Wednesday, September 28, 2011

If You Love Life So Much Why Don't You Marry It?

The central claim of antinatalists like me is that being born is not a good thing - specifically, that it's better not to be born than to be born.

Lots of folks have the same immediate reaction to first encountering this: "so why dontcha just kill yourself?"

I wish to illustrate here how this response is a non sequitur - specifically, almost identical to a response of "so why don't you marry it?" in response to me telling my friend how much I love Christopher Brosius perfume.

In the "Why don't you marry it?" case, the respondent is implying that the assertion of the speaker is not genuine unless the speaker is willing to give the most extreme possible evidence of his conviction.

Note first that this is a personal attack (ad hominem, as the kids call it these days) rather than a response to the argument.The respondent is not analyzing anything to do with the argument, but rather is questioning the sincerity of this speaker's protestation.

Second, he demands the most extreme evidence imaginable - marriage as evidence of love.

Similarly, when someone hears I think it was a bad thing for me to have been born, and then asks me why I don't kill myself, he's (a) failing to respond to any argument I have made, instead choosing to challenge my sincerity, and (b) demanding the most extreme imaginable sort of evidence for the claim.

This is a non sequitur because it is possible that it is a bad thing to be born, but that once born, it is worse to commit suicide than to remain alive for one's lifespan (worse for others one cares about, or even for oneself). I have heard at least one antinatalist assert that it's wrong to create new people precisely because death is so awful and scary to think about; we would not have this fear, would not experience this irrational negative affect, if we had not been born.

Also, similarly to the "Why don't you marry it?" example, it is not legally possible (to my consternation) for me to marry a bottle of perfume. Indeed, there are many barriers, legal, practical, and even moral, to committing suicide. It's like asking a starving person in Somalia, "if you're so hungry, why don't you drive to Wendy's and get a cheeseburger?"

One last note: lots of people get married for immigration purposes. Lots of people kill themselves who nonetheless think it was a good thing that they were born and got to see all those puppies and sunsets. The evidence demanded is not even necessarily evidence of the proposition asserted!

38 comments:

  1. I suspect there are quite a few people who would like to kill themselves, but it is not easy to go from point a to point b. Also, as you have pointed out, a failed suicide can put someone in a much worse position than they were before attempting the suicide, since a failed suicide can lead to injuries to body and brain. If people had the option of just dying by going to sleep and never waking up, I think many more people would choose to die.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes - it's a fascinating question how many more suicides there would be if barbiturates were legalized. With assisted suicide for the terminally ill, there's a spike at the time of legalization and then it levels off. Would that be the case? Or would social proof make suicide more "thinkable" and increase suicides over time?

    ReplyDelete
  3. An academic deconstruction of "why don't you marry it" = awesome thing of the day. I greatly look forward to your upcoming piece, "Who Smelt It, Dealt It: On Projection and Victim-Blaming in Olfactory Trauma" <3

    By the way, I like puppies and sunsets. Why you gotta hate? :(

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think if people could just lay down and decide to die, very many would die in a moment of strong emotion or just sadness + tiredness. I'd say there's no evidence that most of these people are now forced to experience more bad things than good things. Ideally, suicide should be a well-reasoned decision that reflects the stable mode of experience of a person.

    If access to barbiturates was implemented with a delay (weeks or months), I do think that the suicide rate would increase, but then level off. I suspect that most people prefer survival over death, even if painless death is an easy option. At least some of the negative reactions to the suicide prohibition have to do with, "This decision is mine, not yours", rather than, "I am certain my future life will not be living."

    Oh, and I don't accept the "It's hard to kill yourself" part anymore, at least if you're functional, have some level of privacy and can move your arms and hands. Search for "helium exit bag" on youtube, you'll find extremely detailled instructions that anyone with a hundred bucks can pull off within a couple of days of preparation. You can even order all the necessary parts on the net. Overcoming fear of death is your job as a rational being. And I don't really accept the moral aspect either, if your friends and family will miss you so much that their own lifes switch from positive to negative utility, they can always just imitate your suicide.

    ReplyDelete
  5. (*) "I am certain my future life will not be living." should be "I am certain my future life will not be *worth* living.", of course

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi, I've been a silent visitor of this site for some time, just dropping by to let you know how much I sympathize with this article (and your blog as a whole). :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Anonymous, you may be right about helium, but I have heard multiple reports on suicide method-type forums that it's a lot more difficult to implement than you'd think. One might ask why the method is not used anywhere physician-assisted suicide is legal. And I don't really want the FBI breaking down my door in an effort to "reach out" to me.

    But feel free to "not accept it" all you want. I hope you never have the occasion to find out the truth.

    Todd - I like puppies and sunsets too! Perhaps I should have substituted "bong rips and threesomes" to make it clear I wasn't hating. <3

    ReplyDelete
  8. Lady Datu - aw thanks! Sorry you sympathize though :(

    ReplyDelete
  9. "if your friends and family will miss you so much that their own lifes switch from positive to negative utility, they can always just imitate your suicide."

    What the hell kind of logic is that? "Don't worry about making your family suffer, because they can always just kill themselves"?

    I'm missing the part where that's not hideously sociopathic.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The central claim of antinatalists like me is that being born is not a good thing - specifically, that it's better not to be born than to be born.

    Is your central claim that being born is not a good thing, or that being born is a bad thing? For antinatalists like me, of which I know precisely zero (though I suspect CM and James might fit in the category), there are two central claims: being born is not a good thing, and being born is, on average, probably a bad thing.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Stacy: "since a failed suicide can lead to injuries to body and brain"

    Is this poetic dualism or ontological dualism?

    (Sorry--feeling combative at the moment.)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sister Y: "there's a spike at the time of legalization [of assisted suicide] and then [suicide] levels off. "

    I'd like to see the data. The obvious thing to do is integrate over the spike and see how many would-be-suicides (given the method of euthanasia made available) were backed up behind the dam. How much higher is the leveled-off rate compared with the pre-legalization rate?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Todd, I'm still missing the part where forcing people to remain alive to experience one negative day after another against their explicit will isn't hideously sociopathic.

    When family members die, what normal people do is mourn and get on with their lives. Those few who are pathologically unable to do that still have the option of suicide. They are not entitled to the continued existence of another person just so that they can delay the suffering of loss. We are being told that our bodily and existential autonomy has to be taken away agaist our explicit will because other people have emotions toward us, in many cases without our consent. How is it my fault that my parents care for me? I didn't even consent to their being my parents!

    Sister Y, I have read about the FBI raids, and I think they were both a bizarre waste of taxes and a violation of the rights of the harrassed people. But I'm surprised that you think the helium method is hard to implement. I sure hope you are wrong because that was my fallback plan in case I get tired of employment.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Sister Y: "Anonymous, you may be right about helium, but I have heard multiple reports on suicide method-type forums that it's a lot more difficult to implement than you'd think."

    To be fair, the folks who found it easy to implement aren't the ones reporting on it.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Sister Y: "Lady Datu - aw thanks! Sorry you sympathize though :("

    This response from you blew my mind. What will it take for me to wrap my head around you? Probably several bong rips and threesomes.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Anonymous: "When family members die, what normal people do is mourn and get on with their lives. Those few who are pathologically unable to do that still have the option of suicide. They are not entitled to the continued existence of another person just so that they can delay the suffering of loss."

    Your argument in response to Todd seems to prove too much. Then any harm we impose on others is all right so long as it's a harm that "normal people" can move on from.

    The expected disvalue of the loss of a loved one can be deathworthily high, even if for most people it's not so great. If one's life is at -1 utility per year, and has an expected 40 years left, and suicide changes one's mother's utility from +3 per year to -2 per year, then as long as one's mother is expected to live for another 8 or more years, suicide is a net negative (ignoring everyone else in the universe).

    You're born into entanglements. The problem is that you become fully able to understand the consequences of your actions far too long after your parents develop an attachment to you. We do not enter adulthood free. Conceivably it's supererogatory to take into account your family when you decide to kill or not to kill yourself. It seems monstrous and disutile not to.

    (This probably commits me to accepting that you don't have the right to unplug yourself from Judith Jarvis Thomson's violinist. I think I'm OK with that.)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I was pretty high when I wrote that actually (that goes for all comments after 6:30, sorry Anonymous) <3

    ReplyDelete
  18. "Your argument in response to Todd seems to prove too much. Then any harm we impose on others is all right so long as it's a harm that "normal people" can move on from."

    If by "all right" you mean "not a proper justification to violate the autonomy of individuals", then yes, I suppose so. That seems a reasonable standard even for utilitarians.

    "If one's life is at -1 utility per year, and has an expected 40 years left, and suicide changes one's mother's utility from +3 per year to -2 per year, then as long as one's mother is expected to live for another 8 or more years, suicide is a net negative (ignoring everyone else in the universe)."

    Well, if the mother can commit suicide herself, she doesn't have to experience the 8 years of -2 utility, she only loses the 8 years of +3. That's a smaller utility loss than the disutility of 40 years of -1. Doesn't this actually prove my point?

    Of course, we don't actually know these numbers for certain when we force people to remain alive. As a clarification for my earlier point, I'm not claiming that this reasoning can't be a good reason to personally stay alive. I'm mostly concerned about this argument being used to support a general policy of coercion, as it is applied now. If people could commit suicide more freely, fates worse than death would occur far more rarely, which would cut off the worst disutility generators that now - in my view - probably turn life in general into a net negative.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Ah sorry, I mistook the "8 or more years" for "expected 8 years".

    ReplyDelete
  20. These are impressive articles. Keep up the noble be successful.

    Many times Photographers have to wait hours to just take that perfect photo shot and only once in a while they get lucky enough to get there right shot ...
    Take a look here Photos taken at right

    ReplyDelete
  21. Jason: "Is this poetic dualism or ontological dualism?"

    Actually, I just meant it literally. If someone, for example, jumps from a high building and survives, they may suffer permanent injuries, such as brain damage and no longer being able to walk. I don't think the brain is anything other than an organ of the body. I view consciousness as an emergent property of the brain.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Anonymous seems to be under the impression I was arguing against suicide rights. To clarify, I was not. I am emphatically in favor of widespread access to comfortable, reliable means of death.

    My point was that most suicidal people, even in the throes of their own personal hells, care deeply for their friends and families. The prospect of hurting one's loved ones is a huge barrier for the conscientious suicide to overcome, if it can be overcome at all. To shrug and flippantly say "oh well, if it hurts them that much, they can just eat a bullet too" is not something I can personally work up the stomach (or the sadism) to do, and is one of the chief reasons I'm alive at this very moment.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Ok Todd, that's fine. One hour ago, I had a discussion with someone who used exactly the same argument in favor of non-consensual coercive suicide intervention and strict restriction of access to adequate drugs.

    And unlike you, I am indeed ready to hurt my family in order to protect my personal autonomy. I'm not going to swallow a period of suffering just because other people have emotions for me - emotions, I might add, that I don't want and to which I never consented.

    ReplyDelete
  24. It's like watching different parts of my own brain arguing with each other. (This happens frequently.)

    ReplyDelete
  25. I'm with Anon when it comes to the situation of looking out for the feelings of one's own *parents*, who are ultimately the culpable party, and for that reason, have pretty much no sympathy from me. The situation changes a bit in the case of one's significant other, or very close friends... I do feel a bit of a duty toward such people, because I had a role in forming the relationships/commitments I have with them. However, I suppose such commitments could be politely (?) severed prior to exiting this realm, to try to distance the act itself from the potential fallout those (often innocent) parties could otherwise be exposed to. But that still doesn't make it easy.

    ReplyDelete
  26. pro-natal guilt-trip-style ocd/depressiveSeptember 29, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    From my past, I know what it's like to want to do it, to read about methods and lore as your favorite recreation, and yet be horrified by it. That's just the way it is.

    > I was pretty high when I wrote that actually (that goes for all comments after 6:30, sorry Anonymous) <3

    I just smoked some grass myself, and soon saw that your and/or Posner's idea, which I read a few days ago - I forget who came up with what but I guess it was mostly him and his coauthor - is interesting but wrong. At least, the conclusion that because people take large and 'actuarially unfair' risks to life, they must (by revealed preference) be miserable and value remaining alive relatively little, does not hold.

    I'm sure many such people are in fact subjectively miserable, perhaps most. However, Posner forgets that a person's organism may calculate, under certain circumstances, that extraordinarily risk-accepting behavior will be fitness-enhancing. And naturally, whatever his organism/brain/genome/instincts calculate he should do, will be accompanied by (net-)positive affect when he is anticipating and doing it, whether or not it carries a high risk to life. (For example, for a man to physically defend a very beloved wife is certainly horrifying, yet also answers to his deepest yearnings and drives him mad with pride and the feeling of power - whereas suicide to escape suffering and anhedonia is just horrifying, with little else added.) It is not required, then that the risk-taker experience any unusual misery, though again, surely many such people are generally miserable.

    This scenario would especially be plausible if a person has poor social status and the risk-taking could considerably improve same, as this would lead to a great enhancement of fitness. In terms of fitness, this person might have a high marginal fitness-utility per unit status increase. More likely than not, a low-status person tends to have considerably more/stronger alleles conferring depression, and/or a high burden of mutations/alleles that are generally or in any way detrimental to fitness. The sad fact is that mutations continually occur, almost all are deleterious or neutral, and the mutational 'detritus' almost certainly, from theory alone, has to be just as continually 'taken out' via a lower fitness for the person of relatively higher mutation burden. This helps to illuminate how for a person of quite low status, say below the tenth percentile, might do poorly with a moderate-risk moderate-payoff strategy.

    Now, I'm not saying I know your genes would make you accept extraordinary risks even if you are affectively normal. I'm just saying it's more than conceivable. We do observe risk taking in adolescent males, in a degree that is otherwise abnormal or uncommon, and this is generally accompanied by positive affect overall as well as while anticipating and doing the risk event. Clearly this must be because their present and future fitness gets particularly high marginal value, at this particular part of life, from testing and re-setting their own limits as far as doing ballsy stuff, and from suborning other males (whether through signalling or confrontation).

    ReplyDelete
  27. p-n gts ocd/depressiveSeptember 29, 2011 at 9:19 PM

    On the other hand, I still found 'the economics of suicide' in general to be interesting. I only object to that one point.

    ReplyDelete
  28. p-n - that actually puts into words a serious concern I was having with it, which boils down to the difficulty of reconciling the reality of ourselves as bundles of adaptations executing strategies for fitness maximization with the reality of ourselves as rational choosers and experiencers. Evolution is slippery in making its ends our own.

    ReplyDelete
  29. When you guys use the word fitness do you mean enhancement of survival prospects or of reproduction or both?

    ReplyDelete
  30. AnonDos: "looking out for the feelings of one's own *parents*, who are ultimately the culpable party, and for that reason, have pretty much no sympathy from me."

    (a) Your parents didn't know any better, unless they were Cioran or Schopenhauer scholars;
    (b) No one deserves to suffer. Ken Lay doesn't deserve to get raped in prison. Your parents don't deserve to suffer. It may be that their integrated suffering over the rest of their lives will not be as bad as yours. But suffering by the guilty is no better than suffering by the innocent.

    ReplyDelete
  31. > When you guys use the word fitness do you mean enhancement of survival prospects or of reproduction or both?

    Both... your fitness is near zero if you die at age 10. (It won't quite be zero if you have helped your close relatives considerably.) As a rule of thumb you have more kids (and enhance the kids' fitness more) if you survive longer. But it doesn't necessarily have to always be that way in every situation ; you can be pretty sure there are times and places where it isn't.

    ReplyDelete
  32. > the reality of ourselves as bundles of adaptations executing strategies for fitness maximization with the reality of ourselves as rational choosers and experiencers. Evolution is slippery in making its ends our own.

    I might have been more succinct like you. Yes it leads to a lot of puzzling thinking. I agree with what you imply, that each of the two is a significant factor and also they often conflict.

    ReplyDelete
  33. pn-ocd: From the antinatalist perspective, "fitness" is a bad thing if it includes reproductive capacity. It's a standard example of how an essentially blind mechanistic process of what we've labelled "evolution" is anthropomorphised. Fuck fitness and fuck nature!

    ReplyDelete
  34. I don't know if you've heard of the "1000 Days" site. A pastor's wife killed herself and he gave himself a thousand days to decide whether to do the same, and created a site to chronicle his experiences over that time. In the end he did. This guy, I believe a psychiatrist or something, is very critical of both him and his decision.

    ReplyDelete
  35. TGGP, thanks for the link. I think the 1000-days-critique is interesting in what it says about the pastor. But in general it has a bit too much of the good old "suicide is never rational"-propaganda.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Just a rough estimate: Approximately 300K American survive suicide each year. Assuming that barbiturates were legal it gives us an idea about what to expect.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Anonymous: I wouldn't know what idea that is because among these 300K there surely are some who didn't really want to die (but to be rescued) and who wouldn't have opted for a surer method. On the other hand there are some who would go if it was easy and "safe" enough who do not now try, lacking access to such a method. But who knows how large these groups are?

    ReplyDelete
  38. I'm ok with a higher suicide rate. If life were to be voluntary, society would have to offer people reasons to live, and/or reduce reasons to not want to live instead of just declaring it as a default position, backed up by moral judgment and threats of physical violence.

    Plus, the remaining people would be happier on average since the most unhappy people would select themselves out, and the remaining ones would self-identify with the deliberate decision that they want to continue living. That is a very different psychological perspective than "I wish I didn't have to experience this".

    ReplyDelete

Tweets by @TheViewFromHell