Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Suicide and the End of Persons

Velleman gave a great talk today on his paper Beyond Price, arguing for (amongst other things) the immorality of escapist suicide. The initial argument runs like this: welfare or happiness is only worth caring about for the sake of the person. So to sacrifice the latter for the sake of the former is a kind of practical irrationality. It's like sacrificing happiness for the sake of money, an 'end' for the 'means' with which to achieve it: the thing attained is only valuable for the sake of that which is given up. So you end up with nothing of value at all.

To separate a person from their interests in this way doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Rather, it strikes me as analytic that sacrifice involves harms, not benefits, so you cannot sacrifice someone by benefitting them. Hence, if death is in a person's best interests, then their suicide cannot plausibly be described as self-sacrifice. Sure, they sacrificed their continued living; but they did that for the sake of their interests, which is to say, for them.

One might worry here that the person no longer exists afterwards, so the action can't achieve anything for their sake. (To extend the title pun: the ending of a person's life means that the person can no longer be an end.) Some people claim that death can't harm you, for just the same reason. Both claims are shortsighted. We should look at the person's life as a whole, and ask what would make that life go best. In the latter case, premature death makes the life go worse than it could have, and so is a harm. In the former case, death makes their life as a whole go better than if they were forced to live on in aimless misery; thus death comes as a boon to the person, and can properly be welcomed for their sake.

Again, the Kantian idea that we could want a person's life to go less well "for their sake", strikes me as simply nonsensical. When considering the idea of a person as an end in themselves, we should consider them in terms of their welfare, not their pulse. It's perfectly rational to sacrifice the latter for the former. Indeed, it's the opposite that would be irrational: to harm the person, i.e. make their life go less well, merely in order that their life might extend further in time? That sounds far more wrongheaded to me.

Besides these external disagreements, I also have an 'internal' query: Velleman allows that suicide can be permissible if done for reasons other than self-interest. In particular, it's okay to do for the sake of one's dignity. But then why isn't this too an instance of sacrificing the 'end' (person) for a 'mere means' (the person's dignity). Aren't dignity and interests alike valued for the sake of the person? But perhaps this has something to do with the technical Kantian use of 'dignity', in contrast with 'price', as representing some kind of incommensurability? I'm not too familiar with any of that. Explanatory comments would be most welcome!

Despite the above, I found myself agreeing with just about everything Velleman said (which I don't think really depends too heavily on the bits I've criticized here, though Velleman might not see it that way). He emphasized the importance of having projects and caring about things, which I think is central to a person's well-being. Indeed, it seemed like the real reason behind his opposing escapist suicide is the idea that the person is thwarting their own capacity to create meaning and value in their life. In response to the example of a depressed widow contemplating suicide because she doesn't care about anything else after losing her spouse, Velleman condemned her attitude: maybe she doesn't want to find new meaning and goals in life, but she ought to, as anyone who loved her would want this for her. The widow's attitude thus betrays her lack of self-love.

Velleman claims that suicide is only ethical in cases where it's compatible with self-love (in his sense). I can agree with this, because I think self-love tracks one's true interests. The widow would be better off enduring her grief and then finding new meaning in her life. To pursue and achieve other goals or projects would make her life better. So it seems to me that the real force behind Velleman's anti-suicide argument is that escapists are neglecting their own welfare. (This contrasts with Velleman's own characterization, which sees escapists as advancing their [hedonistic?] welfare at the expense of their person.)

Of course, suicide isn't always bad for you, e.g. if one is satisfied that one's life story has reached its conclusion, and further extending it would be entirely miserable and lacking in meaningful direction. But Velleman didn't seem inclined to count such cases as bad or 'escapist'. I gather he wants to attribute the difference to the 'dignity' of personhood rather than 'welfare', but I now wonder if this is a merely terminological difference between us. Indeed, while I earlier suggested that his conception of the person as an end-in-themselves should be tied more closely to (my concept of) welfare, perhaps there wasn't really any gap here to begin with. Put the other way: perhaps my concept of welfare is near enough to his conception of the 'end' of persons, that he needn't object to it after all. While I initially thought we had a disagreement here about what it is to value persons as ends in themselves, perhaps we're actually only disagreeing about how to describe it? (Though I guess we'd have to have very different conceptions of welfare in order for such a confusion to arise in the first place.)


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