ethernight
ethics of freedom and suicide
June 9th, 2008 09:30 pm
As most of you know, I am a Libertarian and as such individual rights are the core of my philosophy. I think that respect for individual rights creates a more healthy and prosperous society, based on a myriad of principles such as the value of personal responsibility, the effectiveness of localized decision making, and the inevitable corruptions and inefficiencies that coincide with centralized power.

Aside from the pragmatic reasons that I support freedom, it is my strong feelings about the moral aspects that are relevant for the purposes of this discussion. Stated very simply, I believe that individuals have the right to make decisions about their body and property and that coercion through force is unethical.

Stated that way, it sounds entirely reasonable and agreeable to nearly everyone. It is when I explain that government is a utility to coerce through force decisions that individuals could not be convinced of otherwise that people start to say, "Well, wait a minute there." It is when I further expound on the position that it is not freedom unless it applies to entirely stupid ideas as well as the good ones that they start to think that that apparently benign statement, when taken to its logical conclusion is downright crazy.

In spite of appearances, this post is not about Libertarianism. In fact, if all of this sounds stupid, crazy and evil, then this post is not for you. It is only a preface to explain that I do in fact take this simple philosophy to its logical conclusion. I believe in personal freedom as it applies to relatively pedestrian issues such the right to choose your sexual partner(s) and the right to choose how to distribute your income, as well less pleasant issues such as prostitution and suicide.

I know there are a few of you on my readership who agree with those basic principles, to the the same unwavering extent that I do. That freedom is only freedom when it is applied to make bad choices, often even those that you personally passionately disagree with. To you then, I would pose this question.

Starting with the premise that a person has the right to make decisions about their own body, life, and therefore the right to end it, and the premise that it is unethical to coerce a person through force; If then a loved one called you in the middle of the night and informed you that it was their imminent intention to end their life, is it unethical to call the police to prevent them from carrying out their intention?
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From:savorie
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 06:44 am
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You know that I'm as hardcore as you are about libertarianism.

I believe each person has the right to decide to take their own life on their terms, but there are best practices and there are poor practices. If it's a rash, impulsive decision, it's not likely a rational one by a person who has considered all their options, and chances are likely that they are desperate for help and see no other way out.

That said, I would call the police, because if a friend called right before they were about to do the deed, it is more than likely a cry for help. A person who is very serious about killing herself would do so after a lot of thought, careful planning, and would not announce the imminent timing to people she believed would likely stop her. But even with the careful planning, there are often exceptions.

Twelve years ago, a friend of mine told me weeks in advance that she was going to commit suicide. I did not get the police involved (nor did I intend to, probably mostly out of disbelief), but by sheer coincidence, while she was visiting me the night before she was going to shoot herself in the head, my phone rang and it was her mother, from whom she'd been estranged for months after she'd come out as bisexual. Turns out, all she needed to restore her will to live was to hear from her mother again. There was no coercion needed.

I'm pretty sure she's still living to this day, and is glad she didn't take that step.

One argument that it IS unethical is that the police may overreact in their treatment of the loved one, as suicide is (for some strange reason) against the law. I don't think suicidal intent alone is grounds for, say, institutionalization. Hell, I don't think a lot of things are, personally. You want to talk about coercion...

This is a fuzzy, grey area. "It depends" is my most concise answer.
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From:alchemi
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 06:56 am
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Starting with the premise that a person has the right to make decisions about their own body, life, and therefore the right to end it, and the premise that it is unethical to coerce a person through force; If then a loved one called you in the middle of the night and informed you that it was their imminent intention to end their life, is it unethical to call the police to prevent them from carrying out their intention?

Even if you start with that premise, it does not mean that one could not also view failure to intervene as a unethical.

So then the question, as with many things, may become one of balancing which unethical is more acceptable under the circumstances.

I suspect many people, even many of the hard-core libertarians, would conclude that calling the police - intervening - was the least unethical option. One could, for example, believe that it is almost impossible to keep someone who is interested in killing themselves from being able to do so. Even forced hospitalization tends to be very temporary. So if they really want to kill themselves - if it is a rational, thought out choice and not the result of a temporary medical condition, bout of depression, etc., they'll have many more opportunities to decide to do so.

And, if they really mean it, next time they wouldn't tell you.

(Actually, why would they tell you unless they wanted you to stop them? Implicit permission!)
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From:ethernight
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 08:16 am
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"Even if you start with that premise, it does not mean that one could not also view failure to intervene as a unethical."

On what basis would the failure to intervene be considered unethical?

(Note: asking does not imply disagreement.)
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From:alchemi
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 02:01 pm
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On what basis would the failure to intervene be considered unethical?

I'm not sure. Could be almost any basis. Religion? Personal morality? It just seemed that finding one thing to be unethical need not be the extent of one's ethical code; people tend to find a way to believe a wide variety of things at the same time.
From:ladyfalcon
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 10:37 am
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I think that in that situation, personal experience would have to trump theory. Which is kind of a shame, since I'm aware that anecdote isn't proof, but it's what I've got. I'll follow the philosophically-based responses to this with interest, because it'd be nice to have a reasonable basis for what I would do anyway.

I would definitely call someone, maybe not the police, based entirely on my own experience with being suicidal. There have been so many times in my life that I was absolutely convinced that I should kill myself, and the only reason I didn't was lack of means, lack of certainty that it would work, and I-won't-call-it-cowardice.

There have been infinitely more times when, an hour or a year after being so perfectly certain, I have looked around myself and been, not even ecstatically happy, but content enough that I was deeply grateful that I hadn't killed myself before I got to this part. After the first twenty or so times that happened, the memories of those period also became one of the factors in staying my hand. If one of my friends called and told me they were going to kill themselves, I would call for help for them in hopes that they would eventually have a time like that themselves. I know that for me at least it can come down to something as stupid/simple as "It's a pretty day, I'm glad I didn't kill myself," so I'd be pretty sure my friend would have at least a chance of a similar turn-around. It may not be permanent, but the longer I live, the number of moments I'm actively glad I didn't kill myself grows larger against the amount of times I really do want to.

Also, we're positing that this is a friend of mine here. If nothing else, my own selfish desire to keep a person I love with me would probably tip my choice. I mean, I'm a Libertarian, but I'm also a difficult person who sometimes has a hard time getting along with others, I need to keep the ones I do find around for as long as possible.

Erin
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From:tandu
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 02:29 pm
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Libertarianism is primarily a theory of governmental policy. It is not and should not be a theory of morality.

Part of the issue is this: It is not ideal for the government to intervene in a persons life. A person should be able to make decisions about their life and property without interference from Government. It is not for government to say if I sell my body for sex, or take my own life.

As an individual, and a friend to a separate individual, I have the right to free association. That friend has called me, and told me they are planning to commit suicide, of their own free will. I have not asked for the information, or forced them to tell me it.

As an individual, I have to assess the situation: Is the friend upset, or calm. Is there some medical problem that has prompted this, or is it emotional distress? Are they intoxicated? These all contribute to my actions at this moment.

If I know the person has a terminal painful medical problem, and they sound calm and in control of themselves, I would probably not intervene with force (although I would try to talk them out of it). If the person is in distress or their mental state is otherwise obviously altered, I probably would call the police, as this is a crisis and the person cannot effectively use the freedom which we hold dear. Freedom is predicated on a rational ability to make choices. Remove the rationality, and the freedom is already gone. The person is being coerced by their own emotional state. Perhaps there is some combination of factors, like clinical depression not responsive to medication, and more discussion is warranted.

There is no blanket response to the ethicality of the situation. It is dependent upon the factors surrounding the situation. In the end, a rational person can choose their course of action, and if their rational decision is to take their own life, then it is unethical to stop it.

However, one could argue that the desire to take one's own life is not rational on the face of it, and so intervention in any case is warranted. Again, I think it depends on the individuals involved. My personal morality tells me that if one desires to take their life, their rational functioning is impaired unless this is a long held and well thought out view, and there are circumstances making their quality of life insufferable.
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From:browascension
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 03:29 pm
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If you start with the premises stated in your last sentence, then yes, it is clearly unethical to use force to prevent a suicide. There should be no law against suicide.

I'm willing to initiate force to save my life or to save the life of another. I would steal a car to drive to a hospital. I would tackle someone who is walking off a cliff.

The case of someone calling to inform me of their intent to end their life is a bit muddy. If someone called me and told me this, I would ask if they are calling to say goodbye, and I would request that they allow me more time to say goodbye, and indeed to say hello. If they are calling me, they have other intentions than simply ending their life. I would focus on honoring those intentions.

I see your question is intended to explore the edge of ethics. Would the question be more interesting if the friend did not call or reach out in any way? What if I happen to observe a suicide in progress? Maybe I'm walking up the driveway to ring the doorbell, and through the window I see my friend getting situated in a noose. Would I break down the door to stop the death? I certainly would. I want to live in a society where there's a law against breaking into a house, and no law against suicide. I'd break the law in order to have that chance to talk, and maybe my friend would decide that suicide isn't the best course of action. It's the fact that death is so annoyingly final that would impel me to act somewhat rashly to prevent irrevocable rash action.

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From:suburban_gypsy
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 05:11 pm
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This is amusing timing, because I was just having this conversation with a friend of mine yesterday . . . and then again. Weird. My position on the matter actually has shifted substantially, through learning more about suicide , and my own experiences surrounding depression and suicide. At the beginning of my training as a therapist I felt uncomfortable that I would be required by law to involuntarily hospitalize someone who seemed in imminent danger of killing themselves. (This of course is the last possible resort.)

To be completely honest, I think that looking at suicide strictly from the argument that a person has a right to end their own life is overly simplistic. Yes, the case that most people think about and argue over morally is the case of someone who has a fatal illness, is in chronic pain, is unhappy, and makes what others would be perceived as a rational decision to take their life. I am going to sidestep that here, since that is where I agree with you that someone has the "right" to not have people intervene. I am instead going to discuss the more common experience of suicide.

It is worth noting that most of the time, suicide is tied with mental illness. But the most fascinating knowledge of what the suicidal mind is like stems from the reports of survivors. Suicide survivors often report a voice, something like the pathological critic, that drives them to the act. When someone is suicidal at most at risk, they are isolated from others who can dispute the critic telling them they are worthless, unloveable, that others would be better off without them. Telling them, "See? You can't even do this. You can't even kill yourself. You are such a waste of space." Through firsthand reports, this voice has been described as almost like a separate entity.

Also worth noting is that many suicide survivors desperately wanted to be saved, but feel unable to reach out for help and slowly begin to isolate themselves from those who could save them. In the case of a man who survived a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge, he reported that if one person had stopped and asked him how he was, he would have told them everything. But no one did, and he jumped. On bridges where barriers are put up, even ones that can easily be stepped over, suicide rates go down because there is one final sign from others saying, "Hey, I don't want you to do that". And in the case of people who jump off bridges, who are finally doing someone with enough adrenaline going that they feel alive for the first time in who knows how long, they immediately regret it and are thankful for their survival.

So, to answer your question, you can bet with certainty that I would call the police and drive out in the middle of the night to prevent my friend from following through with it. They may end up committing suicide, then or at a later point, but anything I can do to pull them back from the brink will be utilized because I have no way of knowing in the moment whether it is a "rational" suicide or not. At best, I have saved someone from making a terrible mistake. At worst, my friend has a chance to explain themselves and I get to see them one more time before they are gone.
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From:reverend_kate
Date:June 10th, 2008 - 11:55 pm
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There's a difference between killing yourself because you're emotionally disturbed or mentally ill, and killing yourself because you're dying already and living a life full of pain.

A person who is suffering from mental illness or anguish, whether chronic or acute, is likely treatable. Their stated intent to end their life may change with appropriate care. So the attempt to deliver that care is not unethical.

I do, however, agree that suicide for whatever reason is a personal decision. Even if you don't agree with that decision, you have no choice but to respect it.

Having known some people who have taken that route, I'm inclined to note that the ones who are serious about ending their life don't make phone calls before they do it. A person who cares enough to make traumatizing manipulative phone calls has not lost the will to live. They want attention. At that point, you can make a decision about how best to administer that attention.
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From:reverend_kate
Date:June 11th, 2008 - 12:05 am
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By the way,

I would never suggest to a friend who called me and claimed to be suicidal that they were being manipulative and selfish. I would talk to him and try to make him feel better, and probably go and keep him company in his angstyness. What I mean to suggest is that, merely by picking up the phone and calling me, this person has demonstrated that he has no intention of kill himself (hurting himself is another issue).

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From:nelliebelle
Date:June 11th, 2008 - 04:21 am
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that depends on whether they really intend to die and have a good reason for doing so, or they are seeking attention.
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From:wolflady26
Date:June 12th, 2008 - 12:21 pm
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Does everyone have the same right to make choices about their own body? For example, does a four-year-old have the same right as an adult? Is it right to give an extremely senile person the sole right to administer their own treatment? If someone does not have the mental capacity to understand the options, can that person really make informed choices?

I would say not. I would say that mentally stable adults should have the right to make decisions about their own bodies. And from that perspective, most persons on the brink of suicide does NOT have the capacity to make informed decisions.

If an adult of sound mind is faced with a long, painful, and terminal illness, he or she might be able to make an informed decision. But a person in the grips of the extreme chemical imbalance of serious depression is not of sound mind.

I say that as someone who's been there. I was NOT able to make sound decisions at some points in my life, and legally and morally, I think the right thing to do in the situation you described is to call the police.
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From:whatimeantosay
Date:June 15th, 2008 - 08:00 pm

I found you.

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Mind if I read? My journal is friends only. I'll add you if you like.

My answer to this question is fairly similar to everyone else's. It depends on the person involved (their character/personality) and their current psychological state. I once prevented a suicide by calling the police. My friend was pretty depressed and she told me online via IM, so it was difficult for me to judge how serious she was. I was about 14 at the time and all I was focused on was the selfish motive of saving someone who meant a lot to me from death (or at least getting really sick from pills).

Naturally, if the person involved was very old, or terminally ill, or in great pain that situation would be very different and I might even be willing to assist in such a death. I do think that each person has the right of control over their life, and death, but in some cases, like teenage angst, death is not the goal. I don't think there's any one answer to this. It's definitely case-by-case. Morality is never that clear-cut anyhow.
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From:ethernight
Date:June 15th, 2008 - 10:46 pm

Re: I found you.

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"Mind if I read? My journal is friends only. I'll add you if you like."

Of course not, and yes please respectively. :)

I'll warn you, I don't actually post here much these days -- as is evidence by this week old post.
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From:whatimeantosay
Date:June 15th, 2008 - 11:02 pm

Re: I found you.

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I use mine more as a diary. I don't always write, and when I do, it's not always interesting. I have written a little about you of course, but mostly the people who can read it are either a couple of random people online who I've never met or people from Ohio that I keep in touch with on there. You don't know any of them, so don't feel exposed. ;)
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