May 19, 2008

At what point is it OK?

A few months ago I read Stewards of the Flame by the fabulous author Sylvia Engdahl.

The planet in the book, Undine, is ruled by a medical regime, in which death is viewed as the worst thing that could possibly happen to a person. This goes to the extent that after someone would be considered dead in this world, the blood is kept flowing through the heart and air through the lungs. Everyone is kept in a vegetative state forever. They call it immortality.

As an example, if someone is with you and there was an accident, and you didn't call the medics in time to save your companion, you are guilty of murder. Because no one is allowed to die, you would be put into a stasis vault fully functional. Free-thinking is considered a mental illness, and all conception is carefully controlled: undesirable genes, such as shortness or risk of obesity, are thrown out of the pool, along with "diseases" such as autism.

Understandably, many people in the novel wish to escape this fate.

The scariest thing about it is that we can see some of this going on in our own culture already. Everybody has a therepist; and aging people are kept alive pretty much just for the sake of being alive- they're no longer who they were. I hope that I will never be like that; I'd rather just die.

So if suicide is wrong in the uttermost sense, why is the situation described above so repulsive? If the technology was available, why shouldn't people use it?

I guess the bottom line is: if someone really sees nothing more in life, why should we convince her to live?

Why do we feel tremendous sadness for the girl who committed suicide in her early teens and not for the 104-year-old whose son pulled the cord? If that 104-year-old asked to be put to sleep when she couldn't remember her son's name anymore, should we have abided her wishes? But isn't that also a form of suicide?

(My grandmother died when I was three and a half. The only thing I remember about her was that she kept thinking I was her sister who had been dead for thirty years. I was more than a little creeped out. My mom says that my grandmother would've hated for me to only remember her that way and had my grandmother been able to see herself, she'd have hated that too. Just couldn't figure out how to work this in to the rest of the post.)


  1. >>Why do we feel tremendous sadness for the girl who committed suicide in her early teens and not for the 104-year-old whose son pulled the cord?

    Because the 104 year old had lived her life, be it a good one or a bad one or a tremendously disappointing one.

    Because we feel the old woman had nothing left to live for while the teenager had so much.

    We, as human beings, are tremendously attached to life. We're programmed to live. It's how we've managed to survive for 200,000 years ago.

  2. >>Why do we feel tremendous sadness for the girl who committed suicide in her early teens and not for the 104-year-old whose son pulled the cord?

    It's like when there's news of a murder or an accident, the headline will be about how the 'beautiful girl with so much to live for' died. Does it make it that much worse that she's beautiful? Surely everyone has 'so much to live for'? Like I saw a report today about how 'a vicar's daughter' died. Oh well. Human interest? S'pose...

    (btw, it's The Secret Life Of A MANIC Depressive, not Maniac) :o)

    Su x

  3. Thanks so much for your comments on my novel, which I just came across via Google. I'm happy that you liked it! But you didn't mention that its opposition to keeping people artificially "alive" applies only to those who are dying, or are already dead according to the normal definition of the word.

    People who haven't read the novel might get the idea that it endorses suicide, whereas the characters state very specifically that suicide is wrong, and in one place, why they believe it's wrong. They feel sadness when one young person does commit suicide in the story, and excuse her only because she did it to save someone else. I feel I need to clear this up in case anyone gets the wrong impression of my view of the issue.

    Sylvia Engdahl

  4. I'd say the answer to your question is fairly simple (in so far as moral questions can ever be simple), my proposition consists of three conditions:

    1. If and when the costs (pain and misery in one's life) greatly outweigh the benefits (pleasurable, meaningful experiences).

    2. It is obvious this is not a temporary situation: you've tried to remedy the situation, employing all reasonable means, but failed.

    3. If you have taken into account your responsibility towards others and the effect your action will have on them. To me this is the least important factor (your first duty is towards yourself, if you cannot help yourself how on earth are you going to help others?) but it would still be a good idea to consider others since almost no-one lives completely alone and in most cases you benefited from their existence at least in a small way. Naturally no-one should reasonably expect you to stay alive if this is much more painful to you than your death would be to them. If you considered their feelings and best interest the least they could do is consider yours: in some situations it is objectively better to cease living, in those situations it would be rather selfish of family and friends to expect you to keep on living when it's become clear it's just not worth it anymore. Suffering is nearly always a bad thing; needless suffering is just plain evil.

    This would be my definition of moral suicide; still it's quite funny to assume suicide is always immoral. To me this is a sign of intellectual laziness and dishonesty. You could even ask (as the existentialists did) whether life would be worth living under any circumstances (given the absurdity and uncountable misery in the world) and consequently why we shouldn't all just commit suicide. In my view relatively few people actually commit suicide (given the fact that a lot of people, if not the majority, are clearly unhappy), this is not due to the fact that suicide is by definition crazy, irrational and the product of mental illness (as claimed by people who make a living perpetuating this myth: psychiatrists, suicide-prevention centers...) and thus the exception to the rule (most people are not mentally ill; a key part of the definition of mental illness is that your thoughts and behavior should statistically deviate from that of the majority) but because the biological urge to stay alive is so incredibly strong - the will to live is equally strong to the will to reproduce - it takes an almost inhuman conscious effort to carry out the decision, even when the intellect has calculated it would be the best course of action given the circumstances. It's not suicide that is the irrational act: keeping on living in all circumstances and expecting others to do the same is.

  5. What I absolutely loathe is the ideological tendency to stigmatize and criminalize suicide (anyone who ever attempted this and ending up in a psych-ward will know what I mean) and to befoul the good name and reputation of those that succeeded. To me this is both unjust (most suicides were decent, worthwhile and generally good human-beings) and harmful (i.d clearly not to the benefit of those involved) to the people left behind. If you are constantly being bombarded with the propaganda that suicide is the product of a mental-illness (this is scientifically very dubious if not plain false) and thus preventable (basically this places the blame squarely on those left behind, as if they’re not suffering enough as it is) than as a consequence they’ll suffer far more than people who lost a loved-one to cancer, a car-accident… Suicide is a cause of death just like any other and no matter how much money and effort is directed toward suicide-prevention, it does not have a noticeable effect, at least not in proportion. Unless it would become possible to drastically change the condition humaine you’ll never be able to eradicate suicide: suffering is very real and it will always reach such heights that death not only becomes preferable but in a number of cases becomes the only option (similar to euthanasia in case of incurable physical illnesses). Better to accept this reality and try to lessen the suffering for all those involved (by de-criminalizing and de-stigmatizing suicide, by making available certain drugs so that unnecessary injuries as a result of failure are eliminated) than to live in denial and cause even greater harm.

    What bothers me most about all this is the assumption that objective suffering does not exist, that it is always the product of a malfunction in the brain (non-sequitur), that mental suffering or suffering in general is abnormal (the normal state being happiness, this is clearly counter-factual) and that suicide is always immoral/irrational. This is absurd, offensive and plain wrong: who dares call Cato a coward and a nutcase, or Socrates, or Zeno? These men represent the best in humanity (intelligence, wisdom, self-restraint) and if their suicides are regarded as proper, honorable, moral and rational (indeed examples of heroism for the ages) than it follows that it is at least likely a number of suicides are neither immoral nor the product of mental-illness.

    To all those that will protest this and display emotional outrage instead of intellectual honesty and sound reasoning (I’m always receptive to good counter-arguments) I bring to mind Kant’s creed: sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own mind instead of relying on others to form your opinions and letting others determine your values and course of action. Happiness, meaning and suffering are far too important matters to be dictated by the herd-mentality.