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Book Review: Suicide – The Philosophical Dimensions by Michael Cholbi

March 26, 2012

The book concludes with:

It would be vain to hope that a single book could solve the puzzle that is suicide. I will have accomplished my goal if our philosophical inquiry has given us reason to be optimistic that a solution is nearer at hand.

As someone who had not much studied the ethical and conceptual issues surrounding suicide, I’m only now appreciating the complexities involved. So while I personally feel further from a solution than I felt before, it is only because I did not know where I was three days ago, when I started this book.

The first chapter looks for an explicit definition of suicide. The aim is to disentangle the concept from any value judgement. I still have some doubts as to whether or not this is even possible. Cholbi talks about ‘murder’ versus ‘homicide’. In using the word murder, not only are we saying that one person has killed another, but we are also stating that the act was morally wrong. If we want to leave open the possibility that the act was justified (for example, because it was in self-defense), we might call it homicide. However, it seems to me that where we draw the boundaries of the concept will still necessarily effect the way we make judgements on particular behaviors. Even with homicide, there is a default  judgement: If all we know is that there was a homicide, we assume it was morally wrong. That’s why it makes sense to talk about justified homicide, but the phrase “unjustified homicide” sounds rather odd. It seems plausible to imagine a culture that had two distinct words for killing, one meaning killing for personal gain and one meaning killing for self-defense. I imagine this would effect the way people judged particular instances of homicide.

In chapter three, on the permissibility of suicide, Cholbi discusses the idea of burden of proof: Do those who believe suicide is wrong have to demonstrate so, or vice versa? But this further belies the difficulty with assuming we can make definitions free of prejudice. How broadly I define behavior X will determine what percentage of instances seem intuitively wrong to me, and that will influence where I believe the burden of proof lies.

Cholbi asks whether a person giving “rational consent” to their own death should be thought of as committing suicide. “Rational consent” is illustrated by a “foxhole jumper:” An active grenade is thrown into a foxhole. A soldier jumps on the grenade to bear the brunt of the explosion, thereby saving the lives of several other soldiers. We assume the “foxhole jumper” does not want to die; death is neither a means nor an end of her behavior; it is, however, the most likely outcome. Should such instances of rational consent count as suicide? As evidence that the answer should be yes, Cholbi offers the following thought experiment:

Imagine describing Foxhole Jumper’s actions to a young military recruit and then asking the recruit if he would be prepared to do likewise. If the recruit were to answer, “No way – that’s suicidal!”, the recruit does not seem to be misspeaking in calling Foxhole Jumper suicidal, despite his death not being part of his intention. This indicates that acts are often thought of as suicidal even when they are intentional.

But I would argue the soldier calls the behavior ‘suicidal’ precisely in order to indicate a negative judgement of that behavior. He is calling it suicidal because he would not want to do it himself. We can just as easily imagine another soldier answering “absolutely – that’s heroic!”, and she would say so because she judges the behavior positively and hopes to act similarly in such a situation. Cholbi wants both to rely on common usage in justifying a definition, and to make that definition value neutral. However, to me it seems that the more we do the former, the more difficult it becomes to do the latter. Legal scholars and philosophers intentionally try to construct and use certain words (like homicide) in a way that doesn’t assume judgement. But most people often do just the opposite. So, we need ways other then common usage of assigning value to a definition, if we hope to make the definition itself value neutral.

Another question brought up is whether or not we have a duty to ourselves:

… many philosophers reject the notion that there even are duties to the self. Some philosophers see morality as essentially social, concerned solely with how we treat others.

But I think there may not be a conflict between seeing morality as essentially social and believing there are duties to the self. In other words, perhaps we should think of our future self as an Other – to a limited extend, of course. And I feel that to address this what we need is psychology: To what extend are the psychological processes we have for dealing with others the same as or similar to the ones we have for dealing with our future selves? For example, to what extend can fear and hope be understood as empathy that we have for our future self? If we are to avoid paternalism, it seems our evaluation of the ethics of suicide intervention will hinge on the extend to which we see one’s beliefs and intentions in a particular moment as unrepresentative of the self.

In extreme cases such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder, beliefs and intentions are so unstable that it becomes obvious we can’t discover the individual by looking at them in a particular moment, but can only discover that individual by considering something like the “rolling average” of those beliefs and intentions through time. Even if someone prepares themselves for suicide  (for example, by accustoming themselves to physical pain and the idea of death) over a long period of time, they may only do that preparation in short bursts, and at most points in time have  no intention of killing themselves. By looking for such an “authentic self” in the average of beliefs and intentions, we may have a justification for certain suicide interventions that don’t depend on distinctions between rational and irrational thought. I’m very sceptical of anyone claiming someone is being irrational; it is too often merely a means of imposing one’s own beliefs and values on someone.

This book has given me a much better appreciation for the philosophical complexities involved with suicide, and I hope also an intuition better prepared to handle particle instances of such behavior. Suicide: The Philosophical Dimensions is published by Broadview Press. Michael Cholbi is Professor of Philosophy at California State Polytechnic University Pomona.

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