, the long life of misery is a worse life to have than the short life of misery. And that being the case, we simply can say you’d be better off dead. Not that you’d be in some condition that’s a good one. It’s simply, you’d avoid this condition, which is a bad one. And if the two-state requirement says otherwise, so much the worse for the two-state requirement.
Chapter 3. Is Life Worth Having in the First Place? An Exploration of Intrinsic Value [00:17:11]
All right. So this is by way of the logical worry, that we can’t even get off the ground in talking about the possibility that you’d be better off dead. I think if we believe in the two-state requirement, maybe we’d have to say that. But the cost of accepting the two-state requirement is so implausible, that the person’s dying of a heart attack and you perform CPR. Instead of saying “Thank you,” they say, “Oh, I’m really no better off than I would have been if I died, even though I’m having a wonderful life.” The two-state requirement’s just so implausible, we should let it go.
Now, having done that, of course, doesn’t yet tell us that it could, in fact, be the case that somebody’s life could be so bad that they’d be better off dead, that the existence that they’ve got is worse than not existing at all. All we’ve done so far is leave open the door; open the door to the possibility of saying that coherently. But that doesn’t mean it’s true. Whether or not there could be such lives depends on your view about what’s the correct account of well-being. What is it that goes into making somebody’s life worthwhile?
Now, as we’ve seen previously, this is a controversial topic. People disagree about the ingredients of the best kind of life. And because of these differences, we’re going to get philosophical differences of opinion with regard to whether or not a life could be so bad that it would be better for it to come to an end.
I’m not going to try to rehearse all the possible theories there are. Or, for that matter, even all the theories that we’ve talked about previously. But to give you an illustration of how it could be true, imagine, go back to our simplest theory of well-being — hedonism, according to which your quality of life is a matter of adding up all the pleasure and subtracting all the pain. And we need to take into account how long the pleasures and the pains last and how intense the pleasures and the pains are. But still, we add up the total amount of pleasure, add up the total amount of pain, subtract the pain from the pleasure and look to see what our grand total is. If it’s positive, your life’s worth living. And the greater the number, the greater the positive number, the more your life is worth living.
If it’s negative though, if your life is filled with pain and suffering, or at least so much pain and suffering that it outweighs whatever pleasures you may have in your life, so that your balance is a negative one, then your life’s not worth living. Having that go longer and longer is just more and more negative balance. That’s a life that’s bad for you to have and you’d be better off not having it. You’d be better off having your life come to an end. You’d be better off dead. And, of course, the more and more negative the grand total is, the worse your life is. And so the more it’s true that you’d be better off dead. Well, that’s what hedonism says.
If we’re not hedonists, and of course, previously I’ve argued that we shouldn’t be hedonists, then we need a more complicated theory of the good. We need to throw in other things, perhaps, certain external goods. It’s not just a matter of getting the insides right — the pleasure and the pain and the other mental states — there are various facts about your objective hookup with the rest of the world. Are you really climbing Mount Everest? Are you really accomplishing things? Do people really love you, and so forth and so on? Whatever your list is of those other objective goods — well you’ll probably also want to have a list of other objective bads, besides pain. But still, the same basic idea is going to be in place. We’re going to want to somehow add up all of the various objective goods, add up all the various objective bads, and see where the balance lies. Do the goods outweigh the bad? If the goods outweigh the bad, that’s great. Your life’s worth living. But if the bads outweigh the good, then your life is not worth living, or not worth continuing.
Now, as we’ve noted before, there are philosophical theories which go on to claim — pessimists, various versions of pessimistic views, which say, for everybody in all circumstances, life is so bad that they’d be better off dead. Life’s so full of suffering and misery, that whatever pleasures there are and other goods there may be in the life, they get outweighed by the objective bads. There are philosophical views like that, but I suppose the commonsense view is, well, even if some lives may be so bad that the person is better off dead, that’s not true of all lives. It depends on the facts of the case.
So, let’s focus on that possibility. Of course, even here, we still have to return to another issue that we’ve considered before. Namely, is life itself worth having? Is the very fact that you’re alive itself a good thing? These are the valuable container theories, which I’ve previously contrasted with the neutral container theories. You’ll recall that according to the neutral container theories, in thinking about the quality of someone’s life, you just look at the contents. Life itself is only a container, good or bad, depending on what it’s filled up with. But opposed to the neutral container theories, we had valuable container theories which say the very fact that you’re alive adds some positive value above and beyond whatever’s going on in your life. Now, even the valuable container theories came in different versions. There were more modest versions, where in principle, the positive value of being alive could be outweighed if the contents got bad enough. And we contrast that with fantastic container theories, according to which being alive is so valuable, that it doesn’t matter how bad the contents get, the grand total is always a positive one.
Now look, if you accept a fantastic container theory, then pretty clearly, it’s never true that somebody could be better off dead. Because no matter how bad the contents get, the fact that they’re alive, per se, is so valuable, it outweighs that subtotal, giving us a positive grand total. So pretty clearly, from the perspective of fantastic container theories, suicide will never be rational, because it’s never true that you’re better off dead, because it’s never true that your life over all, taking everything that’s relevant into consideration, gives us a negative. Yeah, question.
Professor Shelly Kagan: The question was, on the fantastic container theories, what’s so incredible about life itself? Are we saying it’s intrinsically valuable? And yes, the answer is: precisely. The fans of the valuable container theories are saying being alive itself is valuable. You may recall that I previously said although people talk that way, they probably don’t actually mean it, right? If you told them, okay, you can be alive as a blade of grass, they wouldn’t say, “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful? That’s worth having.” Most fans of the claim that being alive, per se, is valuable don’t really mean life per se. They mean something more like life as a person. Being the kind of entity who can think and plan, even if your plans go wrong, at least you were a person able to experience things, know things, and so forth.
Of course, if that’s the reason for accepting the fantastic container theory, then we might wonder what should we say about those cases where the P-functioning has decayed and the person is no longer able to continue as a person, but perhaps can still feel pain? In that case, perhaps, life could cease to be worth living. Though whether or not we should describe it in that way also depends on these complicated issues that we’ve discussed previously, about would that still be you? Would you still exist? Would you still be alive under those circumstances? So, the basic idea behind valuable container theories is that life, or the life of a person, or something like that, has intrinsic value above and beyond the question of what’s going on within your life.
If we accept the fantastic container theory, maybe nobody’s life is ever so bad, grand total. Because — so that suicide would be the rational thing to do — because the value of life, per se, is so incredible that it outweighs the contents. It has to outweigh the contents. That’s a philosophical view at the opposite end of the pessimists. The pessimist said, “As a matter of philosophical reflection, we can see that everybody’s life is worse than nothing.” The fantastic container fans are saying, “As a matter of philosophical reflection, we can see that everybody’s life is better than nothing.”
Most of us, I imagine, find ourselves somewhere in between. Either we believe in the neutral container theory and think it’s a contingent matter whether the contents are sufficiently good or bad. Or, we may accept the modest version of the valuable container theory. On that theory, of course, life has some intrinsic value, but it’s got a finite intrinsic value. And in principle, even that could be outweighed if the contents get bad enough. And so again, it would be an empirical question. We have to take a look and see, in which cases do the contents get bad enough?
Now, I guess I’m one of these people in the middle. I’m inclined to think it’s not true that everybody’s life is worse than nothing. Nor is it true that everybody’s life is better than nothing. It varies from person to person. And indeed, not just — since we’re thinking about suicide, we’re not talking about their life as a whole, but really, what does life promise from here on out? Sadly enough, sad to say, it seems to me there are cases, and probably most of us are familiar with cases, where the correct description, given the — your favorite theory of well-being — is going to be that for this person, here on out, what life has to offer is sufficiently bad, so that the contents are sufficiently negative as to outweigh whatever value life itself might have.
Chapter 4. Medical Complications: Rationale for Euthanasia [00:28:51]
We could imagine somebody in the terminal stages of some illness, where their cancer perhaps is causing them a great deal of pain. And the pain is so bad that they can’t really do much of anything else. It’s not as though they could continue working on their novel or continue talking with the members of their family, because they’re just distracted by the pain and wishing it would come to an end. Horribly enough, many degenerative diseases leave the person less and less capable of doing the things that give life value. And the very realization that you’re in that situation and no longer able to spend time doing things, or hanging out with your family, or talking with them, or whatever it is may, itself, be a source of more frustration and pain.
There are medical conditions where, horribly enough, infants get born where they’re just in continual pain and they never develop cognitively. Their brain doesn’t develop and then they die. And you look at these lives and you say these are lives — I want to say, these are lives that were not worth having. These children would have been better off never having been born at all, certainly not any kind of favor for them to continue their lives.
Well, let’s focus on some case like the terminal patient. A person’s got a disease — at least, that would be a nice easy example. Not easy to live through, but easy philosophically. Easy example to think about — some terminally ill patient whose disease is getting worse and worse. And so, there are fewer and fewer of the good things in life that the future holds for them. Instead, what the future holds is more and more pain, suffering, incapacity, and frustration. When it gets bad enough, it seems to me, in some of those cases the person can correctly say, or we, at least, can correctly say of them, they’d be better off dead.
All right. Let me try to draw some examples. Again, we’re bracketing the question: Can the person think clearly about their case? That’ll come later. Let’s just try to talk about when would suicide make sense? When would it be sort of a rational thing to do to end your life? A couple of different cases. I’m going to draw graphs. We’ll let the x-axis represent time. And the y-axis represents how good or bad your life is at that time. For those of us who are fans of the neutral container theory, the thing to say is this represents the overall goodness of your contents or the overall badness of your contents. The higher up, the better the contents. The lower down, the worse the contents. For those who are fans of the modest container theory, this represents the grand balance. So it’s contents plus the extra bit you get from being alive. But of course, if you’re a fan of the modest container theory, then even if the contents are negative, the grand balance might still be positive. But this represents the overall bottom line, whether you accept the neutral container theory or the modest container theory.
So, here’s an example of what a life might look like. It’s going along pretty well and then things get worse. And things sort of deteriorate. And let’s suppose this point represents when you would die of natural causes, natural death. [See Figure 24.1] So, towards the end, life’s not as great as it was when you were young and vigorous and healthy and had all sorts of opportunities and accomplishments. But still, till the very end, it stays positive.
Well, if that’s what your lifeline would look like, pretty clearly, suicide doesn’t ever make any sense. In particular, you wouldn’t want to say oh, look, here’s the place where I should kill myself, because here is where things start to get worse. Yes, things are beginning to get worse, but they never get so bad that you’re better off dead. So, suicide wouldn’t make any sense at all. For suicide to make sense, it’s got to be the case that your life takes a turn for the worse. Not just any old turn for the worse, but a turn so much for the worse, that for some chunk of your life, your life is worse than nonexistence, the zero line, the x-axis. [See Figure 24.2]
All right. Imagine that’s what’s happened. Here you are. You’re healthy, you’re vigorous, you’re accomplishing things, but you’ve got some degenerative disease that’s going to make things worse and worse. Here’s the period in which it’s getting worse. And then after a while, your existence is going to be worse than nothing. Here, we can at least broach the question in an intelligible way. Might suicide make sense? Suppose this is the point where the downturn begins. Should you kill yourself at that stage? No. Because, after all, even though there’s a downturn, things are getting worse, there’s still going to be another period of life, another chunk of whatever it is — year, five years, six months, whatever it is — where although life isn’t as good as it had been before, it’s still better than nothing. Killing yourself at this earlier moment is, we might say, premature. It’s throwing away a chunk of life that would still be worth having. It’s not the right thing to do. It doesn’t make sense rationally.
Well, if not that moment, what about this moment? Here’s the precise point at which your life is becoming worse than nothing. For some initial stretch of that, it won’t be very much worse than nothing. But still, overall, it’s a negative. Up to that moment, your life was worth living. From that moment on, your life is worse than nothing. If you’ve got complete control over when to kill yourself, well, that would be the time to do it.
Suppose you don’t have complete control. It’s straightforward enough to say if your life is going to become worse than nothing and you have complete control over when you kill yourself, it seems pretty plausible to say the precise moment at which suicide would become rational would be exactly that moment at which your life became not worth having. But you might not have that kind of control. Suppose that what you’ve got is a degenerative disease that is going to progressively strip you of the ability to control your body. Still, your mind works for a much longer time. And so, for a period of time, you’re basically stuck in your hospital bed being fed by somebody else. But perhaps you’re able to listen to your family talk about things, have books read to you. Maybe you can engage in conversation, even though you can’t use your arms and so forth. Your life’s still worth living, but the time’s going to come when your life won’t be worth living. And at that point, you’ll no longer have the ability to kill yourself, because you won’t have control over your body.
It raises the question of — I’m sure you can all see at this point, the question of suicide also turns into or comes up against, the question about euthanasia, mercy killing. Under what circumstances is it ever rational to ask somebody else to kill you? Under what circumstances, if ever, is it morally legitimate to kill somebody else?
Chapter 5. Suicide on a Positive-Negative Life Curve [00:37:35]
But let’s continue to focus on the case of suicide. Suppose you live in a society which is so unenlightened as to have ruled out euthanasia. In fact, you live in our society. And so, what we don’t allow is the possibility of somebody else coming along and killing you when the time comes. So, you know the time is going to come at which you’d be better off dead. But once you’re there, once you’re here, it’s too late. You can’t do it. You won’t have the ability to kill yourself, and nobody else will be able to do it for you. In that case, killing yourself earlier might still make sense.
Take this earlier point, for example. Here, if you kill yourself now, you’re throwing away some life that’s worth living. But if this is the last moment at which you’re going to be able to kill yourself, it might still make sense, rationally. Because your choice is not end it here or end it there. We’re assuming you don’t have the possibility of ending it here, at the precise moment at which life became no longer worth having. Your choice, instead, is really just this. End it here and throw away this whole last bit. Or not end it and then continue until you die from the disease.
So, your question is only, what do I think about the value of this last bit? On the whole, it’s got a good part and it’s god a bad part. Is it better to have the good part and the bad part or better to have none of it? And the answer, of course, is well, if the bad part’s going to continue long enough, it’s better to have none of it. The bad outweighs the good. So that the rational thing to do would be to decide to end your life then, when you still can, rather than condemn yourself to the long final stretch of life not worth living.
Well, what if the last time that you could actually control it was way back here, for whatever reason it is. Here, you’ve got access to the means of killing yourself and you won’t have access later. Your life’s still going to be great for a very long time. And then, inevitably, it’ll be bad for a period of time. But at least if I’ve drawn it right, if not, we can shorten this. I suppose death would come here. Here’s a case where if you don’t kill yourself now, you’re condemning yourself to the whole rest of the story. But we might say, “All right. Although, admittedly, the end of the story’s going to be negative, the only way to avoid that negative last part is to throw away this very long great initial part.” That doesn’t make sense. Although your life is now still going to be a mixture of good and bad, and you wish there were a way to end it here, you don’t have that choice. It’s throw away the good and the bad, or keep them both. And in this story, obviously enough, the good is enough to outweigh the bad. So, suicide doesn’t make sense in that situation.
Here’s a rather different way the story might go. Suppose your life’s going along really great and it takes a turn for the worse but then is going to get better. So, it ends here with death by natural causes. [See Figure 24.3] Could suicide make sense here? Does it make sense to say, “Look, I’m going to kill myself in order to avoid the downturn” or indeed, even if the recovery wasn’t so long a recovery, could suicide make sense here, because you’re about to take this big dip down and be condemned to most of the rest of your life being significantly worse than it was before? No, suicide doesn’t make sense in this situation. Because even though what you’re going to have during this period is a life worse than the life you had before, the life you’ve got here is still above the x-axis. It’s still a life worth living.
This point, I think, is probably crucial enough that it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on. The fact that your life is less good than it had been, less good than indeed maybe all the lives around you are having — all the people around you are having lives that are better than yours — still doesn’t mean that your life is so bad that you’re better off dead. It’s easy to lose sight of that, right? Here we are sliding down and all we see is the fact that we’re moving down. It’s natural to get caught up in the thought “I’m better off dead,” but it’s a mistake. You’re not better off dead.
This situation, I suppose, is probably — I always worry when I spend — when I end this class talking about suicide, because what’s the major cause of death among teenagers? Well, it’s suicide. That’s not really so all that surprising, because teenagers are pretty healthy, as people go. And so the — you’re either going to get killed by an accident or you’re going to get killed by doing it to yourself. The kind of mistake that I think leads most teenagers into killing themselves is something like this. They’ve broken up with their girlfriend. They’ve flunked out of school. They didn’t get into medical school or law school or what have you. And they think to themselves, “Oh, from here on out, my life’s not worth living.” And the answer is, no, that’s actually, as an objective matter, probably not the case. Even if your life would be less worth living than you had hoped it would be, it’s still better than nothing.
Of course, in the typical case, I suppose what it really looks like is this. [See Figure 24.4] Small dip then continues wonderfully. But you lose sight of all the good stuff yet to come while you’re in the middle of the dip. So, although I’m taking time now to talk about the question, under what circumstances might suicide be a rationally justified one? I should hasten to add the remark that I’m fairly confident that for nobody in this class would suicide, in fact, be a rational decision. Now, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t turn out to be a rational decision later in your life, but that, very likely, overwhelmingly likely, is not one now. Well, a couple other cases that I still want to have us consider, but I think that’s probably enough for today, so we’ll take it up there next time.
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