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RS108 - Suicide

Release date: May 18, 2014

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide," wrote Albert Camus. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia discuss the ethics of suicide through the lens of several major philosophies. They also explore the social science of suicide: how does one person's suicide affect the community?

Massimo's pick: "Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth"
Julia's pick: "Slate Star Codex"

References (1)

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Reader Comments (15)

Hello, Julia & Massimo ...

Despite the very uncomfortable subject, I found your discussion on the philosophical & scientific treatments of suicide fascinating. I think that is testament to the skill, thought and obvious care you both take in your arguments, their presentation and the thought processes which drive them. RS continues to be one of my favorite ways to spend an hour (or more, for I often replay them) every week or so, and your insights are valuable. Thank you, and please keep it up :-)



May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Michael Zorko

I don't regularly read SMBC cartoons, but for some reason I had the urge to see the latest one, and it was in honor of Massimo.

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Slatestarcodex is called that because it is almost an anagram of the author's name.

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTenoke

Thank you for the podcast. It's an interesting overview on many different perspectives. I hope you will consider revisiting the subject again in the future. I think it's probably of central importance to a carefully considered philosophy, and that there is much more to say. Though more prescriptive than descriptive, a discussion about how an “enlightened” society aught to establish laws for suicide would be interesting if not helpful, and before I ask a few questions I would like to mention that one probably has a responsibility to make one's wishes known if and while they are able in regards to DNR's, life support etc...

1) Massimo expressed the idea that you cannot own your body in the same way that you own something like a watch because you cannot sell it in the same way, but couldn't you in theory sell your brain like any other organ?

2)Julia seemed to express the opinion that suicide to negate the effects of personal consumption was less noble or moral than trying to change the behaviors of the society which enables it. Would suicide as a political demonstration to change that social behavior be more ethical? If you found yourself living in a society that was endangering the longevity of the entire species through over consumption and sheer numbers, would opting out be more honorable?

3)Julia made the comment that the few who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge expressed regret immediately afterwards, but do you know if they still felt regret far removed from the adrenaline of the situation? Is the same true of people who survive say an overdose of sleeping pills?

May 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercew

Gee, thanks - now the theme song from M*A*S*H will resonate through my head for the rest of the week...

Seriously, great podcast, certainly one of your more thought-provoking ones. A couple of points:

- As to the claim that the body isn't owned, what about selling parts of it? Hair, blood, bone marrow, a kidney - all can be donated or sold. What does this do to the argument of the body as property?
- I may have missed this, since I listen to RS as part of my morning workout, but was there no mention of Albert Camus' take on the subject? Surely existentialism has something to say on the matter?

Keep up the great work!

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commenternotafish

The utilitarian argument in favor of suicide to reduce the toll on the planet must be short-lived because all the die-hard (or die-easy?) utilitarians who truly accept it would've killed themselves by now.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax

From what I can see Jim Baggott was a chemist and not a physicist as described. Massimo appears to be implying expertise in fundamental physics but this doesn't seem to be what he has? The sort of physics required in chemistry (molecular physics) is far removed from fundamental physics. Not that Baggott does or does not have a point, but Massimo appeared to make some argument from authority on the basis of Baggott being in the same field.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCathal O Broin

I was astounded that this discussion did not reference Jennifer Michael-Hecht' book "Suicide". Especially since she discussed this two years ago at NECESS when Massimo and Julia were there.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJody Boese

I really enjoyed this discussion. The first 30 minutes gave a nice overview of the history of philosophy, but my personal feeling is that the reasonable arguments came only after that, when Julia and Massimo started to take a consequentialist perspective. I actually think that taking this perspective more explicitly could have facilitated the discussion quite a bit.

First, from a consequentialist point of view defining suicide is not needed. Only the consequences of the act are relevant, and we don't have to put a label on the act itself. The problem is simplified and becomes: 1) how to characterize the consequences of the act and then 2) how to evaluate the act morally.

For the first question, I find it helpful to first distinguish between the consequences for the person who commits suicide and the consequences for other people. Many of the arguments put forward by Julia and Massimo fit either one or the other category, although this was rarely explicitly stated.

It also helps to distinguish between several types of consequences. For example committing suicide has the obvious consequence of eliminating a human life, as well as possibly affecting other people's welfare, in terms of happiness, preferences, or any other related criteria. There are also short term and long-term consequences of committing or not committing suicide.

A tricky question that is rendered irrelevant by a consequentialist approach is whether or not the decision maker has or does not have "free will", or is capable of "proper judgment". I find this quite appreciable, as I really wouldn't know how to define these. What counts is what happens if a person commits suicide right now, or perhaps later, or instead takes any other course of action that does not involve suicide. The question becomes: is there any course of action that is more desirable than immediately committing suicide?

For example, it should not matter whether someone who contemplates suicide is depressed, psychotic, or perhaps just sad. What should matter is whether the person suffers, whether this suffering will continue for a long time, and whether there is a course of action that can lead to less suffering. For a clinically depressed person, is there an easy cure without damaging side-effects? Is there a course of action that could lead a person to change her mind? These are the real questions, and they are purely empirical.

Many of the apparently tricky questions discussed in the podcast are only empirical questions, and they can be properly framed using a consequentialist approach: what can be the effect of this particular chemical (or persuasion) on somebody's mood and decision to commit suicide? How depressed are a person's relatives after suicide, and how long? How does a suicide in the Western world benefit the third world? (it has to be negligible) What is really the proportion of locked-in patients who want to keep living?

The effect of media coverage is an empirical question too, although perhaps more complicated then it was suggested. Books like "suicide mode d'emploi" explain how to commit suicide while minimizing the risk of failure with adverse consequences. Their moral value is not that clear and deserves to be examined more thoroughly. On the other hand, my position is that consequentialism gives a clear answer to the press freedom issue: journalists simply should not be allowed to harm other people, even inadvertently, no more than anyone else.

When a suicide question has been clearly framed in a consequentialist manner (assuming we have enough empirical data to do so - very unlikely but let us suppose we do), it might appear in some cases that the question has a Pareto-optimal answer, in which case the moral problem disappears: is there an effective cure? It should be used. Does this person suffer horribly from an incurable disease, wishes to die, and her death would not harm anyone? I see no good reason not to help her.

Then for the questions that do not have a pareto-optimal answer, we have a legitimate ethical philosophy problem. Should we adopt utilitarianism? If so, which variant? How to weight the decision maker's vs. others' welfare and preferences? How to weight a human life vs its measures of "quality"? How to weight short-term vs. long-term welfare or preferences? The difficulty of these questions is reflected by a number of well-known utilitarianism paradoxes. They are hard and they are not new, but they are the real important questions (besides purely empirical questions), and they are relevant to suicide as well a number of other moral questions.

There is finally the question of how normative we should be. When should we praise, encourage, blame or punish people? When should we simply respect their decision? We have to consider what action is morally justified from the person who is contemplating suicide, but also from the people around. This podcast has briefly discussed both, but did not clearly distinguish between the two.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPierre Dragicevic

Re: Pierre Dragicevic
" On the other hand, my position is that consequentialism gives a clear answer to the press freedom issue: journalists simply should not be allowed to harm other people, even inadvertently, no more than anyone else."
I wonder what you mean by that in this context. Let's say there was found a statistically significant effect associated with media reporting of suicides - would that mean media should be policed in its reporting by the government? Successfully sued by families of the suicidal?

Re: Non Native speaker...

It depends on whether reporting a suicide does harm.

Scenario #1: a newspaper romanticizes the suicide of a rock star popular among teenagers. Result: 100 teenagers commit suicide because they find it "cool", although several years or perhaps days later they would have realized how stupid it is.

Scenario #2: a best seller book makes a convincing case of why god does not exist. Result: 100 terminally ill persons who suffer horribly choose euthanasia, realizing with immense relief that they won't go to hell.

If we accept that #1 is harming people, what to do about it is perhaps more a political than an ethical question. I would maybe take again a consequentialist approach and pick the strategy that would best prevent it in the future. Then it becomes an empirical question.

One possible issue is that the media are generally what people want them to be, so this approach may seem a bit paternalistic and incompatible with preference utilitarianism, unless perhaps if people are properly educated.

I'm personally appalled by what most news media choose to report and do not follow them.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPierre Dragicevic

Apparently there seems to be some doubt as to whether the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther actually lead to an epidemic of suicides. This source claims that only one case has been succesfully connected with the book: . Sorry about the google translation!

May 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterandreas

Excellent episode, thanks.

I too was surprised there was no mention of Jennifer MIchael Hecht, and her book (which I believe is called "Stay," not Suicide).
Perhaps a followup interview with her?

May 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSquidocto

A comment above asked the following:

"Julia made the comment that the few who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge expressed regret immediately afterwards, but do you know if they still felt regret far removed from the adrenaline of the situation? Is the same true of people who survive say an overdose of sleeping pills?"

I think this is a fascinating question. I researched it a bit but found no definitive answer.

Here is a study (the only one I found) of golden gate bridge jump survivors.

But what about survivors of other jumps? (perhaps from less lethal heights), which would provide a bigger sample perhaps. I would be interested to learn what percentage of them "changed their mind" after jumping. I find the thought of this "change of heart" quite terrifying. Like going from feelings of apathy and resignation one second to feeling, basically, all the terror of someone who has just been pushed or fallen from a great height, the next second.

After hearing the podcast, I mentioned this "change of heart" reaction to my teenage daughters, and they were quite horrified by it. Good.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate

Quick addendum to my last post:

The study I linked to above of Golden Gate jumpers (I just finished reading it) said nothing about people having a "change of heart" immediately after jumping. I wonder where Julia heard about this phenomenon, and if it is real or not.

June 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate

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