Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is the Value of a Death?

The effect of a death, particularly a suicide, on society in general is, in large part, measurable. Rather than simply assume that by continuing to live, we can have a net positive effects on others, we must pose this as a question: to best help others, is it most effective to live or to die?

What is the value of a death? In order for our answer to this to have any informative content (and not to be mere bullshit), we must at the outset not make assumptions, but recognize that the answer may turn out to be positive or negative - including not just monetary measures, but non-monetary effects as well.

There is some evidence that contrary to popular belief, the net effect of a suicide on the general population is positive, at least in monetary and material terms. There is another way in which suicide could have a strong positive effect on the rest of society, but which effect is artificially prevented by the current de facto suicide prohibition in effect in most countries. Committing suicide could not only leave one's compatriots better off in monetary terms, but better off in terms of health and life. This is because a suicide is in a position to give a number of suffering, life-preferring people all of his healthy, functioning organs.

What is the value of a kidney? A cornea? A heart? A monetary value could be calculated from market data where markets exist for these "commodities," but the value is essentially this: they save human lives, and most humans desperately want to stay alive.

Currently, over 100,000 people are waiting for organ transplants in the United States. Over 6,000 of them die every year waiting for a transplant that never comes. Meanwhile, over 34,000 people die from suicide every year (and many more, no doubt, want to die, but cannot).

Why not let us die peacefully in a hospital and donate our organs to people who want to live?

An objection might be raised that this would reduce the costs of suicide, thereby resulting in more suicides overall. First, this objection relies on the conclusion that suicide is bad. One raising this objection must explain why suicide is bad, even when it is voluntary, informed, and saves many lives. Second, this intervention would only raise the number of "good suicides" - people trapped in miserable lives by the high "costs" of suicide. It would not increase "bad suicides," impulsive suicides or insincere attempts. It may even decrease these "bad suicides."

The costs of suicide, as outlined by Becker and Posner in their unpublished paper "Suicide: An Economic Approach," include the evolutionarily adaptive fear of death (which might prevent one from putting a gun to one's head and pulling the trigger even if one rationally wished to end one's life), the pain or unpleasantness of the actual killing, and the risk of failing and being left crippled. Organ donation in a hospital setting eliminates these costs, in addition to possibly (and rightly) decreasing social disapprobation for suicide.

To get here, we must be willing to admit that the subjective value of life is heterogeneous for individuals. Rather than denying and suppressing this truth, we should utilize it to genuinely achieve higher levels of well-being for everyone in our society. The simple act of suicide could increase expected well-being for the suicide (to 0 utility from an original state of negative expected utility) and the man, woman, or child dying of organ failure as well, without necessarily decreasing well-being for anyone.

A single organ donor can save up to eight lives, and provide tissue transplants to help dozens more. Who among us can say with any kind of certainty that by continuing to live, we will save eight lives and help dozens more people in a concrete, measurable way?


  1. One of the main reasons suicide will never become socially acceptable is that, apart from the personal motivations of the suicidee, the individual commiting the act is in effect saying "To hell with everything and everyone. Nothing here is good enough to satisfy me."

    Society is predicated on two core beliefs: life is worthwhile, and society is the structure that allows life to operate and flourish. Therefore, I can't see any government sanctioning suicide on the basis of a cost-benefit utilitarian approach given that the act itself fundamentally explodes those two beliefs.

  2. FBI raids granny that sells "suicide kits"

    They really went out of their way to bust her, jeezes christ..really disgusting. I hope they have no case.

  3. They are accusing her of mail fraud? WTF?

  4. To Karl, that's a fundamental misunderstanding of why people commit suicide. Many don't do it out of selfishness because "nothing here is good enough" for them. They are in a state of such despair and emotional turmoil that they simply don't think that way. Imagine being set on fire, how rational would your decisions be? Could you sit perfectly still, even if it was the only way to not cause your loved ones pain?

    People's lives are painful, and everyone has different pain thresholds. Some people simply can't handle it, aren't equipped with the ability to "suck it up" and "get over it." People are so quick to frame it as a moral shortcoming, a "weakness of character," or selfishness. But that's not it at all and it's narrow-minded and cruel to assume so.

    1. I disagree. "Nothing here is good enough for me" is an entirely reasonable and legitimate reason to end one's life.

      It is accepted for quitting jobs or bad relationships, refusing the consumption of goods and services, even leaving the country.

      We have exit and voice, and voice doesn't even work without the threat of exit! This is why all totalitarian systems want to imprison their populace - metaphorically and often literally.

      It is an essential condition of a free society that its members are voluntary members!

  5. Forgive me for asking something that's probably inane.... Let's say the suicidal person gives their organs to 8 different people, who all go on to have multiple children. Is the suicide still a net gain for society, since without the suicides help those people would not have been able to continue living, and have children? I'm not saying people shouldn't donate organs, fwiw, I'm just curious how those variables effect the suicides overall "net gain," well from an antinatalists perspective, anyways. I'm tying this article in with the "Suicides Represent a Net Gain for Society" article, obviously.


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