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PHIL 176: Death
- Suicide, Part II: Deciding under Uncertainty
The discussion of suicide continues. A few more cases are introduced to consider circumstances under which it might be rational to end one’s life, and more graphs are drawn that show relevant variations in the quality of one’s life. A question is then posed about how one should make a decision about continuing or ending life, given that one cannot know the future with certainty. Finally, two quick moral arguments concerning suicide which rest on theological premises are presented.
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PHIL 176 - Lecture 25 - Suicide, Part II: Deciding under Uncertainty
Chapter 1. Is Suicide Itself Rational? A Time-Value Analysis [00:00:00]
Professor Shelly Kagan: Last time, we were discussing the rationality of suicide. We separated the question of the rationality of suicide from the ethics of suicide or the morality of suicide. We’ll be turning to the morality of suicide later today. But the first question in thinking about the rationality of suicide was whether or not it could actually be the case that somebody would be better off dead.
Having argued that, at least on what struck me as the more plausible theory is, that was a possibility, we then turned to the question of under what circumstances, more particularly — or perhaps the better way to put it, at what point — would it be true that suicide might be rational?” In tackling the question, we were initially bracketing the question about whether you could ever reasonably or rationally judge that the circumstances actually obtained. We’ll turn to that question in a few minutes. The question we were focusing on originally was just, from the objective perspective, as it were, what does the graph need to look like in order for it to be the case that you’d be better off dead and suicide would be a rational choice? I drew a variety of different graphs, different lines about your life doing better or worse, and noted for each one of them, at what point, if ever, suicide might be a reasonable choice.
I want to draw a couple of more graphs before ending this bit of the discussion. You’ll recall the axes. The x axis represents time. The y axis represents how good or bad your life is overall, taking into account the value of being alive, per se, if you accept a valuable container theory. The higher the line, the better your life is at that time. The lower the line, the worse your life is at that time. You might say, the easy cases, at least in the philosophical point of view, are ones where things get worse. Eventually, your life becomes worse than nothing. You’d be better off dead. And it’s going to stay that way until such time as you might die from natural causes. Dying from natural causes. In a situation like this, killing yourself from here on out would make sense, assuming you knew the facts, could trust your judgment, and so forth and so on. Some of the issues that we’ll come back to in a minute. [See Figure 25.1]
And indeed, as we saw, there will be even cases in which it might make sense to kill yourself earlier, if this was the last chance at which you had the ability to kill yourself or not, even though you’d be giving up some life that was worth living, that was the only way to avoid a much larger chunk of life that was not worth living. So, suicide might still make sense. [See Figure 25.2] On the other hand, if the choice was way back here, although this is — killing yourself early on would be the only way to avoid the later chunk not worth living, at least if that chunk’s small enough — suppose it was like this — you’d say it doesn’t make sense to kill yourself this early. You’d be throwing away too much, even though that’s the only way to avoid the bad stuff. Now, as I say, that’s the easy graph, where you go from a life worth living to a life not worth living and it stays there.
But suppose instead, we have a situation like this. Here, life becomes worse than nothing for a while, but you recover. You’re going to return to a life that’s worth having. And suppose that after you recover, you’ll have a very nice third stage, third act of your life before you would eventually die of natural causes or natural death. [See Figure 25.3] Here, the crucial point to make, of course, is that even though for a while your life will be worse than nothing, negative overall, it doesn’t mean that it makes sense to kill yourself at this point. Because, of course, although it’s true that if you do kill yourself here, you’re avoiding this negative chunk, this bit below the x axis, doing that also throws away the very large third act where your life returns to being better than nothing.
Since the choices have neither of these, or both, and the positive third act is great enough to outweigh the negative second act, on balance, it doesn’t make sense. But of course — , So even though your life might be worse than nothing for some stretch, suicide wouldn’t necessarily be a rational decision. But it’s crucial in making that argument, that the — what I’ve been calling the third act. Here’s act one, here’s act two, here’s act three. It’s crucial in making this argument is that the third act was sufficiently great, sufficiently long and sufficiently high that it outweighs the bad of the second act. And although that’s true the way I’ve drawn the graph, we could imagine that it wasn’t quite like that. [See Figure 25.4]
Suppose that after the second act, in which your life is not worth living, you will recover and have a third act in which life once again is good for you, overall. Still at this point, act three doesn’t outweigh act two. Although there’s a recovery, it’s too short and not high enough to outweigh the bad of act two. And so, under that circumstance, when you ask yourself, let’s say at this moment, would suicide here be rational? the answer could well be “yes.” Although in killing yourself you’ve given up act three, which would be good for you overall, doing that’s the only way to avoid act two, which is bad for you overall, and sufficiently bad to outweigh the good of act three. So, if you’ve got the choice of suicide here, it might well be rational.
Notice however, that the crucial point, again, is when are we talking about the possibility of committing suicide? Committing suicide here might be rational, but not necessarily, indeed not at all, at this later moment. Because at this point, the fact that you’ve gone through act two is now history. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve had this horrible period of your life and now it’s over. Your question is not, can you avoid act two? It’s too late for that. You’re simply asking yourself, what do I think about act three? Should I avoid act three? And that doesn’t make sense. We’ve stipulated that act three is good for you overall. So here, suicide no longer makes sense, even though it would have made sense over here.
The interesting point is that these possibilities are not mere theoretical possibilities, but actually can happen. There’s a famous case of, in the bioethics literature, of somebody who suffered a horrible set of burns over a great deal of their body and had to go through a period, a very long period, of recovery in which they were hospitalized, basically immobilized and in a great deal of pain, while their nerves regenerated and their skin regrafted and the like. And early on in that period, this person said, although he believed that he’d eventually recover, what he was going to have to go through was so horrible that he wished he were dead. Because of the nature of his hospitalization, he wasn’t able to kill himself. He asked that he be killed and people refused. He went through a period and sure enough, he recovered.
And eventually, he said, “Yes. Now my life is worth living again. And of course, since it is worth living, now that I’m able to kill myself, it no longer makes sense for me to kill myself. Because here I am,” as he might put it, “in act three with a life worth living. But for all that, even though I now have a life worth living, I haven’t changed my opinion that it would have been better for me back here toward the beginning of act two for me to have been killed, or for me to have died. It remains the case that I wish I had died here, so as to avoid all the pain and suffering, even though I’m now in a period which is better for me, good for me overall.”
All right. One other case. This is just repeating a point that actually I made very early on. In all of these cases where I’ve argued for the rationality of suicide, it’s because eventually the line has dipped below the x axis. The crucial point to remember is, even if your situation deteriorates and indeed doesn’t recover, that still doesn’t make suicide rational. [See Figure 25.5] The question is not, am I worse off than I had been or than I might have been had I not had the decline? The question in thinking about the rationality of suicide is, am I so badly off that I’m better off dead? And if your life is a sufficiently rich and valuable one, there’s a great deal of room for going down, having a worse life, while still ending up at a life better than nothing. In that case, of course, suicide’s not rational at all.
Still, it does seem to me that there are cases in which the line does cut below the x axis and remains there for a sufficiently long time, perhaps remains there forever, so that the person is better off dead. And so we might say, from that point of view, if only the person could recognize the facts and know for a certainty that’s what their line was going to look like, suicide would at certain points be rational.
Still, that means we need to turn to the second part of the question. Somebody who believes suicide cannot be rational might say, look, the whole game is in the phrase I just used. Sure, there are situations in which if only you knew the facts, if only you had a crystal ball and knew for a certainty this is what my life is going to go on from here on out, then suicide would be rational. But of course, we never have a crystal ball. We never have the guarantee that this is how the line’s going to go. So, the question we need to turn to now is, could it be rational for you to judge that your situation is one in which the line’s going to go below and stay below, or stay below long enough, so that on balance, you’d be better off dead?
Let’s suppose that somebody’s situation is like that, or at least there can be situations like that. Could it ever be reasonable to judge that your situation is like that? And if so, could it ever then be reasonable to act on that judgment and end your life? We’re still bracketing questions about morality. Here we’re still looking at things from the personal, rational perspective. And once again, what I want to do next is distinguish two questions. I want to distinguish between questions about what should we say if you were thinking clearly versus what should we say if your thinking is clouded. Again, one might think, look, in the type of cases where suicide might be rationally warranted, it’s going to be so stressful, that nobody can think clearly in the middle of that situation. And so even if it were true that you could reasonably decide to commit suicide if only you were thinking clearly, nobody does think clearly. Let’s come back to that worry in a moment.
Chapter 2. To Continue or End Life Given the Uncertainty of Death [00:12:58]
Let’s assume for the moment that you can think clearly about your situation. Perhaps you’ve got some sort of painful disease, but the disease is not painful constantly. There are periods in which it comes to an end, brief periods in which you’re able to assess your situation, weigh up the facts. Could it ever be rational in that situation to decide to kill yourself? Well, as I say, we don’t have a crystal ball. If you did have a crystal ball, if you knew for a certainty that your line was so bad that it was below zero and wasn’t going to recover, perhaps we’d say, yeah, in that case, it would be rational to commit suicide. But we don’t have a crystal ball. What should we say then?
The critics of suicide might come back and say, well look, since you don’t have a crystal ball, since you never know for sure that you won’t recover, since there’s always a possibility of recovery, suicide never makes sense. After all, we all know that there’s constant progress in medicine. People are always making breakthroughs and what seems like an incurable disease one day may have some sort of cure the next. But if you killed yourself, you’ve thrown away any chance of getting that cure. And even if medical cures don’t come around, various diseases sometimes simply have miraculous remissions. Somebody might just get better spontaneously. That’s always a possibility. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen now and then. And again, if you’ve killed yourself, you’ve thrown away any chance of recovery.
So the critics of suicide might say, given that there’s a chance, however small, of recovery, whether through medical progress or just some sort of medical miracle — but of course, if you kill yourself there’s no chance of recovery — given that, it doesn’t make any sense. It can’t make sense rationally to kill yourself. That sort of position gets articulated now and again. But I think it’s got to be mistaken. It’s true that we don’t have a crystal ball, and so in deciding whether to kill yourself, what you’re doing is playing the odds. You’re gambling. But still, gambling is something we do all the time. Indeed, there is no getting away from the fact that in the suicide case, in the case of some terminally ill patient, or at least somebody who appears to be terminally ill, there is no getting away from the fact that regardless of what decision he or she makes, they are gambling. Gambling, playing the odds, just is one of the facts of life about how we have to decide. We have to make our decisions under uncertainty.
Now, suppose somebody says then, look, since we agree that we’re deciding under uncertainty, it doesn’t make sense to throw away the small chance of recovery. Then I want to say, that doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the rules that we would normally use in deciding how to face a gamble.
At the back of this room there are two doors. So let’s tell a little fantasy, science fiction story about the two doors. After class is over, you’re going to have to decide which one of these doors to go through. Let’s suppose that if you go through door one, it’s virtually guaranteed that what will happen is you’ll be kidnapped and your kidnappers will then torture you for a week, after which perhaps you’ll be released. Virtually certain, 90% certain, 99% certain, perhaps 99.9% certain.
There’s a small chance, 1 in 1,000, 1 in 10,000, that you won’t be kidnapped and tortured. Instead, you’ll be whisked away to a wonderful, tropical vacation where you’ll have a fantastic time for a week. Not very likely, but not impossible, 1 in 1,000; 1 in 10,000, maybe less. That’s if you go through door one. Door one has 99.99% chance of a week of torture, and a 0.01 or 0.001, whatever it is, percent chance of wonderful vacation.
On the other hand, if you go through door number two, 100% certainty that the following is going to happen. You will immediately fall asleep. You’ll be in a deep, dreamless state for the week, at which point you’ll wake up.
Well, what should you do? What should you pick? It’s not quite certainty of being tortured versus certainty of sleeping. If it was certainty of being tortured versus certainty of sleeping, I suppose we’d all agree the thing to do is to go through door number two. Sleep’s nothing positive, but on the other hand, it’s nothing negative. I suppose if we were going to slap a number on it, we’d give it a zero. But torture is clearly a negative. And if it’s a week of torture, it’s a very large negative. So, it’s zero versus some huge negative number. Certainty versus certainty, what should you pick? We’d all agree, I presume, you should pick door number two and pick the dreamless sleep for a week.
Now we remember, but wait a minute, it wasn’t certain that you were going to be tortured, it was just very, very, very likely that you were going to be tortured. And imagine if somebody says, oh, you must go for the gold. Go for door number one. Sure, it’s overwhelming likely that you’re going to be tortured. But there’s a very small chance that you’ll get this wonderful vacation. Whereas, if you pick door number two, you’re throwing that chance away. And so, the only rational decision must be to pick door number one, to hold out for that chance, no matter how small of getting that fantastic vacation. That’s the only rational decision.
If anybody were to say that, I’d laugh at them. I’d say look, if you want to talk about, well maybe there’s room for choice either way, it depends how great the vacation is, something like that. Yeah, there’s maybe room for talk. But if you want to insist that the only rational decision must be to hold out for the chance of a wonderful vacation, no matter how small the odds — given that if you don’t get that wonderful vacation, you’re going to be tortured and you could avoid all that by picking the sleep option — if somebody insisted in the face of all that, that the only rational decision is to go through the door which is likely to be torture and a vanishingly small chance of vacation, I’d say they’re just wrong. That’s not a rationally required decision, given the odds. Yes, question?
Professor Shelly Kagan: Great. So, the question was this. The point was, perhaps I’m cheating in making the example this way, because death of course, isn’t — of course, what you’re all supposed to be lulled into thinking is that death, choosing death, choosing suicide, is sort of like choosing to be asleep, a state of dreamless sleep, but sleep nonetheless. And the suggestion then was I’m cheating, because death is forever. I deliberately framed the example in terms of being tortured for a week versus being asleep for a week. And perhaps given that choice, it’s clearly rationally acceptable to decide that you’d rather pick the sleep for a week option. But death isn’t just for a week. If you commit suicide, you’re dead forever.
So, let’s change the example. Suppose that — you guys are mostly, I suppose, in the vicinity of 20 — s,uppose that if you go through door number one, there’s an overwhelmingly likely chance, 90%, 99%, 99.9% chance that you’ll be kidnapped and tortured. And the torture will take place and last for another 50, 60, 70 years and then you die. There’s a slight chance, a 10th of a percent, a 100th of a percent that no, no, you won’t be tortured for the 50, 60, 70 years, but instead, you’ll be brought to this tropical island paradise where you’ll have this great time for the next 50 years. But what has happened in 99 out of 100 cases, or 999 out of 1,000 cases, or 9,999 out of 10,000 cases, is the torture scenario. While the people are being tortured, they beg for mercy. They beg to be put to death. The wish they were dead. It is truly the case that the tortures are so bad that these people are better off dead. Remember, we’re assuming that you’ve got a case where you really will be better off dead unless the miraculous recovery takes place.
And so again, we have to ask, in a situation like that where the person says — And similarly of course, if you go through door number two, you immediately fall asleep, and you stay that way for the next 70 years, and then you die while in your coma. The fan of door number one comes along and says the only rational decision is to pick door number one, where it’s overwhelmingly likely that you face 50 years or 60 years or 70 years of torture. Because, of course, if you were to pick door number two, you’re throwing away your chance, no matter how small. You’re throwing away the only chance you have of the wonderful vacation. Well, each of us has to decide for themselves. But when I think about this case, this modified case, I still want to say choosing door number two could be a perfectly rational decision. It’s just not right to say the only rational decision is door number one.
Again, if somebody wanted to take a more modest position and say, it depends on how great the vacation would be, how mild the torture would be, maybe 1% chances versus a 5% chance — there’s room for debate about when might the balance come closer to even so it would be reasonable to take the chance. Yeah, there’s room for debate. But if the chances are small enough and the person insists nonetheless, no matter how small the chances are, it could never be rational to pick door number two, I can only say that doesn’t seem to be the way we would normally think about making choices.
And of course, at this point, you can see how the argument exactly carries over to suicide. If you kill yourself, you’re throwing away forever any chance of recovery. And that’s important and that’s worth thinking about. But it’s also important to think about what was the chance of recovery? How large, or more to the point, just how small? And how badly off will you be if you don’t commit suicide? You guys are 20, but of course, these sorts of choices also perhaps get faced by people who are considerably older and now in the final stages of some progressive disease. The doctor’s told them, perhaps they’re 70, that there’s no significant chance of recovery. Sometimes it happens, but no more than 1 in 100 or 1 in 1,000. But if you continue alive, you will be in, well, perhaps great pain, perhaps unable to do the various things that give your life meaning and value.
Chapter 3. Rationalizing Suicide in Cases of Illness [00:25:30]
Could it be true that it would never be rational, provided that you’re thinking clearly, never rational to say, look, the chances of something negative are so overwhelmingly great, that even though deciding for death throws away whatever small chance I’ve got of recovery, the chance of recovery is so small that on balance, it’s reasonable to throw that chance away and avoid the overwhelmingly likely possibility that I’ll continue in my current state with a life not worth living? It seems that if you’re thinking clearly, there could be cases in which suicide would be a rational choice.
But that still leaves us with the question, well, maybe that’s where all the work needs to be done. What about this point about thinking clearly? Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that there could be cases in which the person’s life is so bad that they actually are better off dead and they stay that way, even if we grant that, if only somebody were thinking clearly, they would see that that was so likely to be the case, that suicide would be a rational or reasonable choice, still isn’t it plausible to think that in real life, people can’t think clearly about their situation when they’re in situations like that?
Look, it’s one thing for us to be sitting here in this classroom, where I certainly hope that none of you are in this kind of situation. It’s easy for us to be sitting here thinking clearly about it and recognize the philosophical possibility of thinking clearly about a case and realizing that it was a rational decision to end it, end your life. But people who are actually in those situations in point of fact are not able to think clearly. Because just think about it. What would have to be true of you for your life to be so bad that suicide might be a rational choice, that you’d be better off dead? Odds are you’ve got to be in some, indeed more than just some, you’ve got to be in a great deal of pain. Probably a great deal of physical pain. Beyond that, you probably also need to be incapacitated in a certain large number of ways, so that perhaps you’re bedridden, can’t enjoy discussions with your family, can’t read poetry, or watch television, or whatever it is. A life watching television may not be as fantastic as the life that you all are able to have, but it might still be better than nothing.
To imagine a life so bad, it’s going to have to have so much physical disability that the amount of emotional distress is going to have to be so overwhelming, how could anybody think clearly in a situation like that? And then, the argument might go, if you can’t think clearly, you can’t rationally decide to trust the judgment you might make that you’re in a situation where suicide is a reasonable choice. You might make the judgment, but if we ask ourselves, should you trust your opinion? the odds are, so the argument goes, no, you shouldn’t trust your opinion, precisely because anybody for whom it would be true would have to be so emotionally distressed that they’re not able to think clearly. If they’re not able to think clearly, they can’t have a judgment that’s trustworthy. If the judgment’s not trustworthy, you shouldn’t trust it. And so, suicide could never turn out to be a rational opinion after all.
Well, that’s an interesting argument. It think it’s an argument more worth taking seriously than some of the other ones, some of the early objections we’ve had against suicide. But even here, I’m not convinced. Let’s again try to think of a case not quite like suicide and ask ourselves, can’t there be cases where despite the fact that your thinking is clouded, it’s still reasonable to trust the decisions that you make within your clouded thinking? Suppose you’ve got some disease that causes you a great deal of incapacity and a great deal of pain. But as it happens, there’s a cure, or at least there’s a surgical procedure that can be done, and the surgical procedure is almost always successful.
So, what are the choices? Choice number one, continue in your current state. You’ve got some horrible, painful disease and it won’t get better unless you have the surgery. If you do have the surgery, it’s very, very likely that it will get better, 99 cases out of 100 the surgery works, or 99.9 cases out of 100 the surgery works, or 99.99 cases out of 100 the surgery works. Of course, like all surgery, there are risks. Sometimes you put the person under anesthesia and they don’t wake up. It doesn’t happen very often, 1 in 1,000, 1 in 10,000, 1 in 100,000, whatever it is. There’s some chance the surgery won’t work and you’ll die on the operating table. But it’s a very, very small chance, overwhelmingly likely the surgery will succeed. And if it does succeed, you’ll be recovered. That’s option number one.
Option number two, you continue in your current state, incapacitated, unable to lead a valuable life, suffering, full of pain. Well, that’s overwhelmingly likely. 1 in 1,000 cases there’s some sort of natural cure, maybe 1 in 10,000 cases there’s a natural cure. But in 999 out of 1,000 cases or 9,999 out of 10,000 cases, the disease just continues until, until you die some years down the road. There’s your choice. Should you have the surgery or not?
Well, I suppose what we think is, of course you should have the surgery. You’d be a fool not to have the surgery. It’s overwhelmingly likely going to cure you. But now we worry. Wait a minute. Can you trust that judgment? After all, the condition you are in is so stressful, so painful, that you are obviously very emotionally worked up. And any judgment that you make that it’s a reasonable decision to have this surgery is a judgment you’re making while under the cloud of emotional distress. How could you possibly trust that judgment? And so you shouldn’t trust the judgment, the argument goes. And so you must never agree to the surgery in this situation.
But that can’t be right. Surely we agree that it could be reasonable to trust your judgment in this situation. Now, to be sure, the fact that you are in all of this pain should make you pause, should make you hesitate, should make you think twice, and then think again, before deciding what to do. But still, if somebody says, since you’re so worked up, it could never be rational to decide to have the surgery, that just seems to be going too far. It doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to make some kind of decision. Deciding not to have the surgery is still making a kind of decision. And either decision then is a judgment that you’re going to be making while worked up, while stressed, while under the cloud of pain and suffering. So think twice. Think a third time. Get the opinions of others, perhaps. But still, if somebody says it could never be rational to decide to have the surgery and then act on that decision, they’re just wrong.
Well, now let’s come back to the suicide case. Same kinds of odds, just reversed. If you don’t decide to commit suicide, we are imagining that it’s overwhelmingly likely you’ll continue in suffering. Some slight chance that you’ll recover, but overwhelmingly likely you’ll continue in suffering. Whereas, if you do kill yourself, it’s overwhelmingly likely and perhaps even guaranteed, your suffering will come to an end. The only chance that it won’t is if you think there’s some chance of an afterlife. Well, should we be swayed by the argument at this point that since you are suffering, your judgment is cloudy and so you should not trust your judgment? Well, that can’t be a good argument. If it wasn’t a good argument in the surgery case, I can’t see how it could suddenly become a good argument in the suicide case.
What does seem right is, precisely because you’re working and deciding under the cloud of emotional stress and pain, that you should think twice, and think a third time, and perhaps think yet again. You should not make this decision in haste. You should discuss it with your doctors. You should discuss it with your loved ones. But if somebody says you could never reasonably trust the judgment that you make while in these circumstances, I can only say that doesn’t seem like a sound piece of advice. That claim doesn’t seem right to me.
I conclude, therefore, that as long as we’re focused on the question of the rationality of suicide, ethics aside, the rationality of suicide under certain circumstances, suicide could be rationally justified. You could have a life that is worse than nothing. You could have good reason to believe you were in that situation. You could either be thinking clearly about your situation, or even if your judgment is clouded and difficult, you could still find the odds sufficiently great that it was reasonable to eventually trust your judgment.
Chapter 4. Introduction to the Morality of Suicide: Is Life a Gift? [00:36:40]
The rationality of suicide, I think, is secured. But for all that of course, it could still be immoral. There could be actions that are rationally legitimate, but for all that, morally illegitimate. As I mentioned previously, there’s a big debate in philosophy as to whether or not these two things can really come apart or not. Arguably, reason actually requires you to obey morality, and so even if something’s in your self-interest, perhaps it’s not rational to do it, if it’s immoral. Interesting question. Let’s just bracket that question and just focus directly on the question now of morality.
What should we say about the morality of suicide? Rationality aside, what should we say about the morality of suicide? Well, to really do justice to this question, of course, we would need to have an entire theory of morality laid down, and unsurprisingly, I don’t have time to do that for us, an entire class on introduction to ethics where we try to lay down a basic fundamental theory about morality. All we’ve got left is a couple of minutes today and then one more lecture. So instead, what I want to do is first mention some quick and dirty arguments that have a kind of moral tinge to them. And then turn to some somewhat more systematic arguments where I’ll quickly put in place some basic elements of a plausible moral theory. We won’t have time to explore them in detail, but at least we’ll get a shape of a basic moral theory and see what it might say about suicide. So, systematic a little bit later, first some quick and dirty arguments.
Whether we should call it a moral argument, the first one, or not, I’m not quite certain. But it’s certainly an argument that gets stated all the time in this area. When we think about the legitimacy of suicide, it’s common enough to have the reaction, suicide is illegitimate because it’s thwarting God’s will. Maybe this isn’t so much a moral argument as a theological argument. And for the most part, of course, as you know in this class, I’ve avoided at least some theological questions. Obviously, questions about the existence of a soul is itself a theological argument. But I’ve tried to discuss them as far as possible without bringing in questions about God, God’s existence and God’s will. But the topic’s almost unavoidable when we think about suicide, given the prevalence of the thought, it’s God’s will that we stay alive and so it’s going against God’s will to kill ourselves.
Well, I think the best response to this argument was given by David Hume some several centuries ago, two and a half centuries ago, where Hume says, look, if all we’ve got to go on is just the idea of a Creator who has built us and given us life, we can’t infer that suicide is against God’s will. At least, if you’ve found that thought a compelling one, then why wouldn’t you also find it compelling to say it goes against God’s will when you save somebody’s life? This is a point that’s close to one I’ve raised before. You’re walking along Chapel Street and the person you’re talking to, you see, is about to be hit by a car. So you push them out of the way. Previously, when we talked about this question, the question was whether or not they should be grateful to you. Now the question is whether or not they should complain, “How dare you do that! You’ve thwarted God’s will. It was God’s will that I be hit by that truck.”
So, when we’re about to save somebody’s life, should we decide not to do that on the grounds that it must be God’s will that they’re going to die? If you’re a doctor and somebody’s in cardiac arrest and you could now perform CPR, or whatever it is, in order to get their heart going again, should we say as a doctor, “Oh no, I must not do that. It’s God’s will that they die. If I try to save their life, I’m thwarting God’s will.” Well, nobody says that. But then, why is the argument any better in the case of suicide?
We could of course imagine, when you’ve saved your friend’s life and he says, “Oh, you thwarted God’s will,” what you might come back and say is, “Oh, no, no. You see, it was God’s will that I save your life. And so it was God’s will that you be in the situation where the truck was going to hit you unless I saved you. But it was also God’s will that I save your life.” And maybe the doctor should say something similar. Not an implausible thing to say. But given that that’s not an implausible thing to say, why not say the same thing about suicide? It was God’s will that I be in this situation, and then God’s will that I kill myself. Absent any special instruction manual from God, the God’s will argument cuts both ways, which is to say it doesn’t give us any guidance. We don’t know whether it’s God’s will that we act, or God’s will that we don’t act, absent an instruction manual from God. So, we can’t conclude that suicide is obviously wrong, because it violates God’s will. Well, unless you’ve got an instruction manual.
You might think, for example, that the Bible tells us not to commit suicide. And since the Bible is God’s word, we must do whatever the Bible tells us. That’s a kind of argument that I’m perfectly prepared to engage in. Although, of course, there’s a lot of assumptions behind that argument that we would need to really examine. Is there a God? — Well, obviously we needed that weighing in for the God’s will argument. — Has God expressed his will in a book? If so, what book is it? Do we have moral reason to obey God? Also relevant for the God’s will argument. And of course, if we do think we have an obligation to obey this instruction manual, are we really prepared to obey this instruction manual?
Even if there’s a sentence in this instruction manual that says don’t commit suicide, a lot of other things the instruction manual also says that most of us are not inclined to do. The instruction manual says not to eat pork. Well, how many of you are not willing to eat pork? The instruction manual tells you not to mix various kinds of material together in a single item of clothing. How many of you think that that’s unacceptable? The instruction manual tells you that if a teenager is rude to their parents, they should be stoned to death. How many of you think that that’s a moral requirement? If you’re going to pick and choose which bits of the instruction manual you actually think are morally relevant, then you can’t come to me and say, “Oh, suicide is wrong because the instruction manual says so.” You’re not really using the instruction manual to give you moral guidance. You’re starting with your moral beliefs and then picking and choosing which bits of the instruction manual you want to accept. Well, that’s a big question. That’s a big topic. And so having just touched on it, I’m going to have to put it aside. Instruction manual aside, at the very least, we might say, appeal to God’s will can’t help us to decide whether or not suicide is legitimate or not.
But there’s a different quick and dirty argument. Also it can be run in a theological form, but it need not be run that way. And that has to do with gratitude. We’ve been given life and life’s pretty amazing. And so we have an obligation, a debt of gratitude to keep the gift.
Now look, gratitude is not one of the moral virtues that gets a lot of discussion nowadays. It’s fallen on rather hard times. But I see no reason to dismiss it. It does seem to me there is such a thing as a debt of gratitude. If someone does you a favor, you owe them something. You owe them a debt of gratitude.
And so the argument might then go, look, either God gave us life, or nature gave us life, or our parents gave us life. Whatever it was, we owe a debt of gratitude for this wonderful gift. And as such, how do you repay the debt? You repay the debt by keeping the gift. If you kill yourself, you’re rejecting the gift. That’s being ungrateful, and ingratitude is immoral. It’s wrong. And that’s why suicide is wrong. That’s the second quick and dirty argument.
Perhaps it won’t surprise you that I don’t find this second argument persuasive either. Not because I’m skeptical about debts of gratitude, but I want us to pay attention to what exactly obligations of gratitude require us to do. In particular, it’s important to bear in mind that you owe the person who gives you a gift something only when what he’s giving you, or she’s giving you, is a gift. Imagine that somebody, I’ll call him The Bully, gives you a pie and says, “Eat it.” But it’s not an apple pie. It’s not a cherry pie. It’s some gross, disgusting, slime pie, some rotting slime pie, and he cuts out a big piece and he says, “Eat it.” Do you owe this person, as a debt of gratitude, out of gratitude, do you owe him the obligation to eat the pie and continue eating the pie? That would seem like a rather odd thing to claim. This guy is indeed, as I’ve named him, just a bully.
Now, of course, typical bullies, at least in the comic book cases, bullies are big and strong. The bully might be able to say the following thing to you. “You eat this pie or I will beat you up. I’ll beat the crap out of you.” And look, I’m not a very strong guy. He might well be able to do it, and I might not, I might well know he is going to do it. And so, it might be prudent for me to eat the slime pie, disgusting, appalling as it may be. It might be better to have a couple of slices of slime pie than to be beaten up to a pulp. But there’s no moral obligation here. There’s no moral requirement to eat the pie.
Well, if God takes on the role of bully and says, “Eat the pie or I’ll send you to hell,” maybe it would be prudent of you to do what he says. And if God takes on the role of bully and says, “Even though your life has become so horrible that you’d be better off dead, I insist that you keep living or I’ll send you to hell if you kill yourself,” maybe it’s prudent of you not to kill yourself. But there’s no moral requirement here. God’s just a bully on this story.
Now, that’s not to say that I think God is a bully. If you believe, plausibly enough, God is good, then God’s not going to want you to continue eating the pie once it’s spoiled. He gives you an apple pie. He says, “Eat it. It’s good for you. You’ll like it.” Out of gratitude, you eat it. But then God, not being a bully, says, “If the pie ever spoils, you can stop eating.” Why in the world would he insist that we continue to eat a spoiled pie if He’s not a bully? So, I can’t see how any argument from gratitude is going to get off the ground. If there’s something immoral about suicide, we’re not going to get the immorality through these quick and dirty arguments. We’re going to have to get it from some more systematic appeal to moral theory. And that’s what we’ll turn to next time.
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