Saturday, January 10, 2009

Is Moral Feeling the Same as Conscience?

In my piece "Problems with Compassion," I explained a way in which moral goodness and compassion - a desire to do what is best for others in accordance with one's own values - could get in the way of allowing others to do what is best according to their values.

In the case of suicide, hardly anyone - not even myself - is willing to counsel a particular person that suicide would be a good thing for him to do. And yet, I genuinely believe that suicide can be a moral choice that a person may rationally decide is in his best interests, as do many others. Is this belief in conflict with such unwillingness to apply it in particular cases? Is this unwillingness to advise particular people to commit suicide evidence that suicide is wrong?

Visceral feeling is often in conflict with intellectual understanding of moral issues. When a coyote wanders into my neighborhood, I desperately want to (and, honestly, once did) give it a hot dog out of affection and generosity, even though intellectually I know giving it a hot dog is probably not in the coyote's best interests in the long term. In a related case, we often can't help feeding our pets human food, again out of affection, generosity, and perhaps empathy - even though intellectually we know it's not good for them.

Emotional intuition is, I think, a starting point for moral reasoning. But it is not the end of it. And there are some emotional feelings that are so strong that, in terms of inducing action, not even clear intellectual arguments can overcome them. I think, as with coyotes and hot dogs, this is a sort of akrasia. But, in the case of not being willing to counsel in favor of suicide, I think that it is a relatively benign form of akrasia, so long as one does not go around force-feeding or forcibly hospitalizing or lobotomizing or performing involuntary ECT on people, or supporting these coercive practices.

For a person considering suicide, it can be extremely irritating to hear only an anti-suicide message, and to perceive that one's doubts about life's value are not being taken seriously by others. I have often found myself on both sides of this - being irritated, and being the cheery irritator - and I am moved toward greater tolerance toward people who have a hard time taking the right to suicide seriously in any specific case. Still, I have taken a great deal of comfort from #alt.suicide.bus.stop over the years, and I think it is extremely important that a place exists for seriously discussing the possibility of one's suicide without the usual bias. And I think it has to be anonymous, because nonpartisanship is too much to ask of one's friends in the matter of one's suicide.

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