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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The philosophy of suicide

by Massimo Pigliucci

In a forthcoming episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Julia and I discuss the philosophy and science of suicide, i.e. what empirical inquiry tells us about suicides (who commits them, how, what are the best strategies for prevention) and how philosophical reflection may lead us to think of suicide. In this post I will focus on the philosophical side of the discussion, for which an excellent summary source, with a number of additional references, is this article by Michael Cholbi in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, to which I will keep referring below.

Suicide is an important, even urgent, topic, as the number of suicides has increased over the past 50 years, with about 1 million people taking their lives annually. In the United States, that amounts to about one suicide every 14 minutes (i.e., on average, three during our podcast). And yet, at first sight even a concept  as seemingly obvious as suicide poses some significant problems right at the outset, when we consider a proper definition of the term. For instance, I think we would all agree that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker toward the end of World War II, but what about Socrates, or Jesus? They didn’t directly take their lives, but they very purposefully did not take any action that could have easily avoided their deaths either.

One might be tempted, then, to define suicide simply as self-caused death, but this won’t do either, unless one wishes to include smokers who die of lung cancer knowing full well the risks carried by their habit. Moreover, there are cases that are usually recognized as suicide where the individual is not the actual causal agent of death, as in instances of “suicide by cop.” Cholbi concludes that for an action to count as suicidal (even when it fails) it has to be non-accidental, the result of a conscious choice by the agent to terminate his life, even by indirect means.

What about the moral aspect of the issue? Is suicide moral, immoral, neither? Does that depend on circumstances? How, exactly? In order to evaluate the moral worth (positive or negative) of suicide one needs to look at the motivations and consequences of the act. After all, people don’t seek death for death’s sake, but rather for a wide variety of reasons, from relieving physical pain or psychological anguish to avoidance of judicial punishment, from martyrdom for a cause to (perceived) societal shame. Which is why the history of philosophical analyses of suicide is complex, and begins — naturally — with Plato.

In the Phaedo Socrates agrees with the idea that suicide is wrong because it releases us prematurely from a condition in which the gods put us (thus anticipating Christian objections as well). But in Laws, Plato manages to find no less than four exceptions to the idea that suicide is immoral: i) When the individual’s mind is morally corrupted; ii) When it is done because of a judicial order, as in the case of Socrates, and of course Jesus (though Plato didn’t mention the latter, obviously); iii) When it is compelled by extreme unavoidable misfortune; and iv) As a result of shame for having carried out immoral actions.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, disagreed with his master on this as well as a number of other matters. For him suicide is a wrong toward society or the state, but not toward oneself, for the simple reason that it is the ultimate consensual act. As for the Stoics — who were famously friendly to the concept of suicide — it is permissible when we are impeded from pursuing a eudaimonic life. As the Roman Stoic Seneca (who himself committed, ahem, emperor-compelled suicide), aptly put it: a wise person lives as long as he ought, not as long as he can.

Let’s jump to the Middle Ages, and therefore to Christian thought. Augustine of Hippo thought that prohibiting suicide is an extension of the Fifth commandment, and therefore out of the question, but it was Thomas Aquinas who articulated three reasons against suicide: a) It is contrary to natural self-love (we would put it in terms of instinct of preservation nowadays); b) It injures the community (notice the Aristotelian echo); and c) It is a rejection of god’s gift of life (and here the echo is Platonic).

Perhaps not surprisingly, we have to wait until David Hume, in his very modern (and posthumously published) essay on suicide to get a well articulated response to Aquinas. Hume made a number of points, and the full text is well worth reading (and very accessible to a non specialist audience) including the observation that since god does allow us to act counter to natural law in some cases (e.g., in fighting disease), on what grounds is it unacceptable to violate the dictum of self preservation in particular? Here is how he puts it in the essay: “It is impious, says the modern European superstition, to put a period to our own life, and thereby rebel against our creator: and why not impious, say I, to build houses, cultivate the ground, or sail upon the ocean? In all these actions we employ our powers of mind and body to produce some innovation in the course of nature; and in non of them do we any more. They are all of them therefore equally innocent, or equally criminal.”

In terms of our obligations to society, Hume argues that if our conditions are sufficiently dire we may be more of a burden than a benefit to society, so that suicide would actually be helpful to others. As for the duty to ourselves, again if our living conditions are bad enough then suicide actually helps us, and it is therefore the rational thing to do.

Of course one can’t mention Hume without also talking about Kant, who, predictably, disagreed. The sage of Koenigsberg, however, made a rather convoluted and altogether unconvincing counter-argument here (especially when compared to the clarity and force of Hume’s reasoning). He basically said that, since moral authority stems from inside ourselves (the famous “moral law within”) committing suicide is equivalent to unleashing an attack against morality itself, and it is, therefore, immoral. Make of that what you wish or can…

What about contemporary arguments about suicide? Here is where Cholbi’s essay becomes more surprising, since it casts doubt on both the most commonly heard defenses and criticisms of suicide from a moral standpoint. Let’s take a quick look at some to get a flavor of how answers about suicide are anything but obvious.

A modern deontological argument can be based on the idea of “sanctity” of life, even when the term is to be understood in a secular, nor religious sense. The problem is that, if applied consistently, the argument would prohibit also — for instance — capital punishment, or death caused by self defense (remember, deontological systems are prone to make broad generalizations and are not friendly to nuanced distinctions). And of course one can reasonably argue that there is nothing inherently valuable about life, since its value comes from it being of a certain quality, as the Stoics argued.

Perhaps the most common among skeptics and freethinkers is the so-called “libertarian” argument (which also connects all the way back up to Stoicism): individuals have a right to suicide, and any state or medical intervention amounts to coercion. This, in turn (like many libertarian arguments), is rooted in the idea that we own our bodies, in pretty much the same way as we own any other kind of thing. The problem is that claim to self-ownership is, shall we say, metaphysically dubious. We own other things (like a watch) precisely because they are distinct from us. Which means that we can’t really “sell” our bodies (at most, we can rent them). This in turns means that self-ownership in the libertarian argument is more like a metaphor, and therefore a somewhat shaky basis for an argument. And even if we somehow buy the ownership metaphor, not much follows from it, since we typically have limited rights of disposal of objects we own, for instance if the disposal causes harm to others (okay, that wouldn’t be true in a libertarian paradise, but that place would be hell for most people anyway).

Then there is the social utilitarian argument, that suicide is wrong because it violates our duty to others, for instance in the form of induced grief, long term psychological issues and in some cases practical (i.e., financial) problems for surviving friends and family. But of course even if one buys into the utilitarian framework, the harm done to others has to be weighed against the harm done to both self and others by continuing one’s life, and in several cases that balance sheet may come down squarely on the side of suicide, not to mention that some who commit suicide do not have friends or family, which drastically alters the utilitarian calculus. 

There is also the act utilitarian argument that suicide may even be valuable, in terms of its consequences, so that it could be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory, under certain circumstances, as when a soldier jumps on a grenade to save his comrades (see the first Captain America movie), or — more controversially — in the case suicide for political reasons (which, needless to say, includes suicide bombings).

Finally, we have what can be termed a modern version of the social contractarian argument, reminiscent of Aristotle’s position, and already rejected, under certain circumstances, by Hume. The basic idea is that we have a social contract that binds us to contribute to society, and to deprive society of our talents and efforts violates that contract. True, as far as it goes, but contracts are of course always conditional: if society, for instance, is not providing us the means for living a fulfilling life (within reason) whatever duty we may have had toward that society has in turn been nullified.

Talk of suicide also naturally raises the issue of what are other people’s duties toward those who attempt to take their lives. At one end of the spectrum, it seems like simply trying to talk someone out of committing suicide is morally unproblematic, since after all there is no coercion involved in just presenting reasons for not doing something. There is more of an issue with so-called paternalistic approaches, such as medication, physical restraint, or institutionalization. Even so, according again to Cholbi, a very good argument can be made that if a person is depressed or otherwise not in full possession of his rational powers (but are we ever?), paternalism is justified given the very high (literally, terminal) stakes. And if you harbor some kind of libertarian-inspired principled objection to paternalism, keep in mind that the morality of assisted suicide is also grounded on a paternalistic approach, with the reasoning applied in reverse.

Making my way through Cholbi’s essay clearly brought home to me just how complex, philosophically speaking, the issue of suicide really is. (And I haven’t touched on the psychology, sociology, neurobiology or genetics of it!) It has also helped me clarify my own thinking on the matter, which of course is the entire point of engaging in philosophical reflection. It seems to me that people do have a moral right to commit suicide, and others have no right to interfere in a coercive (as opposed to a discursive way) if two conditions hold: i) The person is in a psychological and material state that allows her to make an informed decision about whether to terminate her life (e.g., she is not clinically depressed, or she is not under financial duress for which she could be helped by friends, family or society at large); and ii) The person has weighed the consequences of her act on other people, chiefly her friends and family. 

These conditions would apply most obviously to cases of (assisted, if necessary) suicide as a result of terminal illness, and broadly speaking I’m with the Stoics here, though Hume’s arguments apply as well: if the individual determines that her eudaimonic life would be better served by ending it, she has the moral right to do so (I am not at all concerned here with legal rights, which in this case ought to follow directly from moral considerations).

However, friends, family and even the state do have a compelling interest in intervening — in a compulsory manner if necessary — in all cases in which these two conditions do not hold, and the philosophical justification for such intervention can arch back to an extended and updated version of Aristotle’s position.

One thing I definitely don’t go for is any kind of “sanctity” argument in opposition to suicide. I do not even consider for a moment, of course, any religious version of it, since I reject religion as a source of either knowledge or wisdom. The secular version, however, owes us an explanation of why, exactly, life is sacred, and no, Kant’s bizarre argument about the source of the moral law just isn’t going to cut it. Again, both the Stoics and Hume, seems to me, got it exactly right: life is valuable to the individual who is alive if it can be pursued according to certain conditions (e.g., it yields sufficient pleasures, the possibility of pursuing one’s own goals, is characterized by meaningful relationships, and so forth). To quote Hume again, “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” Meaning and value are human concepts, and it is up to human beings — individually and societally — to make of them what they wish.

50 comments:

  1. It seems to me that most people oppose to suicide mostly because they don't want to lose their loved ones. Their emotional attachment to others, and the pain caused by the death of these people, is what people drives to formulate a general prohibition of suicide.

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  2. Nice article, Massimo.

    I have no major issues with any of it.

    I would point out that it's not a problem for utilitarianism if the calculus can go either way depending on circumstances.

    Not that that's necessarily what you intended to say, but it did come across a little bit that way.

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  3. Thank you for this blog entry.

    I'd also like to highlight the words of writer Matthew Parris:


    “When I die, and if I have to arrange it myself, I will consult nobody,and do it unassisted if I can. I entertain not a flicker of moral or practical doubt on the subject, and never have. Speaking only for myself — in such matters one should never judge for others — if Nature does not do the job in a timely manner I shall consider it a duty to take matters into my own hands.

    I can’t tell you how simple I find these arguments: so simple that I’ve hardly bothered to write about the issue. Suicide is the greatest of human freedoms, underwriting all the others, for it gives us the possibility of defying every thing and every one there is. The possibility of suicide is what makes life voluntary and each new day an act of will. No wonder the faith community gnash their teeth at suicide. God Himself, if He existed, would gnash His teeth at suicide: the supreme act of defiance, the final rasberry. The knowledge that I’m here by choice, that every breath I take I take by choice, injects into my soul a transcendent joy”

    [....]

    “Is suicide not the greatest of all tokens of the primacy of the human will ? How shall a man ever demonstrate with more finality that he is the captain of his soul, the master of his ship, than by taking it by his own choice on to the rocks ? Self-inflicted death is the ultimate defiance, the one freedom in your life and mine which nothing and nobody -- not even God -- can take away…. I have never contemplated suicide and hope I never shall. But to know that I can — to know that tomorrow I too could make that splendid, terrible two-fingered gesture to creation itself is more than life-enhancing: it is sublime”

    ------

    I think Matthew Parris has a valid point although I’m not sure if I’d want to say that suicide is the “supreme act of defiance”. I see what he means, but my gut reaction is that this way of speaking glorifies suicide. Suicide is usually incredibly sad, I’m a little nervous about talking about it in that way. I like how he describes suicide as the “final raspberry” though.

    But yes, perhaps if one sees life, for whatever reason, as having an unbearable ‘thing’, an entity, something you continually battle with, then you could be said to be defying it — ultimately, you are saying…."‘I don’t have to live you"...

    Also, it would seem to me that suicide can sometimes be the most rational and logical of acts. The will to live comes from instinct and emotion, hardly something that should be given over to as a matter of course. They are there as evolutionary processes, a process not known for its compassion or rationality.

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  4. Professor Pigliucci,

    What about suicide and people who feel intellectually slow and the varying levels of cognitive ability?

    Let me clarify what I mean by 'intellectually slow' person. Obviously I am not referring to the person who meets the criteria for an Intellectual Disability (also called mental retardation).... I am talking about the person who has the ability to learn necessary academic skills, but at a rate and depth below average same age peers. In order to grasp new concepts, this person needs more time, more repetition, and often more resources from teachers to be successful. Typically, this person has great difficulty with new and complex reasoning which makes new concepts difficult to learn.

    These individuals are prone to much anxiety and low self image which goes unnoticed by many in society. They often feel 'stupid' and begin hating school at an early age. Day-to-day academic life can be very draining and yet many somehow manage to make it through the system and through high school (in the United States)

    The psychologist and intelligence researcher Linda Gottfredson wrote a good piece titled “Why g Matters: The Complexity of Everyday Life”. Here is an excerpt

    "Life is replete with uncertainty, change, confusion, and misinformation, sometimes minor and at times massive. From birth to death, life continually requires us to master abstractions, solve problems, draw inferences, and make judgments on the basis of inadequate information. Such demands may be especially intense in school, but they hardly cease when one walks out the school door...

    http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/1997whygmatters.pdf

    Two questions:

    1. Can you sympathize with a person who says that one of their major reasons for contemplating suicide often is that they just don’t feel competent to handle the mental demands of today’s increasingly complex social environment?

    2. Is it morally permissible for the intellectually slow person to commit suicide?

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  5. With all due respect to philosophers I really couldn’t give a damn what most of them have to say about suicide. I much prefer the words of Douglas Stanhope:

    ”Life is like a movie; if you've sat through more than half of it and it sucked every second so far, it probably isn't gonna get great right at the end and make it all worthwhile. No one should blame you for walking out early."

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  6. There is a third question I forgot to include:

    3. Is it morally permissible for an unmarried person (who has no children to care for) and who has battled depression for many years to commit suicide?

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  7. SANCTITY ARGUMENT
    Interesting post. I think it would be great if there were a good secular argument for the sanctity of life. I think this is an issue for all non-theists, who often seem like they are straining to find awe and wonder and all the good stuff religion can provide. And one of the best payoffs from religion is a sense of the value of existence, even very painful existence.

    So how well do the non-theist do at this? Carl Sagan was great at seeming like he found the universe to be a marvelous place. Dawkins tries for it, but less convincingly. Hitchens clearly found wonder mostly in argument and booze. I've been to a few Sunday Assemblies where they try to get that "life is good" vibe going with varying effect. My point: finding a reason to live has got to be one of the biggest payoffs of a philosophical system, so how can the secular community do this?

    In "The View from Nowhere" Thomas Nagel writes about death, but mostly just seems to arrive at the conclusion that death sucks. Contra the Stoics and Epicureans who thought death is no worse than the state we were in before our births, he convincingly argues that being dead is worse than not yet having been born. I think it was exactly this death anxiety that lead Nagel to his Teleology, because that makes the non-existence after your life almost as palatable as the non-existence before your life.

    So, what is the value of my subjective existence? Also, is the universe a good place? If my existence is good, but the universe is bad, I might want to leave. If both are bad, or unimportant than ending it all would seem smart.

    "There is nothing left of him but curiosity and a pair of eyes." Vonnegut

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    1. @ OneDayMore

      "Dawkins tries for it, but less convincingly"

      As much as I applaud Dawkins' efforts to address the superstitious heritage most of the world still labors under, I find his inquiry into the existential problem we face hopelessly one-dimensional and inadequate in the extreme.

      "So, what is the value of my subjective existence? Also, is the universe a good place?"

      You should start with the excellent book by philosopher David Benatar: Better Never To Have Been – The Harm of Coming Into Existence

      "Each one of us was harmed by being brought into existence. That harm is not negligible, because the quality of even the best lives is very bad-and considerably worse than most people recognise it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people. Creating new people is thus morally problematic"

      Here is a brief overview:

      No Life Is Good

      http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/benatar01.htm

      I find Benatar's argument a damned interesting and intriguing one. Personally I find it the most interesting argument I've come across in a long time.

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    2. I'm suspicious of any thinking motivated by the search for a justification for a pre-conceived notion. I think this is behind Sam Harris's wrong-headed search for a scientific basis for morality.

      We don't need a reason to live, in my view, any more than we need a reason to eat or to breathe. The desire for life is instinctive. Usually, suicide is prompted not by a lack of desire to live, but from a desire not to suffer. I think most people would want to live if their problems were solved.

      So I don't buy your view that we need to view human life as sacred.

      Delete
  8. Always interesting how a same question can be understood differently: seeing the title, I thought (maybe closer to a comment above) about Camus's 'There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide'. So suicide as a much more personnal, 'why should one live' kind of question...

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  9. A Massimo Quote:
    "This, in turn (like many libertarian arguments), is rooted in the idea that we own our bodies, in pretty much the same way as we own any other kind of thing."

    Comment:
    The philosophical position that we own our bodies is not like the way we own any other kind of thing... Owning our bodies is the foundational axiom to property, owning a watch is not a foundational axiom to property. The only reason why someone could legitimately say to have ownership over a watch is BECAUSE someone owns their body and is entitled to the fruits of their labor. If you do not own your body, then you aren't necessarily entitled to the fruits of your labor since someone else owns you.


    A Massimo Quote:
    "We own other things (like a watch) precisely because they are distinct from us. Which means that we can’t really “sell” our bodies (at most, we can rent them)."

    Comment:
    We do not own watch's precisely because they are distinct from us, I've already addressed how we can own watch's.

    Actually, there is a legitimate position that says that we can't actually sell or rent our bodies to others, there can be contractual agreements for labor, but if you were ever to sign a contract that said, "Ok, you now own my body indefinitely or for some extended period of time" that contract would be categorically illegitimate. Obviously you can have your property rights violated, but you can't loose your right to own your body. If someone could ever could loose their right to own their body... then the concept of 'property' would be an empty distinction and what would really be happening in the world is privileges that are assigned arbitrarily, and not an interaction of individuals with rights that has a very clear and understandable philosophical foundation to it.

    This gets me thinking however, if somebody has a response to this that has a different moral philosophical framework that justifies property, I would love to know what it is and its argument. The only thing I can think of at the moment would be divine right, but then that would mean figuring out which claim to divine inspiration is the correct one.


    A Massimo Quote:
    "And if you harbor some kind of libertarian-inspired principled objection to paternalism, keep in mind that the morality of assisted suicide is also grounded on a paternalistic approach, with the reasoning applied in reverse."

    Comment:
    Assisted suicide is not an example where a libertarian would have cause to get involved unless when there was the manipulation or coercion of the decision to commit suicide. If someone wants to kill themselves and someone else is willing to help, that's not a violation of property rights or an instance of coercion.

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    1. @Jacob Edward

      > If you do not own your body, then you aren't necessarily entitled to the fruits of your labor since someone else owns you.

      If you do not own yourself, it does not mean that someone else owns you. It's perfectly logical to assume that no one owns anyone. After all ownership and property are nothing but social constructs.

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    2. But if you think that the concepts of property or ownership are 'just' social constructs (as opposed to the other social interactions that happen within the context of individuals property), you would then have to agree with the idea that what people really have is privileges, not the thing called ownership or property. If people have privileges, there has to be something or someone that hands out or decides what these privileges ought to be, right?

      Delete
    3. It seems that if you prefer the individualist / Capitalist value system over the militaristic / Communist value system, you would fall on the side of property rights being a real thing and the violation of those rights not being a proof or coherent argument that those rights aren't legitimate... if you hold the latter position you would be pointing towards rights not being a real thing and it is privileges that is what is given to you from an authority. I would have to say I fall in the Capitalist category myself, and that I find it bizarre that anyone could ever think that not owning yourself isn't a self evident fact about reality.

      Delete
    4. @Jacob Edward

      >It seems that if you prefer the individualist / Capitalist value system over the militaristic / Communist value system, you would fall on the side of property rights being a real thing and the violation of those rights not being a proof or coherent argument that those rights aren't legitimate...

      This starts with with a false dichotomy, followed by a non sequitur.

      > I would have to say I fall in the Capitalist category myself, and that I find it bizarre that anyone could ever think that not owning yourself isn't a self evident fact about reality.

      Despite your own prejudices, self-ownership is not a self evident fact of reality.

      Delete
    5. @Jacob Edward

      >If people have privileges, there has to be something or someone that hands out or decides what these privileges ought to be, right?

      That something or someone, are simply the people around you. If your neighbours, family or friends recognize that you own something, than you own that, at least in the eyes of these people.

      Delete
  10. "I never wanted to live. I wanted to be happy. Living was always accidental.”
    ― Darnell Lamont Walker

    ReplyDelete
  11. Elie,

    > Can you sympathize with a person who says that one of their major reasons for contemplating suicide often is that they just don’t feel competent to handle the mental demands of today’s increasingly complex social environment? <

    Well, I can certainly sympathetic, but the question is whether the person in question has rational reasons to commit suicide, and I would say no, broadly speaking. Plenty of people of very different intellectual abilities find a way to have a satisfying life, with meaningful relationships and so on. So, no, by itself I don't think that's a good enough reason to contemplate suicide.

    > Is it morally permissible for the intellectually slow person to commit suicide? <

    If that's the only reason, no, I don't think so. That person could and should find his own way through life. Not to mention the hardship (emotional, at the least) he would cause to his family and friends by commuting suicide.

    > Is it morally permissible for an unmarried person (who has no children to care for) and who has battled depression for many years to commit suicide? <

    That's a though one, because on the one hand the person clearly is incapable of a eudaimonic life (the Stoics' criterion), and does not have duties to close kins. On the other hand, being depressed clearly is not conducive to rational decision making, and is in fact explicitly mentioned in the post as one of those cases were coercive intervention to prevent suicide may be justified.

    OneDay,

    > one of the best payoffs from religion is a sense of the value of existence, even very painful existence. <

    But why should secularists strain to find value in something that doesn't seem to have any?

    > finding a reason to live has got to be one of the biggest payoffs of a philosophical system, so how can the secular community do this? <

    I honestly don't see the problem. I'm with Hume and the Stoics here: life has value IF certain conditions are met; if not, not. Do you really think that a life of constant, no end in sight, excruciating pain, is worth living? Why?

    > Contra the Stoics and Epicureans who thought death is no worse than the state we were in before our births, he convincingly argues that being dead is worse than not yet having been born. <

    I agree with Nagel and disagree with Stoics and Epicureans here, but, again, this must be qualified by what kind of life we are talking about. Not every life will do.

    > If my existence is good, but the universe is bad <

    Your existence isn't good or bad per se, it is good or bad for you, depending on its quality. And the universe is neither good nor bad, it is morally neutral.

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    Replies
    1. If there is a coercive intervention to prevent someone who has been depressed for many years from commiting suicide, is there not now a moral obligation on the part of the person intervening to relieve the sufferer's depression?

      Delete
  12. Jacob,

    > Owning our bodies is the foundational axiom to property, owning a watch is not a foundational axiom to property. <

    You may be missing the (metaphysical) point here. One cannot own one's body for the reasons stated in the post (you can't literally sell it, like you can with a watch), which seems to make the libertarian argument metaphysically suspicious.

    > If you do not own your body, then you aren't necessarily entitled to the fruits of your labor since someone else owns you. <

    We own things only and exclusively by social agreement. There is no natural right, including the one to property. (Bentham famously said that the very idea of natural rights is "nonsense on stilts.")

    > We do not own watch's precisely because they are distinct from us <

    You got it exactly backwards. You can only own (by social agreement) something that is distinct from you.

    > if you were ever to sign a contract that said, "Ok, you now own my body indefinitely or for some extended period of time" that contract would be categorically illegitimate <

    Precisely! And that's because you don't really own your body, you *are* it.

    > the concept of 'property' would be an empty distinction and what would really be happening in the world is privileges that are assigned arbitrarily <

    That is precisely what is happening, except that it isn't arbitrary, it's regulated by rules that, ideally, are arrived at by rational deliberation and negotiation (what we call justice).

    > Assisted suicide is not an example where a libertarian would have cause to get involved unless when there was the manipulation or coercion of the decision to commit suicide. <

    But that wasn't the point. The point was that assisted suicide is a form of paternalism, and libertarians usually are horrified by paternalism...

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  13. > "You may be missing the (metaphysical) point here. One cannot own one's body for the reasons stated in the post (you can't literally sell it, like you can with a watch), which seems to make the libertarian argument metaphysically suspicious."

    Why would it be true that you have to be able to sell something in order to own it? Could you sell one of your PhD's? To be honest, it seems like the position that says that I do not own my body is the metaphysically suspicious argument...

    >"We own things only and exclusively by social agreement. There is no natural right, including the one to property. (Bentham famously said that the very idea of natural rights is "nonsense on stilts.")"

    So because a famous philosopher said something makes it true? So, instead of having to be capable of selling something, there has to be a social contract in order for something to be legitimately owned, why? Lets say that the government didn't agree that you owned your marriage, or owned your PhD's (or just to be a little crazy here, the government didn't think you owned your brain), would that mean they would be justified in doing what they wanted to your property? Why do you think there are no natural rights?

    >"You can only own (by social agreement) something that is distinct from you."

    The way you are phrasing this makes it seem as though, if something wasn't distinct from you (i.e. a part of your body that was still attached), then you could not own it. Is that a semantic thing about separateness or is that because you think you have to have a social contract in order to own it?

    >"Precisely! And that's because you don't really own your body, you *are* it."

    Could you clarify what you mean by this, how is it that I don't own my body, but I am my body? Could I only own my arm if it was chopped off? Why would it matter if it was attached or not to have ownership? If my arm is a part of me, does it have part ownership of this computer? Wouldn't the ownership of the computer be dependent on my consciousness, (which is an abstract distinction of my being...) would I cease to own a 'part' of the computer if my fingers were chopped off? No I wouldn't, which is why I don't understand your point here and the natural rights point. The libertarian argument seems to be based on logic, not necessarily natural law, though it certainly incorporates the natural part about my consciousness and being traveling around with me... I mean, I am the one who has to experience pain when I get hurt, so why wouldn't it follow that I own my body?

    >"That is precisely what is happening, except that it isn't arbitrary, it's regulated by rules that, ideally, are arrived at by rational deliberation and negotiation (what we call justice)."

    Sorry I should clarify, it would be an empty 'moral' distinction since property is a huge element of morality. What you're saying works except for the moral component. Property is being regulated by rules and procedures, but those rules and procedures do not have a stable moral philosophical foundation to property (apart from the I have a gun and you don't distinction, i.e. the social contract).

    >"But that wasn't the point. The point was that assisted suicide is a form of paternalism, and libertarians usually are horrified by paternalism..."

    Well no, libertarians are horrified of coercion, not assistance. So instead of imagining a government sponsored suicide chamber, imagine a privately run and completely voluntary suicide chamber... the libertarian wouldn't have a problem with the voluntary assisted suicide scenario unless there was coercion involved in the decision making process.

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    1. Another clarification to make about ownership is that it wouldn't be true that "I am my thoughts", but it would be true that "I own my thoughts". When I share a thought (and have the capability to not have the thought shared, NSA), I don't loose a part of my 'self' in the process, I am using the thought as a kind of tool in order to convey information about my 'self' (just like when I donate or sell a kidney / lung, I don't loose a part of my 'self' in the process, I loose a part of my body which was a part of my property). When I have a thought that I disagree with (like some obscene joke about people suffering), I have the ability to disown or reject the thought, and it is this thing that can accept or reject the thought (or has the appearance of accepting or rejecting the thought, if you're a skeptic) that is the 'me'. My thoughts should be considered my personal property and taking or manipulating my thoughts without my consent (NSA!) means that you've violated my property rights.

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  14. Prof Pigliucci

    Would you mind if I cross-posted this to a web site that I've recently begun to frequent,'the suicide project' ? It is a site to which people who are depressed/suicidal can post their personal stories, poems, etc. Often times quite interesting philosophical discussions result from some of the posts. (Apparently the founders are/were theology students, some of whom appear to be anti-religious). I think your article could be quite useful. Thanks.

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    1. Ira, yes, you can definitely cross post this essay. Cheers.

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  15. Prof Pigliucci

    I was mistaken about the fact that the suicide project web site was started by theologians. I was under that impression for a number of reasons, among them that they write in their FAQ that 'preaching the gospel' is prohibited. In any case, there are interesting philosophical discussions at times (apparently, there used to be many more), and I think that you're article would be very useful. Thanks.

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  16. Prof. Pigliucci,

    I think that the case of Mitchell Heisman- who wrote a 1905 pages suicide note over a period of ~5 years, spanning topics concerning (& not limited to) human nature, society, religion, technology, & science (http://suicidenote.info/)- is worth a mention, if not a discussion, in a philosophical post on suicide.

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  17. Suicide is a very personal and very difficult subject to articulate.

    We are all different and what seems like an insurmountable problem for one person is a challenge for somebody else. We assume that we all feel the same under the same circumstances (have the same emotions etc.) and that if I can cope with desperate issues…. so can anyone else. Also, we are here by chance and we remain by choice. You have to realize that just prior to conception there were NUMEROUS possibilities for our physical and mental characteristics as there were for our parents, etc.

    Humans are hedonic creatures, in addition to calculative creatures. That’s not to say we’re solely motivated by pleasure and pain, but the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, do explain a great deal of our behavior. Thus, we (some more than others) have the ability to figure out whether our future likely has more pleasure and less pain in store for us, or more pain and less pleasure. If our future is found wanting (likely, to be wanting), and, being self-conscious and conscientious creatures, having an awareness of life and death and all these processes likely entail (life = presence of experiences both positive and negative, death = absence of experiences both positive and negative), some of us, especially the more hedonic among us, may decide no experience is better than to continue experiencing a life of consecutive and consistent disappointments, hardships, anguish, torment and dread.

    I abhor the idea that people who are living excruciatingly painful lives are being emotionally or psychologically pressured to continue living because of religious ideals or nonsense like “betraying humankind.”

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  18. "As for the Stoics — who were famously friendly to the concept of suicide — it is permissible when we are impeded from pursuing a eudaimonic life."

    This is false; according to the Stoics, the eudaimonic life is exactly equal to the virtuous life, and virtue is always under one's control. Therefore, there are exactly no instances according to Stoic thought where one could ever be impeded by living a eudaimonic life.

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  19. Jacob,

    > Why would it be true that you have to be able to sell something in order to own it? Could you sell one of your PhD's? <

    You are equivocating on the English language. Just because people say "I have" a PhD it doesn't mean they "own" it in anything like the sense at issue here. Indeed, your own example should show you that one needs to be careful with words like "have," "my," etc.

    > So because a famous philosopher said something makes it true? <

    That was just a quite. There are pretty good arguments in philosophy against the concept of natural rights. You may want to consult the relevant entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    > Lets say that the government didn't agree that you owned your marriage <

    You don't "own" a marriage, you are in one. And yes, that's a perfect example of a social contract: without the imprimatur of some authority (usually, the government) you are simply not married, no matter what you think.

    > Is that a semantic thing about separateness <

    It's a metaphysical thing about separateness.

    > Could I only own my arm if it was chopped off? Why would it matter if it was attached or not to have ownership? <

    Even though I wouldn't advice it, yes, once you part physically with a bit of your body then you can sell it. Which is why you can sell your kidneys, for instance. But you can't part with your whole body.

    > the libertarian wouldn't have a problem with the voluntary assisted suicide scenario unless there was coercion involved in the decision making process. <

    I think you have a point there, though usually the assistance in question is provided or paid for by a government agency. And most certainly it is authorized by one, in order to prevent abuse. And I think that libertarians would have a problem with that.

    > it wouldn't be true that "I am my thoughts", but it would be true that "I own my thoughts". <

    Again, you are using the word "own" too liberally. What should protect you from the NSA is not a property right (the right to your thoughts), but the right to privacy. Another non natural right invented by modern societies and enforced (when it is enforced) by social contract.

    Philo,

    > This is false; according to the Stoics, the eudaimonic life is exactly equal to the virtuous life, and virtue is always under one's control. <

    Not exactly. While it is true that the Stoics focused on the sort of thing one can control and designed their version of eudaimonia around them, they, like Aristotle, realized that there are circumstances under which the pursuit of a eudaimonic life is simply not possible. I refer you to the main SEP article linked in my post for a discussion of this.

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    1. Jacob,

      You write "it would be true that I own my thoughts". One of the problems with that idea is that thoughts usually are expressed in words, and you don't "own" the meaning of those words.

      To give an example: I know someone who claims that he's "a social kind of guy". But I also know quite a few people who think he's an egotistical nosy parker.

      So this guy tells me that he's of the social kind. But I doubt he is using this thought as a kind of tool in order to convey information about himself "just like when he donates or sells a kidney / lung". He is conveying information about himself, but it isn't the information he thinks he is conveying.

      He forgets that the meaning of the word "social" is, in a certain sense, common property. Not his property, common property. The meaning of words is common property that we use to express our thoughts. Perhaps we think our thoughts have exactly the meaning we think they have – but unless we're living in a very solipsistic universe, they usually don't. So perhaps you own your thoughts, but very often you don't own the meaning of those thoughts. If you assume that the important aspect of a thought is the meaning, then no –you don't own it. You couldn't if you wished.




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    2. Patrick,

      >"You write "it would be true that I own my thoughts". One of the problems with that idea is that thoughts usually are expressed in words, and you don't "own" the meaning of those words. "<

      - I suppose the best analogy I've come up with is that of money. You don't own the currency (the Fed does), but you do own the particular dollars in your bank account... if you feel this is a false analogy, let me know.



      >"He is conveying information about himself, but it isn't the information he thinks he is conveying. "<

      - What he's doing is conveying information that he thinks is true about himself, regardless if it really is true about himself. You are right though that in order to have any real conversation and understanding there needs to be an agreement on what these words actually mean.

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    3. >Just because people say "I have" a PhD it doesn't mean they "own" it in anything like the sense at issue here.<

      - It seems that you are dead set on the idea of ownership being something that is specifically referred to as something that can be sold, which is definitely not how I think the word is primarily referred to, especially by the libertarian argument. If this metaphysical divide seems unpenetrable, it would seem that the best thing to do when evaluating libertarian arguments about the foundation of property rights is to substitute the word 'ownership' for the word 'have' and keep the same metaphysical implications of what you are calling "natural law" and what I consider as the logical implication of having (at least to a degree) separate consciousnesses and self-hood. If you wouldn't agree that you "own" your PhD (in order to allow the logic to work), you would at least have to admit that having a PhD is a part of your self-hood, right? It's this self-hood that is the foundation for property rights.

      Also, I still need to get your answer to the question as to why it would matter if a part of your body was attached or not to have ownership over it, especially with the context of the clarification I made in the earlier post. Why does something 'have' to be distinct from you in order to own it? What if you get the future version of the Google Glass which which might be a neural implant, are you saying that you do not own the implant because it isn't distinct from you?



      >I think you have a point there, though usually the assistance in question is provided or paid for by a government agency. And most certainly it is authorized by one, in order to prevent abuse. And I think that libertarians would have a problem with that.<

      - You're thinking of the Anarcho-Capitalist which is certainly one of the many sub categories of libertarianism, however, all forms of libertarianism aren't necessarily incompatible with all forms of collective bargaining.



      >What should protect you from the NSA is not a property right (the right to your thoughts), but the right to privacy. Another non natural right invented by modern societies and enforced (when it is enforced) by social contract.<

      - I'd like to get your input on this thought in the context of what I said earlier about the logic of self-hood.

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    4. Jacob,

      Happy New Year!

      This is very much off topic, so I hesitate to go deeper into the question. But I think your analogy with money is a good one. I'm not talking about formal languages here – like in mathematics, (mathematical) physics, parts of philosophy etc. I'm talking about "natural" language, in which there's often a difference between the intended and the received meaning. Natural language is like a currency with a denomination and a value you can't be certain about. Perhaps one thinks that one has a lot of dollars, but if one wants to spend them, it becomes clear that for others they're not dollars and don't have much value at all. One can claim one is "a social kind of guy", but others may think it only confirms you're an egotistical nosy parker. You don't own the meaning of the expression "I'm a social kind of guy". In that sense, the meaning of thoughts is not your property. If it's the meaning that counts – and I think it is – your thoughts are often not your property.

      "You are right though that in order to have any real conversation and understanding there needs to be an agreement on what these words actually mean."

      But there is no "agreement", except in the case of some formal languages. People don't sit down and talk about the real meaning of being "a social kind of guy" (if there is a real meaning …). I think even the expression "I'm a libertarian" doesn't have a meaning on which there's "agreement". One uses the expression and hopes that it conveys the intended meaning, without being entirely certain. Nobody owns the meaning of the word libertarian, and therefore the thought "I'm a libertarian" is not your property.

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    5. Jacob,

      >Also, I still need to get your answer to the question as to why it would matter if a part of your body was attached or not to have ownership over it

      Good point. It seems the answer is because he wants to define 'ownership' in that way.

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    6. >"Happy New Year!"<

      - Happy New Year to you too, hope you had some fun.



      >"This is very much off topic, so I hesitate to go deeper into the question."<

      - Never worry about going deeper into a question!



      >"I'm talking about "natural" language, in which there's often a difference between the intended and the received meaning."<

      - Not if both people involved take care to ensure that a real understanding in the communication is happening, just like you and I are doing right now.



      >"Natural language is like a currency with a denomination and a value you can't be certain about."<

      - I disagree, why would that be true?



      >"Perhaps one thinks that one has a lot of dollars, but if one wants to spend them, it becomes clear that for others they're not dollars and don't have much value at all."<

      - I think perhaps you misunderstood my analogy...



      >"One can claim one is "a social kind of guy", but others may think it only confirms you're an egotistical nosy parker."<

      - Just because someone intends to give a piece of information doesn't mean that more information can be gained than just what was said...



      >"You don't own the meaning of the expression "I'm a social kind of guy". In that sense, the meaning of thoughts is not your property."<

      - No, you don't own the "expression" just like you don't own the currency, but you do own the particular instance of the expression when it originates in your mind, just like when you own the particular instance of dollars when it ends up in your bank account. The meaning of thoughts in the abstract sense is not your property, but the meaning of your personal thoughts is what you own. Does that help clarify what I'm talking about?



      >"But there is no "agreement", except in the case of some formal languages."<

      - Sure there is, or at least enough of an agreement to the point where the difference could never be seen or explained.



      >"People don't sit down and talk about the real meaning of being "a social kind of guy" (if there is a real meaning …)."<

      - They most certainly do, especially in psychology departments and class.



      >"I think even the expression "I'm a libertarian" doesn't have a meaning on which there's "agreement"."<

      - Well, there are some incredibly complex and abstract social issues that do have a lot of confusion around them that would take months of work and clarification in order to effectively unpack the misunderstandings and to achieve this true understanding that I was referring to, but its definitely not impossible.



      >"One uses the expression and hopes that it conveys the intended meaning, without being entirely certain."<

      - Sometimes, but not always, that's why its important to have this kind of dialog that we are having right now.



      >"Nobody owns the meaning of the word libertarian, and therefore the thought "I'm a libertarian" is not your property."<

      - That's an interesting distinction. I suppose the meaning of the word libertarian would be a relativistic distinction that has 'something' to do with (though not dictated by) the different flavors suggested by the different thinkers throughout history, but is primarily the encapsulation of core ideas and how the ideas relate to each other. I think you are confused about the existence of concepts and the point about the thought being in my bank account and not the bank account of the person sitting next to me (assuming this person doesn't violate my bank account with some telepathic super power) being the distinction that gives me my ownership of the thought from his claim of ownership of my thought.

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  20. Dear M,
    If your religion was truth you would find it impossible to reject. My religion is One. =

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  21. I think a hyperactive search for reasons to live may be a symptom and perpetuator of depression and suicidal ideation. Maybe antidepressants and not arguments are the responsible prescription for suicidal persons.

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    1. I suppose you would have to define what it means to be in a hyperactive search for reasons to live, as opposed to being philosophically inclined which certainly doesn't seem to be typical of the vast majority of the population and so could be mistakenly categorized.

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    2. I'm suggesting that doing a cost/benefit analysis on suicide may exacerbate the psychological suffering of the depressed person. I think that searching for meaning to one's life too strenuously can more easily induce or worsen melancholia than free one from it. The ultimate meaninglessness of existence can be acutely palpable when you're in a dark state and painfully dwelling on it may be a symptom of a neural imbalance that is best addressed with medication. What I'm trying to say is introspection isn't necessarily a virtue; when you're gloomily striving for a raison d'être you generally want to find something solid, not slippery subjective purposes, so you can get caught in a black hole of nihilism that causes great, unnecessary mental distress. Antidepressants may obviate the need for a reason to live. If you're content you don't necessarily have to justify why you are. In fact, attempting to tell yourself why you're happy may vitiate the equanimity. I'm just saying that we shouldn't presume that reasons for being are necessary for being.

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    3. Jake Zielsdorf

      >"I'm suggesting that doing a cost/benefit analysis on suicide may exacerbate the psychological suffering of the depressed person."<

      - "may exacerbate"... I'd love for you to paint the scenario of when this could be true, otherwise we are using different meanings for the same concepts/words.



      >"I think that searching for meaning to one's life too strenuously can more easily induce or worsen melancholia than free one from it."<

      - Why would you believe this? You're also going to have to define for me what you mean by "too strenuously" and how on earth you're able to objectively differentiate it from a philosophically inclined individual who just so happens to be on that particular topic as opposed to some other philosophical topic like language or rights...



      >"The ultimate meaninglessness of existence can be acutely palpable when you're in a dark state and painfully dwelling on it may be a symptom of a neural imbalance that is best addressed with medication."<

      - I suppose with this we need to define what it means to be in a "dark state" instead of honestly assessing the totality of the world which includes moments when you contemplate its horrors instead of exclusively looking at sunshine and puppy's. What does it mean to dwell on something as opposed to being mindful of a concept for an extended period of time? When I reflect on how words like dwell are typically used, it seems to be more of a democratic expectation of what people should think or care about as opposed to being relative distinction to the individual in question which has some pretty obvious problems associated with it that I don't think needs to be clarified here.



      >"What I'm trying to say is introspection isn't necessarily a virtue;"<

      - Well, that's true in the sense that 'nothing' is necessarily a virtue, but making that distinction is only useful when trying to gain a broad conceptual understanding of how ideas actually operate, but when we start asking basic questions about what a person values, just about anything will start to point to introspection being a virtue...

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    4. part #2

      Jake Zielsdorf

      >"when you're gloomily striving for a raison d'être you generally want to find something solid, not slippery subjective purposes, so you can get caught in a black hole of nihilism that causes great, unnecessary mental distress."<

      - I'm not entirely sure what you were trying to say here, but there is a incorrect way to introspect on things (starting from fallacious assumptions), and giving people pills doesn't fix that.



      >"Antidepressants may obviate the need for a reason to live."<

      - As a philosophically inclined person, I find that position disgusting.



      >"If you're content you don't necessarily have to justify why you are."<

      - But you don't necessarily have to justify "why you are" when you aren't content either, you choose to search for those answers regardless if you are content or not.



      >"In fact, attempting to tell yourself why you're happy may vitiate the equanimity."<

      - Well, I disagree that figuring out why you're happy might spoil the mental calmness you've been experiencing, and in fact, if you figure out what the true reasons are for that calmness, you would probably decide to strive for an even higher level of happiness, or you might gain a better appreciation of the factors that caused the calmness to begin with and then be in a better position to direct your own life if you figured out that those factors do not align with your chosen value system.



      >"I'm just saying that we shouldn't presume that reasons for being are necessary for being."<

      - You're going to have to explain what you mean by this, if you mean that the reason I exist is because my parents fucked, well then yea, that reason was only relevant in the very beginning and now I exist because I choose to consume food instead of starving myself...

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    5. First of all, I'm not pathologizing your dark thoughts. And I'm not trying to write a treatise on this topic. But hopefully this will be clearer.

      The universe is ultimately meaningless. We arose from the purposeless process of natural selection. Nature doesn't care about your death and neither do gods because they don't exist. Your family and friends will probably care about your death but they will eventually die too and you at some point will be completely forgotten. Humanity will ineluctably perish whether it's from the heat death of the universe or something sooner. Humans don't generally regard this reality as cheerful. Subjective meaning and purpose can distract most people from obsessing over our nihilistic universe but the depressed person may not be neurologically equipped to embrace these veneers. Ethical arguments for living are viable but in some cases may not be efficacious. Medications may obviate the need for reasons to persist by allowing the depressed person to feel like a content, normal human who isn't caught up with those questions. I think the most profound reason that we keep on keepin' on is that we're biologically inclined to. Reasons for being are in my opinion largely post hoc rationalizations for why we continue to live. I'm saying this because I felt the philosophicality of the idea that the depressed brain is abnormal was neglected in the blog post and the comments. After all that's what this is all about: normalizing the brain so that the person keeps living like everyone else. Both arguments and medication will change their neural circuitry if they are effective. Either avenue may obviate the need for the other.

      I'm sorry you find this position disgusting. It's a perfectly respectable philosophical position. The mind is the brain so when the brain is abnormally depressed antidepressants are an important tool for normalizing it. There is no principle for which method should be used in which situation. They should be prescribed on a case-by-case basis.

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    6. Jake Zielsdorf

      >"I'm not pathologizing your dark thoughts."<

      - Glad you cleared that up, I was seriously worried there since you're suggesting that if someone is looking for meaning in life while they are depressed, they could be better off taking pills instead of further introspection and reflection...



      >"The universe is ultimately meaningless."<

      - Well that's not true by definition. You should also be careful about how you're using the word "purpose" since its one of those words that is easily abused with ambiguity which contributes to a lot of confusion.



      >"neither do gods because they don't exist."<

      - lol, how do you know?



      >"Humanity will ineluctably perish "<

      - lol, how do you know?



      >"our nihilistic universe"<

      - lol, how do you know?



      >"Ethical arguments for living are viable but in some cases may not be efficacious. Medications may obviate the need for reasons to persist by allowing the depressed person to feel like a content, normal human who isn't caught up with those questions."<

      - That's disgusting.



      >"Reasons for being are in my opinion largely post hoc rationalizations for why we continue to live."<

      - Sure some arguments are rationalizations, but others aren't. The same could be said of arguments for not continuing to live.



      >"I'm saying this because I felt the philosophicality of the idea that the depressed brain is abnormal was neglected in the blog post and the comments."<

      - So what you're trying to tell me is that if a brain is depressed, its abnormal? Why couldn't depression be a legitimate response to real circumstances occurring in a person's life? The thing that would be abnormal is a person NOT being depressed by horrible things happening to them.



      >"After all that's what this is all about: normalizing the brain so that the person keeps living like everyone else."<

      - Lets all just hook into the borg that way all of our brains will be "normalized" and people can keep living like everyone else.



      >"Both arguments and medication will change their neural circuitry if they are effective."<

      - Again, both arguments are disgusting.



      >"It's a perfectly respectable philosophical position."<

      - Actually no, that's not a perfectly respectable position to take philosophically... That's like saying hooking yourself into the borg is a perfectly respectable philosophical position to take.



      >"The mind is the brain so when the brain is abnormally depressed antidepressants are an important tool for normalizing it."<

      - Wrong. The mind is like the operating system being run on the hardware of the brain, that's like saying Mac OS X is the hard drive.



      >"There is no principle for which method should be used in which situation. They should be prescribed on a case-by-case basis."<

      - You do realize that these two sentences contradict each other...

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  22. Massimo

    While I am mainly sympathetic to the conclusion you outline I do have one reservation. If, as you say, life only has value under the conditions you describe, would this not make involuntary euthanasia permissible where those conditions do not apply, but the individual in question did not want to die? For example one could imagine the life of a severely disabled but religious person who, despite not living a life that "yields sufficient pleasure" (e.g he may live in constant pain) and who cannot in any significant degree pursue his own goals, still decides to carry on living (and indeed believes it to be his moral duty to do so). On your definition wouldn't this individual not be leading a life that was not valuable, even to himself? Worse still the only reason he has for carrying on with it (his religion) is false and most likely irrational.

    Surely however we would not want to conclude that it is permissible to take his life for him? But if his life really has no value, despite his mistakenly thiinking it does, would it not follow that taking his life were permissible, on the view you've outlined? Or is there some reason to think that one cannot be wrong when one decides that one's life has value for oneself (and hence presumably, has value simpliciter)? Even though one can be mistaken in believing one's life has no value when it does (e.g. When suffering severe clinical depression). Wouldn't this itself be a queer situation?

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  23. Thanks for this, Massimo, thanks indeed.

    I have found Jennifer Hecht's new book on the subject, "Stay," to have a number of philosophical, historical and sociological errors in it.

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  24. I agree completely with this article.

    It seems to me that all other arguments aside, it is completely unfair to ask a person to not commit suicide because it might hurt others around him. For many people, wanting to commit suicide doesn't come easily. It's the result of unbearable pain. Such a person should not be asked to carry on just because others don't like it.

    The reason the state, friends and family might intervene is because they believe that trying to commit suicide is an in the moment thing, and after more time and thought, this same person who wanted to kill himself might want to live more. I think there's empirical evidence that in many cases this is actually right. But when this is not the case, the only loving thing to do is allow them to commit suicide. This is a sacrifice, because you lose a person you love. But it's better than asking a person to keep on living in unbearable pain.

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  25. @Jake Zielsdorf

    Thanks Jake, you put a cogent and reasonable argument in terms that avoided moralising about the subject.

    @Jacob Edward

    Jake has some strong points and it is obvious that you feel passionate about the subject. I suspect your passion has resulted in a reading of Jake’s position that is a little, well, radical.

    “Why couldn't depression be a legitimate response to real circumstances occurring in a person's life? The thing that would be abnormal is a person NOT being depressed by horrible things happening to them.”

    It can be, but this is not the topic under consideration is it? When negative thoughts and evaluations about the world and your place in it become chronic and insurmountable, well, it is then that you have a problem, and it is this later position which is quite obviously the topic under discussion.

    “- Lets all just hook into the borg that way all of our brains will be "normalized" and people can keep living like everyone else.”

    “- Actually no, that's not a perfectly respectable position to take philosophically... That's like saying hooking yourself into the borg is a perfectly respectable philosophical position to take.”

    Oh Jacob, really! You like your straw men don’t you (or is that straw Hive, for that matter I would not complain if someone hooked me up to 7of 9). Again, I think it is quite obvious that Jake meant that the objective would be to alleviate their suffering so that they felt normal within themselves as opposed to being just like everybody else.

    “- Again, both arguments are disgusting.”

    Again, Jacob! Give (good) reasons for your conclusion. I get that you are passionate but for that passion to spill over into this kind of linguistic violence is disturbing to me.

    As it happens Jake’s information is demonstrably correct, he is not spouting an unsubstantiated opinion; he is just relating a few facts to you.


    “- Wrong. The mind is like the operating system being run on the hardware of the brain, that's like saying Mac OS X is the hard drive.”

    “Oh Jacob”, he says again in a deliberate attempt to capture and mirror the authors patronising tone. Really! I thought the world had moved on from this position. Again, Jake is not expressing an opinion, spend a week on a stroke ward! Also, try to become a little more informed on the subject of neuroplasticity.

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  26. Bonobo Nation -

    >"It can be, but this is not the topic under consideration is it? When negative thoughts and evaluations about the world and your place in it become chronic and insurmountable, well, it is then that you have a problem, and it is this later position which is quite obviously the topic under discussion."<

    - Well, it seems like that is what is under consideration... I've been questioning is what counts as chronic or insurmountable and what is simply the normal deliberations of a philosophically inclined person? Certain topics take a huge amount of time...



    >"Again, I think it is quite obvious that Jake meant that the objective would be to alleviate their suffering so that they felt normal within themselves as opposed to being just like everybody else."<

    - You've got a good point, perhaps I was drawing up a straw man, however what I was trying to do was a reductio ad absurdum when considering the core elements of his argument... Why couldn't the "normal" be the state of contemplating the existential consequences of your existence? It seems that his argument is dependent on the fact that most people do not explore that level of philosophy for an extended period of time and so wouldn't be considered normal (and so should be 'fixed'), which then leads to justifying the borg since that could also apply to a whole range of mental states that aren't typical, but could be altered with pills.



    >"As it happens Jake’s information is demonstrably correct, he is not spouting an unsubstantiated opinion; he is just relating a few facts to you."<

    - Well, actually, I posed numerous questions to these supposed "facts" that have yet to be answered, perhaps you can answer them for me?



    >" Again, Jake is not expressing an opinion, spend a week on a stroke ward! Also, try to become a little more informed on the subject of neuroplasticity."<

    - Care to inform me? I'm pretty familiar with the generic neuroplasticity argument, actually.

    :-D I love your name! Sounds like a fun nation.

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  27. Mr. Pigliucci and others,

    Does anyone owe anyone else his or her life?

    Does anyone have a duty to suffer for anyone else's benefit (or to forestall anyone else's prospective suffering)?

    Does the mere fact (i.e. imposition) of being born render each one of us a slave -- to family, to community, to the species?

    It seems to me that, in the absence of answering any of the above questions in the affirmative, there's nothing more selfish, and therefore more hypocritical, than stigmatizing suicide as "a selfish act."

    And even if it is, so what? Unless the 'collateral damage' of killing oneself is premeditated & also irreparable (which it very rarely is), so what? 'The world', after all, could stand to be relieved -- freely by self-selection -- of as many desperately (i.e. pathologically) miserable people as possible; gratitude rather than scorn (or taboo-fear) being the more appropriate, more civilized (i.e. pre-modern, pre-JCI), response.

    Perhaps killing oneself is simply an act of self-defense against 'involuntary self-torment'. If so, reparable collateral damage is a reasonable trade-off (risk), no?

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