Monday, April 28, 2008

Procreation and Suicide

An important reason that it is unfair to force a being to stay alive is that the being took no voluntary action in order to come into being.

Voluntariness is a key element of fairness is much of our legal system. Our law of contract requires that the parties voluntarily enter the contract in order for it to be enforceable. Likewise, marriage must be entered voluntarily, or it is not legally effective. Crimes require a voluntary act before punishment may attach. (See note.)

Given this framework, voluntary procreation (choosing to have children) has two important consequences. One, given that the act of procreation forces existence on others, it may be a moral harm in and of itself. Second, and more relevant to our purposes, procreation is a voluntary act, like signing a contract, that creates a moral obligation for the parent toward the child. A non-parent (or an involuntary parent, such as a rape victim) has given no assent to life, and retains the right to remove himself from the world; the voluntary parent has given his assent to life, and created obligations toward his child.

An interesting question is whether there are acts other than voluntary procreation that cement the agent to the world, potentially destroying his moral right to suicide. One candidate would be intentionally forming or continuing a close relationship; although of course this does not involve creating an entire new being dependent upon the agent, it does, perhaps, encourage others to become dependent upon the agent. Perhaps potential suicides have a moral obligation not to form or continue close relationships, just as they have a moral obligation to avoid procreation.

(Note that voluntariness cannot account for the basis of authority of the state over people who have not consented to be governed by that state. In a state with a broad suicide proscription, in which there is even less of a possibility to "opt-out" of state control, the authority of the state over non-consenting individuals is weaker than in a state where life is not compulsory.)

9 comments:

  1. quite an interesting topic. my initial reaction is that virtually everybody prefers to live over dying, and so when a child is created, the child's likely choice, if he could make one, would be to live. the evidence of this is that suicide is somewhat rare--i'd also guess usually people who have survived suicide attempts are thankful they didn't kill themselves (i could be wrong about this).

    i wonder what you think of this--i've heard this theory, or something like it, and thought it was great: people through depresseion determine their value to others. depression is a bit like going on strike. you stop or slow down what you normally do, and see what happens. people treat you nice to get you back to doing your valued behavior, and in effect end up showing you your value. maybe people tell you what they miss about what you do, giving you info about your value to others, and perhaps make promises or gifts, to incentivize the valued behavior you used to do before getting depressed.

    in the stone age environment, i could see depression being a subtle means of bargaining. 'i'm depressed, so i'll do less.' 'hey, he's not helping us hunt! how the heck do we get him back to his old self?'

    on the other hand, the work you stop doing that isn't missed by others is work you don't need to do anymore, if you don't want to. you then spend your energy more efficiently.

    the problem today, possibly, is that a person might start to slow down and do less, and not get the attention he needs. he might lose his job, because he's more easily replaced than in the past (in a stone age environment, a depressed and lethargic band-member might really hurt your interests, whereas today a depressed person in your life might be less likely to hurt your interests, and so you have less incentive to cheer him up).

    also nowadays, i suspect people are more physically isolated, and so their peers aren't able to informally monitor the depressed person, and perhaps reward him incrementally to get him to do what they want him to do, and so he continued deeper and deeper into his depression.

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  2. Thanks for your comment - you open up fruitful topics, all of which I think I will try to write about in the coming week or so, including (1) the objection to antinatalism that most people prefer to live, as evidenced by low suicide rates; (2) the potential for evolutionary adaptiveness of depression, and whether it has consequences for our treatment of suicide; (3) the evidence that some people who attempt suicide later claim that they are glad to be alive (I must say that this is not true for all failed suicides, as evidenced by a disproportionately high rate of successful suicides after attempts, but I do think we need to account for the now-I'm-glad-to-be-alive folks). I don't think it would do justice to your interesting comment to answer it all in one comment! Thanks so much.

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  3. I suppose these obligations end when the child dies (if it happens before the parents die)?

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  4. "An important reason that it is unfair to force a being to stay alive is that the being took no voluntary action in order to come into being."

    I have made this point over and over and over again, since before I read David Benatar or you. And if this is your site, I might have read you first.

    Anyway, this was obvious to me for decades if not years.

    I find your thinking morally clear. In fact, more so than some of my earlier thinking and beliefs, much of which I've changed largely over the last 2 years.

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  5. And, yes, exactly:

    "(Note that voluntariness cannot account for the basis of authority of the state over people who have not consented to be governed by that state. In a state with a broad suicide proscription, in which there is even less of a possibility to "opt-out" of state control, the authority of the state over non-consenting individuals is weaker than in a state where life is not compulsory.)"

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  6. "One, given that the act of procreation forces existence on others, it may be a moral harm in and of itself. Second, and more relevant to our purposes, procreation is a voluntary act, like signing a contract, that creates a moral obligation for the parent toward the child. A non-parent (or an involuntary parent, such as a rape victim) has given no assent to life, and retains the right to remove himself from the world; the voluntary parent has given his assent to life, and created obligations toward his child."

    I have often said adults have a duty to children, not the other way around.

    I meant because of their relative age differences and abilities.

    What I should have said more precisely (although I often said it, I didn't limit it to this) is that parents have a duty to their children, not the other way around. If a child chooses to do X for their parent, that is well and good, but it should not be forced to, for example, live. It didn't choose to be born. That was the parent's gamble. The one thing the parent knew for sure when creating a child is that it would die. The parent also knew the child's unhappiness, pain, misery was a distinct possibility, and that suicide was a potential mode of death, because it has existed in every society throughout history. The fact the parent was optimistic and assumed these things wouldn't happen, while biologically understandable, doesn't change the fact it was aware of these possibilities and the child had no say over its creation.

    "An interesting question is whether there are acts other than voluntary procreation that cement the agent to the world, potentially destroying his moral right to suicide. One candidate would be intentionally forming or continuing a close relationship; although of course this does not involve creating an entire new being dependent upon the agent, it does, perhaps, encourage others to become dependent upon the agent. Perhaps potential suicides have a moral obligation not to form or continue close relationships, just as they have a moral obligation to avoid procreation."

    For my part, I've mainly done this: Tell everyone I meet early on that there is a very good chance I will kill myself one day. That, in fact, that is my intention. Do you want to be friends anyway? Several people have said yes. Many of those left anyway, for that reason or another (I can be hard to get along with, and on the other hand, other people aren't always sincere or genuine so it's hardly always my fault either). Some haven't left.

    I think this is a morally defensible course of action. After all (1) we are still social beings and (2) we are all dying. Anytime you make a friendship with a person, there is a chance they can die --- including by suicide.

    Finally, I've stopped forming new friendships. I'm not thinking that it's bad to do so, but in fact, have stopped. Partly to reduce harm to them.

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  7. I also want to say that there is a very good chance I will kill myself one day. I have the thoughts for several years. ...Hmmm, I would probably have done it but my parents - I can't and don't want to hurt them - they are good, they love me and I love them. I am going to consider it seriously (though I have already consider painless ways to commit suicide) when they die. I've never told anyone about it. You are, actually, the first one.

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