Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Suicide Prohibition as Regressive Tax

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 80% of Americans think suicide is wrong.

Dear Americans: why is suicide wrong? Presumably, the nature of the "wrongness" of suicide, whatever it is, justifies the de facto suicide prohibition.

I suspect that a large part of that 80% would identify a religious reason for the moral wrongness of suicide (not that I think folks have much introspective access to their true motivations). However, only 51% think abortion is morally wrong, and 23% think divorce is morally wrong, despite strong religious condemnation of both practices.

Even more than religious convictions, I suspect that the perception of suicide as wrong is, at heart, about the suffering of people "left behind" when we kill ourselves. The suffering of those left behind is especially salient. But even if suicide does major harm to those left behind, to our mothers and sisters and best friends and teachers and lovers, this does not justify a suicide prohibition. A prohibition enacted for such a purpose is identical, economically, to a regressive tax.

Regressive taxation is when poor people pay a higher share of their income in taxes than rich people do. It characterizes our current economic system in the United States, but it is generally regarded as undesirable to take from the poor and give to the rich.

A person who genuinely wishes to commit suicide has, by her own measure (the only one that counts), negative expected future utility. She expects to suffer in the future more than any future benefits are worth. The suicide prohibition prevents her from improving her position (from negative expected utility to zero expected utility). It does so for the benefit of those who do not wish to commit suicide - those with positive expected future utility.

The suicide prohibition, when justified on the basis of harm to others, punishes the least well off for the benefit of those much more well off.

It takes choices from the poor to give pleasure to the rich - without consent and without compensating the poor in any way.

Another word for that is exploitation.


  1. Wow. I have never seen it like that. But it makes a lot of sense.
    Perhaps the "without compensating in any way" is a bit harsh? I would think that the more pleasure the "rich" derive from the existence of the suicidal person the more they would be willing to try to improve his situation. If they have no obligation to do so then it could be seen as "stick around and we will help you". To what extent that really is the case and does work I do not know.

    All the best,

  2. I have been reading your blog for a while and I think that views you advocate are very reasonable. Though, I never thought that were 80% of idiots out there.

  3. This post certainly made me think, but I don't think it's correct. In a utilitarian calculus, progressive taxation is good and regressive taxation is bad because the marginal utility of income has negative slope. When you talk about the suicide and the ones left behind, however, you're talking directly about utility. The marginal utility of utility is by definition constant. So imposing a utility hit on the would-be suicide is correct so long as the hit is smaller than what those left behind would suffer.

    You need to go at least, I think, to prioritarianism if you want to make this kind of argument. Or, you could deny the commensurability of suffering and joy, and either lexically prioritize suffering (this is basically negative utilitarianism except in cases where there's zero difference in disutility) or say that quantitative consequentialism has to be silent in cases where there's a mix of suffering and joy, and rely on other moral principles.

  4. JasonSL, that is insightful. I have not given any reasons here why a regressive taxation system is bad (I just relied on people's sense that it is bad, like picking on someone smaller than you is, you know, just wrong), but the marginal utility thing definitely crossed my mind in the background.

    So regarding the fact that I'm talking about people poor in U(i) and economists are talking about people poor in (i). Progressive taxation, as you note, (not explaining for you, but for my fellow non-economists) is often justified as a departure from flat taxation on the grounds that a marginal dollar is simply worth more to a poor person than to a rich person. (Like, utility tops out in present-day United States at around $75,000 per year; it's not very utilitarian, under either average or total utilitarian schemes, to let someone keep money that isn't doing them any good, when meanwhile another person has to pay money to the government that would do him a LOT of good.)

    I had never before now realized how WEIRD this justification is. It contains a strong empirical claim (that our model of utility functions is true for the relevant people, can be compared across people, etc.), and a pretty strong ethical claim (that you have a privileged claim to maximize your utility if you can do so with less income, no?).

    Anyway, yes, I do think this argument relies on other principles, but I'm not sure the moderately egalitarian, anti-bullying ethos requires any more justification than the income-to-the-most-efficient-utility-generator ethos.

    Prioritarianism - good term to know, thanks!

  5. To get at the weirdness more:

    Suppose a given group demonstrably has a convex utility function (as Becker & Posner argue that many miserable people do). Should taxes be regressive among them?

    I think egalitarianism drives displeasure with regressive taxation more than efficiency of income-to-utility conversion, actually.

  6. No quarrel with your overall approach or ultimate conclusion, but can you explain how you support your claim that poor people pay a higher share of their income in taxes than rich people in the U.S.? My understanding is that the US Tax Code is generally progressive, that the federal income tax is especially so, and that the comparative regressivity of payroll taxes is offset by entitlement distribution. And let's not forget progressive-as-fuck estate taxes, which are paid exclusively by the wealthy. Do sales taxes somehow tip the pot? Is it something more subtle?

  7. Yes - sales tax and sin tax disproportionately affect the poor, since they both consume more of their income and consume more booze, cigarettes, and lottery tickets to numb themselves from the pain of life as a peon.

    The wealthy have greater access to tax avoidance measures.

    Federal estate tax is pretty gone (disappeared in 2010, then that sunsetted, now it's in limbo but it's looking like the deduction is going to be $5 mil).

    I think costs of being poor are also relevant here, as many of them are augmented by the government - late fees on registration fees for automobiles, monetary and other penalties for victimless crime disproportionately engaged in by poor people, etc.

  8. Sofisticated, thought provoking posts.

  9. Federal and state income taxes are progressive, but that's about it (along with the estate tax, which only affects the very rich, and property taxes on non-rentable properties (for rentable properties, a large share of the incidence falls on tenants and their customers)). The payroll tax is regressive, the capital gains tax is effectively regressive (see Warren Buffet's observation that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary does, e.g..), the mortgage interest tax deduction is regressive, etc. And that's before we get to state and local taxes, which are generally regressive.

    People tend to ignore that what really matters is taxes as a fraction of income above what's needed to pay for necessities, rather than as a fraction of total income. For the rich, these two are very similar -- basic sustenance, shelter, transportation, and medical care is a small proportion of the income of the rich. For the poor, this can eat up all (or more) of their entire income. So replacing every government tax or fee with a flat tax would still be regressive, since taxes owed by the poor as a fraction of money they have to pay the taxes with would be larger than that owed by the rich.

    (The filing threshold for a family of four in the U.S. is $18,350, and the official poverty line is $22,350. So the federal government taxes people on money it itself deems to be necessary for basic survival. And that's not to mention all the other taxes on sub-poverty income.)

  10. My guess is that people are against suicide primarily for the following reason: it temporarily makes them less delusional. Normally, everyone in society reinforces delusions about life ("life is precious", "life is the greatest gift"). Even if someone is depressed, the response is "cheer up, life will get better." The person who commits suicide is basically saying "no it won't." They are rejecting the most most fundamental human belief - a belief that people don't want questioned.

  11. neq1,

    Reminds me of the tenet held by some Christians that despair is the greatest sin. (Although Aquinas, FWIW, is not one of them:

  12. neq1
    I agree that suicide talk makes people less delusional. It is beyond my comprehension why som many otherwise intelligent highly educated people uncritically accept delusional dogmatism.

  13. ALL "income" taxes are unethical and legitimately wrong. Read G Edward Griffin's "The Creature from Jekyll Island" that lays out exactly how our income tax was secretly created. Having said that, please find and read, Pete Hendrickson's "Cracking the Code" at his web site He spent years cracking the irs' code on the term "income" which is not what we are led to believe.
    The irs is nothing more than a collection agency for the Federal Reserve which has as much to do with the fed gov as Federal Express. Not a fed agency but a private for-profit organization - a mafia of sorts endorsed by the fed gov. The Fed Res answers to and is part of the World Bank which is part of the international cartel of banks. Rothchild said centuries ago, "Let me control the money and I care not who writes the laws." - or something very close to that.


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