Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Suicide and Justice

Is a potential suicide a "flight risk"?
Woman charged with causing fatal I-95 crash put on suicide watch

STAMFORD -- A Superior Court judge on Monday set bond at $35,000 for the Hartford woman accused of causing a crash that killed two people over the weekend on Interstate 95 in Darien.

Yadira Torres, 26, of 100 Benton St., Hartford, was put on suicide watch after her arraignment at state Superior Court in Stamford, where she faces two counts of second-degree manslaughter and single charges of reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol. Around 6 a.m. Saturday she was driving a rented 2010 Dodge Caliber SXT north on I-95 when she tried to pass a tractor-trailer but lost control and hit it, according to a State Police accident report. (ctpost.com)

The most interesting thing is that the prosecutor argued that the defendant is a flight risk in large part based on her being "distraught" over what happened:

Before the ruling Assistant State's Attorney David Applegate argued Torres was a flight-risk.

"The defendant does pose a flight risk due to the serious charges and the anxiety that attorney Crosland has pointed out," Applegate said, referring to earlier remarks from Crosland that detailed his client's distraught state of mind over the fatal crash.

Is killing yourself the same as flight from justice?

In response to an article describing a particularly spectacular suicide, that is, a leap from the world's tallest building, one commenter asserts:

The man surely needed psychological help. Sane people do not commit suicide unless they're evading public humiliation & arrest (avoiding justice).

The commenter implicitly accepts a dichotomy: suicide is either the result of insanity, or a moral wrong.

Seemingly sane people commit suicide all the time in order to avoid "public humiliation & arrest" or other forms of social death. It is impossible to maintain the conviction that only insane people commit suicide when the plain evidence is to the contrary: sane people frequently commit suicide for completely understandable reasons.

People who commit certain actions must suffer the socially-imposed consequences we deem appropriate. We chase them down if they run away. We lock them up. We force them to participate in our reality.

For the good of whom, though? Certainly not their own. The good of the victims, perhaps - if any remain - although it must be an ambivalent and diffuse sort of "good," in that case.

Perhaps it is for the good of the future victims of similar actions. If people knew they could just commit suicide instantly and painlessly at any moment - like switching a computer game off - would that be incredibly dangerous? Would people commit massively antisocial acts knowing they can always unplug if shit gets too real?

I think they might. And I think this shows us something very important about existence:

In actual, real-life decisions that we can observe, people do seem to choose death over negative social consequences.

This demonstrates that life is inherently less valuable, to individuals, than avoiding social pain.

It puts an upper bound on the value of the so-called precious gift of life.

11 comments:

  1. I hear differing messages on the issue of suicide amongst prisoners. There's those that opine that, as alluded to here, that it's an easy "get out" of "justice". More commonly here in the UK, though, at least ostensibly, is just the usual: we must keep people (prisoners included) alive because...well, we just should.

    It's such a tired issue. Either suicide is legal or it isn't. If the former, then let it be. If the latter, then get a mandate and change the bloody law.

    Sorry, that's a little off the topic of the post, but I'm sure you of all people can empathise with the sentiment.

    (Hello, by the way. I've been reading this blog for ages - about 18 months I'd say - but have never commented until now. I find your analyses fascinating and almost always find myself nodding along in agreement with you. Anyway, back to lurking!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Would people commit massively antisocial acts knowing they can always unplug if shit gets too real?"

    I'm not sure about that. In Japan suicide is not outlawed and is popularly perceived as an acceptable response to certain circumstances. Is there a significantly higher rate of massively antisocial acts?

    I agree that on an abstract level, easy suicide puts a lower bound on the consequences of ones actions, and therefore permits high risk/antisocial behavior. However, I doubt that this rationality is preserved very well when translated into behavior.

    This question will become more relevant as technology makes death easier. It's certainly easier now than it was when major religions were founded, but not so much as in video games.

    ReplyDelete
  3. In actual, real-life decisions that we can observe, people do seem to choose death over negative social consequences.

    This demonstrates that life is inherently less valuable, to individuals, than avoiding social pain.


    I think you're letting revealed preference do too much work here. It's a necessary simplifying assumption for classical economics, but that doesn't mean we should apply it elsewhere without scrutiny.

    Just as people overestimate the extent to which things like winning the lottery will give them happiness, they overestimate the diminished quality of life from things like the loss of limbs. So people who are facing large negative social consequences may be overestimating the value of life + bad consequences relative to death. Individuals are usually the best judge of what what's good for them, but they make mistakes (as you would argue, for example, in thinking that it was good for them to have been born).

    I agree with you that some suicides are indeed rational (and moral), but that someone would kill themselves to avoid social suffering is not dispositive as to whether it's best for them if they killed themselves.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Plague DoctorMay 11, 2011 at 5:59 AM

    "People who commit certain actions must suffer the socially-imposed consequences we deem appropriate. We chase them down if they run away. We lock them up. We force them to participate in our reality. "

    As Thomas Ligotti puts it, "Nonexistence is just too good for some people.".

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jason-

    they overestimate the diminished quality of life from things like the loss of limbs

    I don't think that's true. The initial reaction of people who lose their limbs is almost uniformly depression. It is more traumatic for people who lose limbs suddenly (e.g., soldiers) than for patients who undergo amputation after a chronic illness. I don't think that's surprising; the latter group has more time to adjust to their lives sucking. So I don't think people underestimate their quality of life, but they do underestimate their ability to adjust to their new circumstances. It is undeniably true that it is much harder to function in society when you are missing a limb; you often need help performing basic daily tasks, experience residual pain, etc..

    ReplyDelete
  6. Jason - I think there's a fine line between what we call "revealed preference" and what we call "irrationality." I definitely don't believe in perfect rationality - what I'm pushing is a move toward seeing seemingly irrational acts as having at least some informational content. (Some more than others.)

    Why do you think this fails in terms of revealed preference?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm not sure about that. In Japan suicide is not outlawed and is popularly perceived as an acceptable response to certain circumstances. Is there a significantly higher rate of massively antisocial acts?

    It's not a tidy comparison, given all the other differences between the States and Japan, but you do point out that it is an empirical prediction that can be tested, and I agree.

    ReplyDelete
  8. FYI Curator = Sister Y - not sure why it's occasionally reverting to the old handle.

    ReplyDelete
  9. [[As Thomas Ligotti puts it, "Nonexistence is just too good for some people.".]]

    Indeed, some people who argue against death sentence claim this too.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's pretty shocking how you throw the terms "insane" and "sane" around like they're universally understood and valid. A depressed person is not insane.

    ReplyDelete

Tweets by @TheViewFromHell