Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Rationality of Continuing to Live

Suicide is caused by mental illness - isn't it? Because it's irrational to take one's life - you'd have to be crazy. At a minimum, we must prevent those whose rationality is impaired from killing themselves. And we should assume that everyone who attempts suicide is irrational. Shouldn't we?

But what about the decision to go on living?

Put a different way - why is life - objectively, in all cases - better than death?

Choosing life - not committing suicide - is also an act (or, in some cases, an omission). Why should we assume that the act of choosing life is always rational and freely chosen, never the product of a delusion?

In fact, the act of choosing life may frequently be irrational and poorly chosen. Optimistic bias often causes people to overvalue the future utility of their lives. But we do not think to second-guess those who, perhaps foolishly, choose to go on living. Nor should we, by forcing them to die! But no more should we second-guess those who choose to die, by forcing them to live instead.

From Contingency Cannibalism, by "Shiguro Takada":
Starvation is a vicious enemy . . . . Your brain, without your conscious thought, decides which organs to sustain, which ones to break down, and which entrails not to supply with nutrients stolen from other parts of your body. Still, through the communication of pain, your body sends messages to your anguished mind.

Those muscles you worked so hard to acquire deteriorate rapidly. You lose your spleen. Your liver and bladder fail. As you grow decrepit, you can barely walk away from your own waste. You piss your pants and find that something that isn't quite like feces soils your briefs as you literally shit yourself on yourself.

Unrelieved, unrescued, and, after several days of starvation, too enfeebled, your brain, heart, and lungs are among the last to go, so you are aware of your fate - you experience the terror and misery of a lingering death until a merciful coma ensues. (For some odd reason, few people starving to death opt instead to put a bullet into their heads. Perhaps it is because in the final stages they are too weak to do much.) Your emaciated carcass becomes pungent debris beside the road.

"Takada" wisely questions the rationality of the starving person's decision not to end his life. But the reason I reproduce this description of starvation is that, for many of us, this is an accurate description of what life is like all the time. "Pungent debris beside the road" is our most optimistic possible future. Is our pain severe and permanent enough to make living irrational? To make suicide rational?

Or is life a precious gift?

5 comments:

  1. Of course, the bias in favor of continued living 'no matter the cost' is ingrained in pretty much every aspect of the social structure. I suppose this all has its roots in the self-preservation instinct- no great mystery there.

    I wonder how the numbers would skew if the situation changed. That is, if the right to die became co-equal with the right to live; not only in the laws (though that would surely follow), but in the psychology of the culture itself. Imagine the changes in the conversation, if choosing death became just another normative lifestyle alternative.

    Certainly, the thought experiment itself is worthwhile, ESPECIALLY for those who believe that, if life is really so bad, more people would be killing themselves. I suspect most naysayers would be reticent to play this particular mind game; because, to tell you the truth, the ramifications are just too scary for many to consider. The 'life is sacred' myth is deeply, deeply rooted, and like all myths, looking too closely makes most people very uncomfortable.

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  2. Jim, I think suicides would increase dramatically in the situation you envision. No question - especially if suicide were relatively easy. Studies show that a religious belief (e.g., usually an unexamined ethical belief) that suicide is wrong is slightly protective against suicide. The only question is how dramatically.

    There's an anti-suicide sentiment that insists that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Clearly, this is untrue - not all problems are temporary, and not all problems are solvable. Hope is not always rational.

    The reason this line of Pollyanna-ish anti-suicide thinking irritates me is that it's not applying the same standards to the decision to continue to live as it is to the decision to die.

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    1. > Clearly, this is untrue - not all problems are
      > temporary, and not all problems are solvable.
      > Hope is not always rational

      Indeed, indeed, indeed. Even if suffering was "abolished", there will still be left the problem of meaninglessness. (I don't really buy the "abolishing *all* suffering" stuff, since some humans seem to be able to suffer immensly from thoughts of meaninglessness; otherwise you'd need to "rewrite" my brain, and that I find very scary). It simply won't ever go away, no matter what humans do---at least if you can't believe in a religion or something similar, like "progress" or "humanity". And then my low IQ ... Horrible! I don't care if someday "we" will be able to increase intelligence, because I suffer *now*. God, having to work in a slaughterhouse even though one is a vegetarian (almost vegan!) is absolutely disgusting. But I've got to do it. No analyzing or math skills---maybe even math anyiety?---so what's left, right? Dropping out of school didn't help either. I don't want this life. (Sorry for rambling, and of course sorry for my english. Good to know, though, that like-minded people exist -- and they are even highly intelligent!)

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  3. "Optimistic bias often causes people to overvalue the future utility of their lives." I want to be alert that this may be operating in what I say. My problem does not end at human suffering (I am not an irrational speciesist), my problem is the billions of non-human persons who endure the real hell that is life. Consciousness brings agony, yes, but not the agony of the sow-crate, the factory farm etc etc. . My problem is this. Suicide is not rational for me because if I cease to exist there is one less person fighting for non-human persons. I cannot let the anguish of my consciousness break me down. Nietzsche said that many deep thinkers are comforted in the coldest nights by the thought that there is always suicide. Suicide offers only an escape from *your* suffering - which says nothing of the bigger picture. Relatively few people are able to comprehend the animal holocaust and what it means, I am one of them. If I convince 10 people a year to go vegan, I reduce animal suffering by a tiny margin to be sure, it is still better than if I were to perish from gloom. The gloom is extremely real, I want to impress upon you that I understand this. I sometimes wish suicide were a true escape, but it is not.

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    1. I know this is a very old post, but I just had to comment. You are absolutely right Michael. While I think life itself is a pointless, unfortunate accident, individual lives can be meaningfull blessings to the world. There is no greater opertunity to do good in the world for most of us than animal advocacy. Thank you for hanging on for the suffering and voiceless billions. May you find joy in that.

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