On Suicide, The Feeling of Worthlessness and Its Rationality

There are many reasons why one would kill oneself. Many, if not all, stem from this root – (1) the feeling of worthlessness. A symptom of the pervasive disconnect between ‘aspiration’, in the most general sense of the word, and ‘reality’ is this niggling sense of despair and melancholy that could alternatively be understood as a ‘feeling of worthlessness’. The simplicity offends some; it suggests to others that it is a problem easy to overcome. It bears noting, however, that if the world we live in, with its myriad technologies, cannot easily grapple with this most insidious emotion, then perhaps a simple solution is nowhere in sight at all. (2) Perhaps looking at this from a solution-oriented perspective betrays a misunderstanding of people caught in the web – it may not be a ‘problem’ they want to solve. For them, suicide might even be a completely rational solution to apparently irresolvable conundrums. It is emotional distress weighed up against, and overwhelming, the capacity to withstand it. (3) There are still others who take that dreadful step, not as a result of some seemingly rational cost-benefit analysis, but rather succumb to the temptation of an escape into oblivion, or afterlife. (4) Finnis’ moral theory possibly gives some allowance for the suicidal perspective, which suggests that suicide is not a theoretical aberration. If we understand this, then we might also understand that suicide (for all those who are in a position to help) is not something to be dismissed out of hand, but an issue with a solution. That solution, however, will have to be discerned practically, according to each person’s unique circumstances.

I do not purport to give answers, but only to discuss these four points in a way which might facilitate understanding of the choice to commit suicide.

(1) The feeling of worthlessness is something experienced by most human beings. Its foundation is the preconception that people are means and not ends in themselves. It is here that many would be tempted to launch into liberal shibboleths that people must always be treated as ends in themselves – important and valuable in themselves, incommensurable with material goods – but these people could do better if they scrutinised the basic tenets of capitalist societies. At its core is private ownership, commodification. “Anything can be commodified”. If so, life can be commodified, as it has been in the past, quantified by the metric of slave labour. Only law, morality and custom stands in the way of such indiscriminate commodification, and historically this has protected only a small class of people. Even with the benefit of such protections in modern times, people are buffeted by the ‘winds of capitalism’ indirectly – if their life can no longer be commodified, then their labour, reputation, intelligence… can and are still the second-degree indicators of the ‘worth’ of the product of one’s life. Small comfort then that one’s life is invaluable, when everything that life gives rise to can be considered potentially worthless.

If I used capitalism to illustrate the fundamental precept that, in principle, life is quantifiable, then I may have misled many as to my perspective. I do not suggest capitalism is the sole source of such a view, and no doubt the view has far more ancient roots. It is probably rooted in the concept that the hardest worker should earn a return commensurate to the quantity and quality of his work, and relative to others around him. Capitalism might have merely been a systematisation of this dim view, with commodification leading to often opposite results (it is no longer the hardest worker, but perhaps the biggest landowner, who earns the most).

This suggests that the problem is largely one of mentality, and to a certain extent, it might be. For implicit in this is the idea that one is affected by others’ valuation of one’s worth. One trades with others the worth of his goods, be it labour, bread or service. It is not farfetched to say, even if one may not now trade one’s life away, one (might) still value it in a way similar to how he values his other goods – by the value ascribed it by others.

It is then clear: one is not bound to value one’s life by others’ metric. It is a choice, and the contrary choice can be made, just as the Stoics recognised. The discussion above, however, suggests that, so ingrained is this mode of thinking that its pernicious effects cannot be easily mitigated.

(2) To some, suicide is the solution. The feeling of worthlessness and corresponding depression might be a ‘problem’ to be overcome. The problems are also, more likely, life’s vicissitudes, events beyond the control of mortal men. Yet the choice to kill oneself is a part of the solution. It might (in some cases) be an attempt at choosing the best possible solution from a number of alternatives. So overborne is one’s mind that the cost/benefit analysis is skewed in favour of suicide and against enduring the pain and humiliation of everyday life.

I say this is an ‘attempt’ because my perspective is that if one’s mind is overborne by depression, then one cannot make a well-reasoned decision. An analogy can be made to the ‘reasonable man’ construct of the courts – it is a hypothetical person who has been defined variously as a "right-thinking member of society," an "officious bystander," a "reasonable parent," a "reasonable landlord," a "fair-minded and informed observer”… if one were suffering from the throes of depression, then such a person exercising his rational faculties would probably not come to the same conclusion as a reasonable person, even if they were in the same situation (which situation does not require the reasonable person to suffer from depression).

Such people are nevertheless fully capable of exercising whatever rational ability they have left, and in some suicide cases, the rational choice is death.

(3) Of course, it would be wrong to say every person would rationally choose death given their situation and their mental state. That is obviously not the case, for it is not farfetched to imagine persons making the decision as a knee-jerk reaction to stimuli. The distinction between this and a rational choice is unclear, but I do not propose to draw the line. Suffice to say, some event may manifest that is so traumatising that it deprives the victim of rational faculty, and leads the person to decide on death, without applying one’s mind to the costs/benefits of the situation. This might be when the pain experienced (which might be psychological or physical) is so severe as to militate against any other alternative except suicide. This is, however, not a rational decision, because one has not thought about the implications or consequences of the act – it is a choice made in the heat of the circumstances, and might be influenced by certain internal prejudices (religion is one of them).

(4) From a theoretical point of view, it seems as though suicide can be understood, and not merely dismissed as the product of an overborne mind. The moral theory of Finnis suggests this might be so because his conception of the basic goods accords a wide ambit to people to live their own lives. Reference must be made, however, to criticisms of his theory.

Life/vitality is considered, inter alia, a basic good by Finnis, a legal philosopher. His moral theory, however, seems to make some allowance for the perspective of the suicidal, although one’s intuitions might recoil at this most unnatural of choices. Note that Life is but one of seven basic goods identified by Finnis: what of Knowledge, Play, Aesthetic experience, Sociability/friendship, Practical reasonableness/intelligent making of choices, Religion/concern about the order of things ‘beyond’? Finnis suggests these basic goods are a circle around which one can travel, as different circumstances manifest themselves. One could criticise Finnis’ theory for being too restrictive… why only seven basic goods? As lawyers might suggest, if we take one step, why not fifty? The issue is what accords with intuitions, and latitude must be given for the wide variety of intuitions which in fact exist. One intuition is that pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) must be given some recognition. His theory, it is suggested, works best as a Mixed Theory, and not an Objective List Theory (McBride) – that is, allowance must be made to competing conceptions of the ‘good life’. For those, then, who live in unfortunate circumstances, or in circumstances where the pain (psychological or physical) is unbearable, the avoidance of that pain might count as a sort of ‘good’.

(My perspective is that) The afterlife is unknown and unknowable, especially as in relation to whether it even exists. There is evidence which suggests that such a notion is fanciful – a figment of the imagination – but nothing so definitive and obvious as would invariably cut through the delusions of humanity’s billions. There is therefore no neat, correct answer, perhaps ordained by some deity, to the deceptively simple question of whether it is right to kill oneself, for the very concept of “right” is fraught with esoteric philosophical discussion and theories of morality. If we put those theoretical issues to the side, however, and take for a moment the perspective of the person facing the difficult situation which either (i) forces him to choose between death or painful life or (ii) imposes death by depriving his mind of its rational faculties, then perhaps we might finally understand suicide.



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