Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is Suicide a Waste?

A highly publicized suicide of an attractive or talented person is commonly greeted with the sentiment, "what a waste!" The substance that is wasted may be named as talent, intelligence, beauty, or life itself, or may not be named. But, whatever is "wasted," is it fair to blame a suicide for "wasting" it?

"Waste," in this sense, connotes an immoral misuse of resources that might have been better directed elsewhere. It is wrong to misuse or fail to use scarce resources, because they might be better used by others. Wasting may often involve depriving someone else of the resource that is wasted.

The problem with describing suicide as a "waste" is that to do so engages the same fallacy a clever child detects in his mother's command to eat his food, because children are starving elsewhere. "Can I send them this food, then?" the clever child might ask, pointing out that waste is only a genuine moral issue if the resource is truly transferable.

If a clueless benefactor buys me a non-transferable plane ticket for a vacation in Tanzania, but I can't go because I'm an albino, it can't be said that I have wasted the plane ticket (except maybe in a sort of visceral, aesthetic sense). I did nothing to waste the plane ticket - it was a useless gift, and could not be transferred to others with pressing business in Tanzania. The waste was committed by the person who ill-advisedly bought me the ticket - the money used to buy it could have been transferred to more worthy endeavors.

Where the substance allegedly wasted by the suicide is "life," waste in the moral sense is clearly not present. Until laws are changed so that we suicides may donate our organs prior to suicide, life, like the ticket to Tanzania, is a non-transferable resource. The waste, in the case of a suicide, occurred when the suicide's parents made the decision to give the "gift" of life to a person who, it turns out, had no use for it.

What if the substance "wasted" is not life itself, but rather talent, intelligence, or beauty? All these are scarce things, and others in the community may have benefited from the beauty or talent of a suicide, had he not decided to end his life. The potential to benefit is lost.

There are two responses to the idea that a suicide "wastes" his talent or beauty. One is the same response a wealthy person might make to a poor person in justifying his decision to "waste" money on a tenth automobile rather than buy the poor person a house; that is, "it's not yours." Or, to put it a different way: it is radically collectivist to think that we have a right to the resources of others - beyond perhaps guaranteeing a certain level of subsistence for all, we do not have a right even to each others' money. Why should we have a right to each others' physical and personality characteristics? Is a Muslim woman who veils committing a wrong by hiding her beauty from others? The person who, on finding out about a suicide, says "what a waste," is really saying - "it's too bad, I could have used him (or her)." This is hardly a noble sentiment.

The second response is the utilitarian calculation at the community level, including the suicide himself. While others may have benefited from a would-be suicide's continued existence, their benefit would come only at an extreme cost to the suicide himself. If the overall cost of utilizing goods exceeds the benefit to be gained thereby, how can it be a "waste" to fail to use them?

3 comments:

  1. Execellent post!

    I've never been able to explain why I can't understand how suicide is "a waste of life," but you have found the words: Life, whatever that is, is non-transferable.

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  2. Thanks - this was inspired by an internet comment thread about the suicide of a young model. Many of the commenters said things like "she's so pretty, what a waste!" and I was trying to figure out why that creeped me out. Same thing in comments on David Foster Wallace's suicide. It seems that either it's a really unfair thing to say (because life is non-transferable), or it's a really creepy thing to say, because what it implies is that the speaker would have like to somehow use the deceased person and now cannot.

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  3. Ok, this is a rather old post but I only found your blog a short time ago, so seeing that comments are still open I'll just go ahead and comment :-)

    You say:

    The person who, on finding out about a suicide,
    says "what a waste," is really saying - "it's too
    bad, I could have used him (or her)."

    But I think it is a bit unfair to assume such non-
    noble reasons in all or even most of the cases.
    I agree for the example of the model. But often people who say something like that could also be sad about the loss to _other_ people than themselves. If somebody dies, suicide or whatever, whom they think was a good person then they could consider that a waste even when they would never have met that person or been able to use them in any way. It is also a loss for "all of humanity" if the asshole-ratio goes up, so to say, by the good
    people dying. Is see that this would probably be what you mean in the last paragraph, but I disagree with the conclusion. It can be wasteful for many people, even if the "net value" of the suicide might be positive, in cases where the suicide ends a life that was not good for the person living it.
    One could say there are wasteful aspects? I'm not sure if I can make my point as english is not my native language.
    Btw, that does not say anything about any duty of the deceased person to not make this waste happen.

    Oh, perhaps one way to see it is that, in general, it is not the suicide itself that is to mourn, but the circumstances or facts that made it necessary for the person. So that these facts are causing the waste and had they been different good things could have happened to the person _and_ his social surroundings, which do now not happen.

    All the best,
    rob

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