Friday, April 09, 2004

Suicide and Traffic Jams

Jonathan Ichikawa links to an article which begins as follows:
More than Iraq, the presidential election or the start of baseball season, one topic is dominating talk radio and water-cooler conversation in the Bay Area this week: the would-be suicide jumper who tied up traffic on the Bay Bridge and surrounding freeways for 13 1/2 hours last Friday.

The opinions fall into two camps.

One says you do whatever it takes for however long it takes to prevent the suicide. Saving a life is worth more than the inconvenience and costly ramifications of a traffic jam, even one that brings a wide slice of the Bay Area to a standstill. To believe otherwise, this camp says, is to abandon a core societal belief in the value of a person's life.

The other side says there ought to be a time limit for negotiating with a jumper -- say an hour or two -- then the authorities should remove him. The resistant jumper might be hurt or even fall to his death in the process, but since he put himself in such a dangerous position, he is ultimately responsible for the result. The rest of us should not be held hostage, the argument goes, to a narcissist -- even a mentally ill narcissist -- who wants to be the center of attention for 13 hours.

Farhad Ajir is surely not the last suicidal person who will find himself or herself paralyzed with fear, doubt or confusion at the edge of the Bay Bridge. So how do we figure out the ethical and social calculus to resolve the debate about handling such situations in the future?

I'm not sure that I agree with either side. Or at least, I don't think a (justified) decision can be made without further information. Of particular importance, I think, is the 'risk factor' - what is the probability that forcably "removing" the jumper will result in his injury or death? Also, what is the base-rate to which we are comparing this, i.e. what are the chances that the guy will jump even after several hours of negotiations?

It seems to me fairly clear that if the risk factor is either a) quite low, OR b) comparable to the base-rate, then there is nothing wrong with forcably "removing" him.

Contrarily, if the risk factor is moderate-to-high (i.e. if the removal is likely to kill the would-be-jumper), then such a removal seems quite blatantly immoral. You can't go around killing people just to ease a traffic jam... it's obscene!

But it's not that simple, as Kat (see Ichikawa's comments) points out:
Considering there are thousands of people stuck in the traffic jam, it seems very possible that one of those people is a diabetic who will die if she has to wait 13 hours for her insulin shot; or what if an ambulance carrying a critical patient has to get across the bridge? Certainly there could be more than just time wasted in this situation.

So there are further empirical facts we need to know in order to answer this question, namely, what are the likely (harmful) consequences of having the bridge jammed up for a long period of time?
Perhaps risking the life of an already suicidal person would be necessary to save other lives? Though I would expect that there must be better alternatives.

So the real dilemma here seems to arise when the risk-factor is on the low side of 'moderate', or if there is a genuine threat to others posed by the traffic jam. In that case, I'm not sure what to do. I guess it would depend on the exact details of the situation (compare the relative probabilities of serious harms being done to either party, etc).

Either way, I think this issue really highlights the importance of empirical facts in moral decision-making. For either camp to just blindly assert an absolutist moral judgement, independent of the contingent facts of this particular situation, strikes me as a serious mistake.

This reminds me of an old article about bridge-jumpers:
Dr. Seiden’s study, "Where Are They Now?", published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. "The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature," Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later.

It was also discussed at Crooked Timber a while back:
What I found terrifying to contemplate: many of those who survived the jump (not that there are many, I believe the article cites 26 survivors) recount that they immediately regretted the action. Awful to think of the hundreds more who didn’t survive, who probably also regretted the action even as they were plunging to their deaths.

I'm reminded of that saying about how the measure of a civilization is how well it treats its worst-off members. Surely you can't get much worse than those contemplating suicide.

From my idealistic armchair, I, for one, want to live in a society which does what it can (within reason) to help these people. But I guess if I was stuck in a traffic jam for 13 hours I might change my mind...