Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Five Reasons to Have an Abortion

A PDF tri-fold pamphlet version of this article is available here.

Are you pregnant and deciding between abortion, adoption, and raising the child? You have probably heard the arguments against abortion; here are five reasons why abortion is the right choice for everyone involved.

1. For Your Own Good


You will be happier and healthier if you abort.

2. For the Good of the Father


Think of the child's other parent.
  • The father has no choice whether to have a baby, like you have.
  • All of a sudden, he will be financially and socially responsible for a child he didn't want or plan for.
  • He may feel his life is ruined.
  • Many fathers of unwanted children commit suicide.
  • You have the power to prevent this. At some point, you cared for him enough to have sex with him; now show you really care by not drastically changing his life without his consent.


3. For the Good of the World


Your child will need food and energy, and will get it from a world that already doesn’t have enough to go around – for wildlife or people.

4. For the Good of Other Children


Giving a child up for adoption means there will be one less loving home for some other needy child.
  • Even if you are able to find a loving home for your child, giving up a child for adoption deprives another child, somewhere out there, of that very loving home.
  • Some child who would have found a great home will merely get an okay home.
  • And some child who would have gotten an okay home will be left with none.
  • This is particularly true for older or disabled children, who will not be able to compete with your newborn, presumably healthy infant.


5. For the Good of the Child


Life is NOT a precious gift.
  • A child who is never born can never suffer pain, fear, or loneliness.
  • A child who is never born can never experience death.
  • By having a child, you ensure that it will suffer during its lifetime, and that it will die.
  • A study published in the American Journal of Sociology found that 30% of children wish they'd never been born.


Carrying a pregnancy to term is NOT the morally right thing to do. Abortion is not only the less dangerous choice for the mother, it's the morally responsible choice for everyone.

If you think abortion is wrong, how about New Abortion?



Lest anyone downplay the seriousness of the physical aspects mentioned in the first section above, here is a quotation from a woman struggling with the physical consequences of pregnancy:
So I use to be hopeful. I use to think I could change my body back to semi-normal or at least into something I could accept. I know differently now. Now I know that with out surgery I will be miserable forever…. Ok maybe that’s a tad bit dramatic. What I know is that I’m currently about 40 lbs heavier than I was when I posted last. . . . I hate my body more than I ever have in my life. I don’t look at other women and think “oh she looks awful” for some reason I can totally see beauty in others but in myself? Not at all. Everyday is a challenge. As dramatic as it sounds I sometimes think about dying over it. I wouldn’t take my own life (I couldn’t do that to my children) but sometimes it seems like dying would be a nice way out… An easy way out. [Sic throughout. Emphasis mine.]

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?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Suicides Represent a Net Gain for Society

Or, Altruistic Reasons to Commit Suicide



Arguing against suicide, a correspondent writes:
By choosing to live one can prevent much more suffering than by killing oneself (hundreds or thousands times more!). Everyone who thinks about suicide knows how horrible suffering can be (and therefore should know how important it is to prevent as much of it as possible). I agree that it is better not to be born at all, but now that we are alive, we have the choice. If I kill myself I can spare myself some amount of suffering, but if I choose to live and dedicate my life to helping others I can spare them hundreds or thousands times more suffering.

I have previously indicated that one of the reasons I have not committed suicide to date is that I know my death would cause considerable pain to others. But this made me wonder: what is, in fact, the net effect of suicide?

Actually, it turns out that suicides are probably on balance good for society. A 2007 study found that considering all the economic impacts of suicide, the 30,906 suicides completed in 1990 actually saved the United States $5.07 billion - in 2005 dollars (about $160,000 per suicide). That's right - suicides, on balance, represent an economic gain for society.

What about the environment? An American produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year. A 33-year-old female like me, with 50+ years left of her natural lifespan, could presumably prevent 1000 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere by packing it in early.

That is not to mention the many other harmful effects that people, particularly first-world people, have on the environment and its inhabitants.

I have argued that the possibility of doing good for others is extremely limited, partially by what I term the altruistic treadmill. I am highly skeptical of the claim that a person can sustainably increase the well-being of other people. (See, e.g., Lykken and Tellegen's "Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon.") I suspect that a real-life It's a Wonderful Life would be much more ambivalent than the theatrical version. At any rate, such an increase in well-being would have to outweigh the concrete, measurable gains to society from ending one's life - $160,000, a thousand tons of carbon dioxide, and one less mouth to feed - not to mention never, ever again triggering an ostracism response in another human being, nor hurting anyone or anything again, ever.

You would have to be a pretty stellar human being to make up for that. I'm mostly speaking for myself here, but I doubt most people who have gotten to the point of considering suicide have the capacity to drastically improve the lives of others in a sustainable way, to reach a magnitude large enough to offset the very real gains to society that their suicides would entail.

Also: this is probably the point where I should get the hell off of blogspot before they delete all my shit.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Practice of Euphemism

Powerful, generally undetected euphemistic processes in language give us a falsely optimistic model of the world.



The Origin of Euphemistic Distortions

The formation and use of euphemism is a powerful, inevitable process in human language. Every day, subjects must be discussed or alluded to that could cause discomfort in the parties to the conversation, detracting from both the informative purpose of the conversation and the (generally more important) social bonding function. To avoid the discomfort, taboo subjects are discussed in a circuitous manner, removed as much as possible from the disturbing aspect of the topic. Disturbing aspects are ignored, reframed, treated symbolically, or otherwise elided.

On the level of diction, words and phrases are found to bring to mind the relevant aspects of a topic, while minimizing the disturbing or irrelevant aspects. Metaphor and metonymy are common mechanisms for euphemism, but there are many such methods, with not just new euphemisms, but new euphemistic mechanisms, being invented all the time.

But euphemism does not only happen on the level of word choice. From micro- to macro-, from the foundational narrative/legend of a society to the way social relationships are cognized, human language users and language-using communities and even nature (via evolution) are acting on language to orient human thought in euphemistic directions. How our brains conceive of the world (including language) is not related to what's actually important in a universal sense, but to what was important to organisms' fitness goals in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. We do not perceive all wavelengths of light or sound, but only those that (a) were relevant to survival in the EEA and (b) for which a perceptive apparatus was evolutionarily available. (And we do not perceive things like X-rays at all.) Similarly, language does not give us a picture of what is, but only a picture of what was relevant to survival in the EEA.

Artists Explode Euphemism

The project of artists (and of phenomenology) is often to explode euphemistic ways of thinking. In "Dulce et Decorum est," Wilfred Owen does so for the romantic idea of glorious death in combat. Patriotism and a euphemized conception of those fighting may be more comfortable and politically expedient for the folks back home, but here's how it really is, says Owen, here is what is elided: the boy who doesn't get his gas mask on in time, "guttering, choking, drowning," "the white eyes writhing in his...hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin," at every jolt of the wagon they "flung him in," the "blood/come gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs." Happy Memorial Day.

No Counter-Process

What does this tell us about the accuracy of the model of the world we have from language? Is our conception accurate? Too rosy? Too negative?

We might expect our visual picture of the world to be "too rosy" if we found that our instrument for detecting red light (eyes, brain) were set too high compared to the mechanism for detecting other kinds of light. Analogously, an understanding of the linguistic phenomenon of euphemism might lead us to suspect that our conception of the world may be too optimistic - unless, of course, there were a countervailing, dysphemistic process. However, a moment's reflection shows us that the effect of any dysphemistic process is only a tiny fraction of that of euphemism, at best.

A main function of euphemism is to avoid social discomfort. The idea of suffering is always socially uncomfortable - we should expect it to be edited out. There is rarely any reason to add pain (or social awkwardness) to already-comfortable language - this is the task of the artist and the philosopher alone.

The Mistaken Notion of Pure Language

Less subtle thinkers than Wilfred Owen have hoped for a world of clean language, without euphemism. This is a mistaken hope.

All language has connotation as well as denotation - an emotional message as well as an informative one, even if that emotional message is one of blank neutrality. We do not think without emotion; in a practical sense, we are incapable of doing so. Without the swift functioning of our emotions, we are crippled at such "simple" cognitive tasks as making decisions (see, e.g., "The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage," by Antoine Bechara, Brain and Cognition 55 (2004) 30–40). Why should language not take advantage of this fast system of cognition whose output is chemicals?

Language "cleaned of its emotional message" is not purer or realer or truer language - it is systematically distorted language. Making a project of eradicating euphemism immediately begs the question of the objectively correct word or conception for a given thing or act. "Crack baby" or "drug-exposed infant"? "Crack baby" one might call politically incorrect, vernacular, plainspoken, suggesting that "drug-exposed infant" is the euphemism. The latter, though, is the term used by child welfare professionals (nurses, social workers) to indicate that a horrible violation happened to this innocent infant child, emphasizing the wrong done to the child. Can you hear the screams more from "crack baby" or "drug-exposed infant"? See the tubes and the shaking and the tiny hands? And which better expresses that the mother of said infant used drugs to ease her pain from having been viciously sexually abused during her childhood?

All words are euphemisms. All language is euphemism - selection of relevant, comfortable aspects, and elision of pangs of empathetic pain so far as possible.

"Rape" is a euphemism. "Prison" is a euphemism. Even "prison rape" is a euphemism. Words indicate concepts, but cannot ever express how bad these experiences are for those who suffer them.


The Two Main Ways In Which Evolution Is Not Our Friend

With millions of years of evolution behind our species, and a billion behind life in general, we might expect - in a Panglossian frame of mind - to function very well, and to be free from unnecessary misery. Wouldn't the ruthless process of selection have removed causes for fitness-draining suffering and poor well-being in general?

There are two main reasons why we should expect a great deal of unnecessary suffering to be the product of evolution.

1. Adaptation Executors

A maxim of evolutionary biology is that organisms (like us) are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. Evolutionary processes create organisms that execute biologically-mediated strategies - it does not create rational beings that maximize fitness in all instances.

In many cases, the detection mechanism is "too sensitive" for our own good - our pain response and our startle response, for example, both generate lots of "false positives" in terms of fitness threats we may respond productively to. This is because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the cost of tons of false positives was outweighed by the benefit of being "right" that one time that counts.

Our social ostracism detection system has also been posited to be hypersensitive, for the above evolutionary reasons. Social belonging has such a high survival value that any potential threat must be addressed immediately. This is true even if it means 100 "false positives" - instances of social ostracism with no actual fitness threat - must be suffered by the individual organism.

What's a good idea for evolution is not necessarily a good idea for you. Evolution works fine - it just doesn't give a fuck about the well-being of individual organisms.

2. Failures

In other cases, complex systems interact in such a way that the detection system is "broken." This may be because the EEA doesn't match current conditions, as may be the case with asthma, allergies, diabetes, and obesity. In other cases, it may be because organisms aren't created perfectly every time, and are not perfectly matched even to EEA conditions. Evolution can only act on the mutations it's given. The pain of a migraine, for instance, is not an indication of a necessary response the way the pain from a burn is. Problems may not reflect any adaptation at all - it might be a defect in the system, or in the organism.

Written in response to this comment by The Plague Doctor.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Maslow Be Damned: How Social Belonging Trumps Everything

The need for social belonging is the primal human need - and failure to have it satisfied is subjectively worse than death.


Social Pain Causes Suicide

People don't commit suicide out of just any sorrow.

What suffering, specifically, is bad enough to cause people to want to pull the plug on existence itself? It is only and exclusively social pain.

The most modern, scientific model of the causes of suicide that we have is that articulated by Thomas Joiner in his 2005 book Why People Die By Suicide (my review here). Joiner's model, supported by a large body of empirical evidence, posits three conditions that reliably predict suicide: a failure of social belonging, the perception of oneself as a burden on others, and the development of competence in actually carrying out the difficult act of suicide. Only the competence factor is not a direct function of social belonging.

Other kinds of pain aren't sufficient to cause suicide - not hunger, not remorse, not even extreme physical pain. The research suggests that being a valued member of a social group, with a role to play in supporting others, is the most basic human need - not just on par with, but frequently surpassing other human needs such as those for food, shelter, sleep, and sex.

For example, the misery of prison is primarily one of failed social belonging. In the general population, marriage is protective against suicide, as is employment. But married prisoners and prisoners who were employed prior to incarceration are more likely to commit suicide than unmarried, unemployed prisoners. For the first group, incarceration represents a severance of important social bonds and a failure of belonging. For the second group, prison may merely be a continuation of previous social belonging experiences.

The fear of death itself may be, when reduced to its essence, primarily a fear of the ultimate social cutting-off, the final ostracism. The data on suicide and social belonging support the idea of suicide as revealed preference - that the value of life is not as high as the negative value of complete social ostracism. This is in contrast to the idea of suicide as necessarily irrational and a product of mental illness.

Hunger and Sympathy

The United Nations reported in 2009 that over one billion people are hungry in the world; that number currently grows by about a hundred million a year. The suffering of physical hunger is the easiest form of suffering to empathize with; indeed, a recent Foreign Policy article noted that the statistic of a billion hungry "grabbed headlines in a way that any number of World Bank estimates of how many poor people live on less than a dollar a day never did."

Here's the fascinating thing about hunger, though: as bad as prolonged malnutrition is - and we all agree that it is very bad - poor, hungry people do not spend every extra cent on more calories.

When staples like wheat and rice are subsidized so that people may buy them at a cheaper price, in many cases they buy less of the staple, and more meat and shrimp. People suffering from severe malnutrition (wasting, growth stunting) still spend money on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Starving families still have televisions and cellular phones.

One response to this is to harden one's heart: if they're not hungry enough to spend every spare rupee on more calories, they must not be hungry enough to deserve our sympathy (much less our money).

A more productive response would be to view the data for what they are: evidence that some things are more painful than hunger. Specifically, the need for social belonging is more pressing than the need for food. Alcohol and tobacco are addictive substances, but a quick look at actual practices reveals that they are generally used socially (as in the fixed men's social groups that smoke together late into the night, in the 600-person Indian village Christopher Alexander studies in the appendix to his Notes on the Synthesis of Form). Spending on "festivals" is by its nature social. Television, described by one interviewee in the Foreign Policy article as "more important than food," functions both as a social focus for actual people, and a pleasant, comforting substitute for actual socialization. (Cellular phones need no explanation.) Even the "better tasting" food the poor seem to buy rather than more cheap, boring, nutritious food - the meat and shrimp from the China wheat study - is "high status" food, conveying a social message at least as important as its nutritional function.

As I have stated before, poverty doesn't just suck - it hurts. I think it a valid hypothesis that poverty is actually dreadfully painful - not only physically, but emotionally and socially. There is only so much pain we can expect a being to endure before his attempts to relieve it through future-damaging means becomes perfectly understandable and, in fact, rational.

What We Know About Social Pain

Why and how do we perceive social pain and social belonging, and how do these perceptions affect us? A recent body of research has provided some surprising answers.

  1. Social pain hurts like physical pain. fMRI studies have demonstrated that the pain of perceived social rejection involves the same brain regions as physical pain. Social pain even responds to acetaminophen!
  2. Social pain is ubiquitous. Everyone experiences it, even if they don't register it as such. People experience about one episode of social ostracism per day.
  3. Social pain is irrational. Subjects experience pain and lowered mood as a consequence of social ostracism even when they are explicitly told that it is merely a computer doing the "ostracizing." The pain of exclusion affects even people playing a computer ball game who are told their computers are not yet connected to the other computers, making inclusion logically impossible! Even ostracism by a despised outgroup - say, the KKK - induces the same misery as ostracism by other groups.
  4. Social pain affects individuals differently. A normal individual will experience depressed mood after minor social exclusion, but will recover within 45 minutes. A person with social anxiety will not have recovered even from a minor social exclusion after 45 minutes. Repeated exposure to cues of social rejection may even sensitize individuals to these cues, resulting in even more needless pain.
  5. What about autists? A 2011 study found that the brains of adolescents with autistic spectrum disorder did not process cues of social rejection the same as neurotypical brains, but they were just as hurt and concerned after experiencing social rejection! Not even autistic folks are immune from the pain of failed social belonging.

(For more on this fascinating subject, here are lists of publications for Kip Williams and Naomi Eisenberger, two major researchers in the field of social pain and ostracism. Williams' "Ostracism: The Kiss of Social Death" is an excellent introduction to the field.)

To sum up, social pain is more common, more painful, and less rational than is widely understood. Experiencing social pain is not optional; unfortunately, neither is causing social pain. By virtue of being born, each of us will cause innumerable incidents of social pain in others throughout our lives - most commonly without realizing it at all. But it's actually much worse than that, because one of the most common, effective responses to experiencing social ostracism is aggression toward others, even others not involved in the original ostracism event. Negative ripples spread out from each incident of social pain - and all the while the proximate source of the social pain may be entirely unaware of having caused it.

Analysis of a Decision to Smile

To illustrate the problem, consider the following everyday decision: whether or not to smile at a passing stranger.

A conscientious actor with a passing familiarity with evolutionary psychology literature will know that smiling at a stranger is potentially damaging, especially if the actor is attractive. When a woman smiles and acts warmly toward a man, he becomes less satisfied with his current partner. So smiling at a stranger may damage his relationship - negatively affecting not just him, but those around him as well, such as his partner and children.

However, the actor must also be aware that failing to smile may induce feelings of social ostracism in the stranger. This will not only cause the stranger suffering (especially if he happens to have social anxiety), but may cause him to act aggressively toward others to recover from the social pain.

A great deal of attention has been paid to the idea of the hedonic treadmill - the fact that an increase in welfare (say, from winning the lottery) does not lead to greater happiness, but causes one to reset one's expectations at a higher level. A benefit may only make the same level of happiness more expensive. I hope that this example illustrates that there is also an altruistic treadmill. It is impossible to do good for someone, because his expectations will reset to account for the deed. Unfortunately, others - even strangers - already depend on our altruistic inputs to them, and will feel their absence even while their provision would not make them any happier. It's a Giant's Drink situation: the only winning move is not to play.

But we've already all been forced to play.

The Lonely Modern

In learning about social pain, we have discovered a new Civilization and Its Discontents issue. Philippe Rochat, in a postscript to his excellent Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, presents a picture of the kind of social life we evolved to experience:

Walking around in South Pacific island traditional villages, during the
day or in the pitch dark of moonless nights, it is almost impossible to cross paths with someone, young or old, woman or man, familiar or absolute stranger, without some greeting, without some acknowledgment of your existence, either called by your name or being asked what you are doing and where you are going, even if the response is very obvious. For individuals like me who grew up in rich postindustrial regions of the world, who struggle for their career and place in society, constantly under the spell of a panic fear of failure, of having failed, or of being an impostor, such simple, yet constant social acknowledgment amounts to the experience of tremendous relief. Finally one experiences the peace of being effortlessly recognized by others, the absolute sense of being socially substantial, as opposed to socially transparent.

This kind of small village experience lifts the curse of social transparency. One rediscovers what might be a long-lost intimacy and bonding with others, something like the absolute trust and acknowledgment we might have experienced once in love or with our mother in the long-lost high-dependence state of infancy. Who knows? What I am convinced of, however, and have tried to convince the reader of this book is that this kind of intimacy and bonding with others that is the wealth of small traditional society is what we all strive for, regardless of where we live and where we grew up. It is the force that leads us toward self-consciousness, probably more forcefully if we grow up in an industrial region of the world. If there is such a thing as a universal criterion for ‘‘the good life,’’ a comfort we would all aspire to, then it must be the sense of social proximity. It must be the sense of being acknowledged and recognized, of being included and intimate with others, no matter what. It is being safe, the ultimate prize and the ultimate refuge. [Emphasis mine.]

Rochat provides a glimpse of the alternative to our modern experience of daily social ostracism and consequent social pain: small village organization. Of course, this is not a real alternative; it is not possible for our enormous, complex modern society to operate in this way. Most of us would not even wish to live in this way, with its concomitant social control and extreme conservatism. I certainly would not. But it demonstrates that we are adapted to something very different than the environment in which we live. And this necessary mismatch - which, in fact, defines us as moderns - ensures that we will all suffer, and make each other suffer, interminably.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Suicide and Justice

Is a potential suicide a "flight risk"?
Woman charged with causing fatal I-95 crash put on suicide watch

STAMFORD -- A Superior Court judge on Monday set bond at $35,000 for the Hartford woman accused of causing a crash that killed two people over the weekend on Interstate 95 in Darien.

Yadira Torres, 26, of 100 Benton St., Hartford, was put on suicide watch after her arraignment at state Superior Court in Stamford, where she faces two counts of second-degree manslaughter and single charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. Around 6 a.m. Saturday she was driving a rented 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT north on I-95 when she tried to pass a tractor-trailer but lost control and hit it, according to a State Police accident report. (ctpost.com)

The most interesting thing is that the prosecutor argued that the defendant is a flight risk in large part based on her being "distraught" over what happened:

Before the ruling Assistant State's Attorney David Applegate argued Torres was a flight-risk.

"The defendant does pose a flight risk due to the serious charges and the anxiety that attorney Crosland has pointed out," Applegate said, referring to earlier remarks from Crosland that detailed his client's distraught state of mind over the fatal crash.

Is killing yourself the same as flight from justice?

In response to an article describing a particularly spectacular suicide, that is, a leap from the world's tallest building, one commenter asserts:

The man surely needed psychological help. Sane people do not commit suicide unless they're evading public humiliation & arrest (avoiding justice).

The commenter implicitly accepts a dichotomy: suicide is either the result of insanity, or a moral wrong.

Seemingly sane people commit suicide all the time in order to avoid "public humiliation & arrest" or other forms of social death. It is impossible to maintain the conviction that only insane people commit suicide when the plain evidence is to the contrary: sane people frequently commit suicide for completely understandable reasons.

People who commit certain actions must suffer the socially-imposed consequences we deem appropriate. We chase them down if they run away. We lock them up. We force them to participate in our reality.

For the good of whom, though? Certainly not their own. The good of the victims, perhaps - if any remain - although it must be an ambivalent and diffuse sort of "good," in that case.

Perhaps it is for the good of the future victims of similar actions. If people knew they could just commit suicide instantly and painlessly at any moment - like switching a computer game off - would that be incredibly dangerous? Would people commit massively antisocial acts knowing they can always unplug if shit gets too real?

I think they might. And I think this shows us something very important about existence:

In actual, real-life decisions that we can observe, people do seem to choose death over negative social consequences.

This demonstrates that life is inherently less valuable, to individuals, than avoiding social pain.

It puts an upper bound on the value of the so-called precious gift of life.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

New Abortion

A thought experiment about creating and valuing lives


Roe v. Wade does not say what you may think it says. Yes, it creates a right to abortion that cannot be unduly interfered with by the states. But it explicitly states that there are two interests that must be balanced: the woman's privacy interest, and the state's interest in protecting the "potentiality of human life." If this "potentiality" for life could somehow be protected without unduly interfering with the woman's right to end her time as involuntary host organism, it would seem that this would be completely constitutional (not to mention wildly politically popular).

How would that work?

Step 1. Technology is developed such that an implanted embryo may be removed and transplanted to a different woman's uterus.

Step 2. Such technology becomes cheaply available.

Step 3. Lots of wombs in poverty-stricken slums are available for rent. (Check.)

Step 4. New Abortion: for the same price and the same intrusiveness of a standard termination, your uterus is scraped and the embryo harvested, shipped to Nairobi, and implanted in a starving woman's uterus, and after gestation, the child is raised until age 6, when he or she is sold to a factory or a brothel.

This procedure could give the precious gift of life to over a million babies a year from the United States alone.

To those who object on sentimental grounds, I direct them to Robin Hanson: do not slum children sold into prostitution also smile? Isn't the only relevant ethical question whether those children would themselves find their lives to be worthwhile?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Press: Traumatic Brain Injury Makes Suicide Rational

From a story on a professional athlete who committed suicide, suspecting he had traumatic brain injury:
BOSTON — The suicide of the former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson became more alarming Monday morning, when Boston University researchers announced that Duerson’s brain had developed the same trauma-induced disease recently found in more than 20 deceased players.

What is amazing about this story is this: there is no recommendation for greater mental health screening, detection, and services among former professional athletes. There are recommendations, however, to actually SOLVE THE PROBLEM that made the guy's life hell in the first place.

Duerson shot himself Feb. 17 in the chest rather than the head so that his brain could be examined by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which announced its diagnosis Monday morning in Boston.

In this case, the reporter seems to clearly accept the proposition that the former athlete's suicide was caused by his traumatic brain injury - but NOT because his traumatic brain injury made him insane. Rather, it seems that his traumatic brain injury made his life bad enough that it's impossible to completely reject the notion that he committed suicide rationally.

The medical model of suicide - the idea that suicide is a pathological symptom of a curable medical condition - has always been dubious, but it is clear from accounts like this that not even the media (repeatedly warned by well-meaning bullies to self-censor) fully buy the story. Everyone knows that there are good reasons to commit suicide. What few acknowledge is that most genuinely good reasons to commit suicide are not as easy to verify as this former athlete's brain injury.

As David Foster Wallace describes it in Infinite Jest:

Think of it this way. Two people are screaming in pain. One of them is being tortured with electric current. The other is not. The screamer who's being tortured with electric current is not psychotic: her screams are circumstantially appropriate. The screaming person who's not being tortured, however, is psychotic, since the outside parties making the diagnoses can see no electrodes or measurable amperage. One of the least pleasant things about being psychotically depressed on a ward full of psychotically depressed patients is coming to see that none of them is really psychotic, that their screams are entirely appropriate to certain circumstances part of whose special charm is that they are undetectable by any outside party. [Emphasis mine.]

Chinese Factories Make Workers Promise Not To Kill Themselves

Workers in the miserable Chinese factories with embarrassingly high suicide rates are being made to sign "suicide contracts" agreeing that they won't commit suicide, and that their families will get only minimal damages if they do.

Lots of folks in these factories want to commit suicide, and it's easy to understand why, especially with a basic understanding of the causes of suicide (that is, failed social belonging and perceived burdensomeness). Workers may not talk to each other, stand for 12-hour shifts, work for subsistence wages, and must work upwards of 40 hours of overtime a week, which breaks even the minimal worker treatment laws in freaking CHINA. "Badly performing workers were humiliated in front of colleagues," says the article ominously.

Conditions at the factories seem basically designed to create the "subsistence conditions" Robin Hanson imagines for his "ems" - conscious AI human brain emulators that must work to pay for their existence, competing against ever-more-efficient creatures being created all the time.

But Robin Hanson seems sure his em-creatures will be fine. Apparently, American middle- and upper-class workaholics are a better model for them than Chinese iPhone factory workers.

No Life Is Good

David Benatar, in The Philosopher's Magazine:
One common and instant response to [the claim that no lives are good] is indignation. How dare one claim that no lives are good when there are billions of people who say otherwise about their own lives? I dare to make such a claim partly because there is excellent empirical evidence for the conclusion that people’s judgements [sic] cannot be trusted as a reliable indicator of how good their lives really are. For example, research psychologists have shown that people are prone to optimism and to optimistic (that is, inaccurately positive) assessments of their own lives. There are many manifestations of this phenomenon. People are more prone to remember good experiences than bad ones; they have exaggerated views of how well things will go for them in the future; and most people think that the quality of their lives is above average. When it comes to assessing their own moral goodness, people also tend to be overly optimistic. Very few people think of themselves as bad. If we were to trust self-assessments, we would have to conclude that there are very few bad people and evil actions, which is patently false.
...
Cheery people – those who think that life is, or at least, can be good – invariably attempt to reconcile the many bad things in life with the possibility of a good life. That is to say, they offer what might be called a “secular theodicy”. But, like conventional theodicies, which attempt to reconcile the vast amount of evil in the world with God’s existence, the secular theodicy of optimists puts the conclusion before the evidence. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Read the entire piece here.

Thanks Rob Sica!

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