Friday, June 02, 2006


[SPECIAL NOTE: My apologies for a return to this issue, but I've been seeing comments meant for me being placed in other blogs' comment sections. I'd appreciate it if people at odds with my opinion addressed me directly. I won't hate you for disagreeing. But I can't respect you for taking the indirect route.]

I admit I'm unaccustomed to this sudden surge in site traffic, which appears to be dying down now. At a guess, this has to do with the recent bout of darkblogging sparked by the suicide of Shawn Matthews. Some folks seem unable to relate to my asshole-toned tough-love stance, and refuse to accept my assessment of the nature of suicide, which I've said is a selfish act (not a particularly original, uncommon, or implausible claim). Most disturbing is certain folks' inability to understand the subtlety of the position: I'm not offering a blanket condemnation of a suicide victim; I'm merely judging the nature of the act and condemning the manner in which a life has reached its end. Based on what other bloggers have written in recent days, I'm not alone in this. Examples from other blogs (no attribution):

(1) I can’t respect his decision to end his own life, largely because I keep thinking about Shawn’s mom, his grandpa, his sister, his sister’s kids he never met, his friend Jake, his ex-girlfriend Julie, and all of his students.

(2) As others have said, suicide is incredibly selfish. Whatever pain Shawn was experiencing was not escaped, merely transferred to friends and family. But I’m not going to judge, only regret that Shawn chose to stop singing in the middle of his song. And his voice will always be missed by those he left behind.

The judgements are underlined in the above examples. Do you not see the compassion in those opinions? Maybe you refuse to see it.

Practically speaking, it doesn't matter whether the source of selfish behavior is free will, chemical imbalance, medication, or alcohol. The behavior itself remains what it is. Enough people who have survived their own suicide attempts have testified that their state of mind is essentially one in which the world narrows so that only one solution seems plausible. It's an orientation that shrinks the world down to oneself. Radical alienation, then, is a species of selfishness.

Human freedom works in and through one's compulsions, impulsions, and other assorted predispositions. The circumstances in which we are presented with only one explicit path to follow are exceedingly rare. I take people, including those deemed "depressed" or "drunk" or "insane," to be responsible for what they do. Even the victims of cognitive disorders documented in books like Oliver Sacks's classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are able to articulate a worldview emanating from their peculiar brand of rationality.

Consider this: if you hold the victimological position that someone is, say, irretrievably insane, then it would be consistent to advocate euthanasia for that person. What, after all, elevates that person above the status of a rabid dog? We shoot or euthanize such dogs. What "humanity" are we responding to, that we feel the need to keep an insane human being alive? In the case of a rabid dog, an entity that is a danger to itself and to others, we choose a practical solution that grants us, the potential victims of the dog, permanent peace of mind.

Yet most members of the victimological school of thought would recoil in horror at the idea of euthanising (or shooting!) the dangerously mentally ill. I find this hypocritical. If someone is a complete victim, that person's no longer a person. A more consistent stance would affirm that, even in the insane, there exists some measure of freedom and choice. If we are unable to grant the existence of that freedom, we are unable to grant that person's humanity. If we are unable to grant that humanity-- to the memory hole!

Whether the horizon of our choices be wide or narrow, choice exists, and therefore freedom exists (NB: I've argued the same thing re: Muslim sensitivity to those Muhammad cartoons-- the Muslims who get violent at the sight of such cartoons are to blame for their violence; they have the choice to react violently or not). To that extent, people are accountable for what they do. When you know a person is depressed and suicidal, you don't treat him or her like an automaton. You don't bring out the cattle prod, the chains, and the straitjacket right away: you reason with that person. You beg, cajole, coax, implore, argue, wheedle, rage-- whatever it takes to help that person see the light, or at least see that someone cares about them. You don't throw up your hands in defeat and say, "OK... it's your decision. Go jump if that's what you want." Do you begin to see why the nonjudgemental position is absurd? Maybe you don't. Time to examine your own stubbornness.

The nonjudgemental stance is a perilous position to take, given how the argument can be applied to cases not related to suicide. Behavioral compulsions like overeating, overdrinking, etc. now become impossible to judge, either because they are (if you believe in free will) lifestyle choices to be respected or because (if you believe in victimology) they are compulsions-- perhaps chemical in origin-- that will return again and again despite one's best efforts to be rid of them.

I was impressed, recently, with the Fat Man Walking journal. The journal's author, a guy who started out at over 400 pounds, decided to do something about his life and embarked on a cross-country walk that took him over a year and 17 pairs of shoes to complete. Along the way he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife maintained a fascinating online journal that offered us a window into his mind. Overeating is a compulsion, an addiction, he argued. I think he's right, but notice: he was saying this after having decided to do something about his condition.

Compulsions and free will are not mutually exclusive. Victimologists, while never saying this openly, are implicitly convinced that one's victimhood completely overrides one's freedom. The evidence is in their arguments on behalf of victimhood: you can't blame someone who's a victim, right? That would be gauche! The fat guy who eats himself straight into a massive heart attack? "Sad, so sad," says the nonjudgemental victimologist. Perhaps offended more by tone rather than content (a superficial attitude to take), the victimologist can't relate to the tough-love stance: "Fucker shoulda' watched his weight." This isn't a judgement about that person's overall character; it's a frank assessment of an obvious truth.

Because compulsions and free will are not mutually exclusive, we can now see the lie in the idea hidden in the contention that "we can't judge." We can judge anyone we know to be responsible for his or her actions, because accountability is entailed in the concept of responsibility: you will respond to someone who calls you to account for your actions. In point of fact, we judge all the time. To react in shock and horror at someone's sudden death is to go through "an evaluative moment," as some philosophers call it. No one truly suspends judgement. Drop the pretense that you do.

To sum up: compulsions and other mind-altering circumstances do not completely remove the power of choice, and that's why we see the lingering humanity even in the most miserable members of our species.

So-- here's your ethical conundrum for the evening:

A man with a drinking problem gets into his white car sometime around lunch on a day in 1997. He lurches northbound on Route 1, close to the Mount Vernon area, then suddenly tries to swing his car left, across traffic. In doing so, he hits a tan Toyota minivan that is going southbound on Route 1. The collision completely buckles the minivan's flimsy nose, and the minivan's driver is slammed against his seat belt, his steering wheel, and the dashboard. He suffers extensive injuries: along with being knocked out, he receives a contusion on one arm, a nasty chest laceration, a broken jaw, and a shattered knee that bleeds profusely while he sits in his seat unconscious. The minivan driver, a long-distance runner in his youth, undergoes arthroscopic surgery for the knee and is given a good prognosis by his surgeon, but is informed that he will never run again.

Question: was the drunk driver to blame for what happened? I vote yes: the driver of the minivan was my dad. When I heard the drunk driver had lost his spleen in the accident, my response was quick and simple: "Good." Had I discovered that this drunk had a long, sad life history, my response would have been no different. Is it wrong for me to have infinitely more compassion for my dad than for that man? Is it wrong to hold that man accountable for his actions?

What if someone gets drunk and/or depressed, leaps off a tall building, and hits someone at the bottom? Should we suspend judgement? Forgive and forget? It's a good thing to think about when arguing that suicide isn't selfish: the potential for extra victims is there, depending on the method of suicide.*

If you dislike my stance, then to be consistent you'd better send Shawn's friend Jake some complaints, too. For the people who keep reminding me that I'm not telepathic, keep in mind that Jake was Shawn's roommate and friend. He knew Shawn, yet wrote the following:

But, I will not feel sorry for you, not at all, cause you had it good, too good apparently. I, and everyone else, feels for your mother and grandfather or any other loved ones you might have. Not only do they have to deal with your death, but they have to deal with the embassy and the Chinese government to get their son home, in ashes.

If you could have waited until 7, waited for us, you would have had the good meal and you would have also seen something else which people you should have been caring for made for you...

Is Jake wrong, too?

*I imagine someone will hasten to point out that no one is arguing that suicide isn't selfish. That Someone will say, instead, that compassionate people are merely refusing to judge a suicide victim's actions. As to selfishness and suicide, there aren't many stances to choose from. I see only three: (1) suicide is selfish; (2) suicide is unselfish; (3) suicide is not a question of selfishness or unselfishness. Stance (2) strikes me as ridiculous, unless a psychotic killer suddenly gains enlightenment and removes himself from society. Stance (1) strikes me as most plausible. Stance (3), the stance some people think they can consistently maintain, is arguably as implausible as stance (2). One's negative emotional reaction to news of a suicide is proof enough that one has already passed through "the evaluative moment." Too late: you've judged.

As I've written elsewhere, suicide is an option I reserve for myself in extreme circumstances, e.g., if I'm terminally ill and in constant pain. (By the way, that's still a selfish decision.) Even then, I'm more likely to choose to die a natural death-- "no heroic measures" and all that-- than to kill myself. Do Not Resuscitate. No healing miracles, please.

I think that people's trouble with my position isn't so much the judgements I'm making as it is the fact that I'm voicing them. They resent my tone and they resent my timing. If that's the case, I understand their resentment, but don't agree with it. As I argued in the comments section of my other post, had Shawn's friends known his true intentions, they would have been condemning suicide, too, before he died.



Anonymous said...


Well said.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Food for thought.