Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Suicides Represent a Net Gain for Society

Or, Altruistic Reasons to Commit Suicide

Arguing against suicide, a correspondent writes:
By choosing to live one can prevent much more suffering than by killing oneself (hundreds or thousands times more!). Everyone who thinks about suicide knows how horrible suffering can be (and therefore should know how important it is to prevent as much of it as possible). I agree that it is better not to be born at all, but now that we are alive, we have the choice. If I kill myself I can spare myself some amount of suffering, but if I choose to live and dedicate my life to helping others I can spare them hundreds or thousands times more suffering.

I have previously indicated that one of the reasons I have not committed suicide to date is that I know my death would cause considerable pain to others. But this made me wonder: what is, in fact, the net effect of suicide?

Actually, it turns out that suicides are probably on balance good for society. A 2007 study found that considering all the economic impacts of suicide, the 30,906 suicides completed in 1990 actually saved the United States $5.07 billion - in 2005 dollars (about $160,000 per suicide). That's right - suicides, on balance, represent an economic gain for society.

What about the environment? An American produces about 20 tons of carbon dioxide per year. A 33-year-old female like me, with 50+ years left of her natural lifespan, could presumably prevent 1000 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere by packing it in early.

That is not to mention the many other harmful effects that people, particularly first-world people, have on the environment and its inhabitants.

I have argued that the possibility of doing good for others is extremely limited, partially by what I term the altruistic treadmill. I am highly skeptical of the claim that a person can sustainably increase the well-being of other people. (See, e.g., Lykken and Tellegen's "Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon.") I suspect that a real-life It's a Wonderful Life would be much more ambivalent than the theatrical version. At any rate, such an increase in well-being would have to outweigh the concrete, measurable gains to society from ending one's life - $160,000, a thousand tons of carbon dioxide, and one less mouth to feed - not to mention never, ever again triggering an ostracism response in another human being, nor hurting anyone or anything again, ever.

You would have to be a pretty stellar human being to make up for that. I'm mostly speaking for myself here, but I doubt most people who have gotten to the point of considering suicide have the capacity to drastically improve the lives of others in a sustainable way, to reach a magnitude large enough to offset the very real gains to society that their suicides would entail.

Also: this is probably the point where I should get the hell off of blogspot before they delete all my shit.


  1. This post alone pretty much destroys that cloying pseudoscientific preaching about "unconditional love". People will be even less motivated to look out for everyone if society is objectively better off without its weakest members. Pragmatism has always been a thorn in the eye of any universal spiritual ethic.

  2. I accept the premise that a suicide's life is not a benefit to him. Therefore it's not particularly humane to force him to stay alive. If it's not a benefit to society either, then why not let us have our damn barbiturates?

    It seems that no one benefits from the suicide prohibition.

    1. "It seems that no one benefits from the suicide prohibition."

      That is of course too narrow. Some people obviously benefit from it (if only the doctors who can bill nonconsensual "customers").

      Overall, the suicide prohibition is clearly a great net harm to society and an insulting mistreatment of free people.

  3. I didn't buy the article but in the abstract it says that the savings come from:

    "(a) not having to treat the depressive and other psychiatric disorders of those who kill themselves; (b) avoidance of pension, social security and nursing home care costs; and (c) assisted-suicide."

    I somehow doubt these 160.000$, even if they are only averages.
    (a) does not apply to all suicides, nor to all those who would kill themselves if it were somehow easier, but only to those who, instead of dying, get expensive treatment.
    (b) only makes sense for people who are quite old, because they have already worked to provide the wealth from which the pensions etc would be paid later. If a young person kills himself there would be no saving for (b) because the wealth that could be saved, has not yet been produced either. Otherwise, where would this money come from, that is supposedly saved? Hmm, maybe the growing national debt?
    (c) I don't understand this at all.

    What am I missing?

    Btw, I really hope You have backups of "all Your shit", because it would be a real shame if it got shut down and erased by blogspot.

    All the best,

  4. Makes sense to me (but I don't need much convincing).

    Costs of living really mount up. I remember reading about how a person's weight can add several hundred $$$ to personal gas/petrol expenditure per annum due to the effect it has on engine efficiency. That’s a finite resource and every driver/passenger is raising the price for everyone else by expressing an interest in the resource. It's a no brainer that "zero weight" is considerably less weight than the 20lbs (or so) differential that creates the above mentioned added expense.

    The same kind of thing applies for grains but the fuel example reveals a hidden cost factor that could easily be overlooked. I wonder what other factors are taken for granted.

    @ Sister Y: I understand that a book is close to publication… I’m looking forward to it.

  5. Numbers can be made to say anything one wants.

    If the value of life was negative for everybody, suicide would of course be a net gain for society. For many, fortunately, life has a positive value, because it is felt deeply and in many ways as a valuable wonder, and for them, of course, their suicide could not benefit themselves... and society neither, simply because their life is, by their own consciousness account, socially-economically-ecologically more supportive than not, thanks to their work providing goods or services, and to their loving presence in the midst of interrelationship networks.

    I am all for freedom to suicide, but not for "propaganda" addressed to everybody against, or for, the value of life. I guess someone who wants to suicide and does not do it, is somewhat ambivalent. Every thinking living being is ambivalent to some extent. While we are in this life, I suggest that we should do our best to alleviate our predicaments. Helping ourselves and others may appear indeed next to impossible, yet it happens a billion times everyday.

  6. Anon,

    Pension savings should probably be distinguished from Social Security and from nursing home expenses (at least to the extent that they are Medicare/Medicaid-funded). Popular rhetoric notwithstanding, the latter categories behave more as entitlements than investment latched cash-outs. What isn't drawn from the trough is aggregate savings.

  7. Robert Daoust, I am not sure why this might count as "propaganda."

    My thesis is that nebulous questions of value often reduce, at least in part, to testable propositions.

    Rather than assume we can help each other get better and better every day, I would like to see data on whether this is really true. I present nasty, counterintuitive data like this stuff as a move toward measuring the reality of the situation.

  8. Can we help each other get better every day? I say this happens a billion times every day. The problem is that we ALSO make each other worse every day. And many other factors than ourselves is at play as well. Using data for measure and test is by itself a good thing, but in the context of our hyper-complex global situation, suggesting wide-ranging conclusions from a set of limited data can only be tendentious. I may point to at least one specification that should figure in your thesis: whose suicide may be positive, and whose not... (That would prevent from saying, for instance, in your later post, that "the net effect of a suicide on the general population is positive".)

  9. Good point about the value of a death varying across people.

  10. "You would have to be a pretty stellar human being to make up for that."

    Not really. All you have to be is an effective anti-natalist. If you can convince just one person to have one fewer children than they otherwise would, you have turned your carbon footprint negative and saved all sorts of other costs as well. (The hypothetical child would have to have been a pretty stellar, or unusually happy, human being -- or an even more effective anti-natalist -- to make up for that.)

  11. Hmm, good point. I like James at Diabasis' take on how to promote antinatalism (it sounds way more fun than most charity work).

  12. http://marcbreedseppuku.blogspot.com/

  13. Well, I hear you, but ironicaly you've done a lot to speard comfort (speking for myself) by this blog, and the book (which will have to be imported to India)!


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