Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Is life "worth it"?

When we say something turned out good, it means the final conclusion of an event was positive.

A person who goes through four years of grueling college to earn a degree that lands them a six-digit salary would presumably be a positive conclusion. The person going through these four years of grueling college chose to go to college because she wanted the six digit salary. It therefore was an accomplishment and a positive end to the process. It was all worth it.

But a person who went through four years of grueling military service across seas because they were drafted by the government but left the service unscathed and with a fully-fledged retirement plan is not a positive conclusion because the person did not initially want to participate in the draft. When the person finally goes home and tells everyone it was all worth it, he does not say it because he genuinely believes this but because he's trying to look on the bright side - now he has a retirement plan and wasn't injured during service. It was not worth it.

So it stands that our ethical obligations regarding the well-being of other people requires that we have a reasonable belief that they will benefit (re: appreciate) the action on their behalf. We also need to be reasonably sure that the final outcome will be worth it for the individual, and that it won't simply be licking their wounds but actually proud and appreciative of the fact that this entire ordeal has resulted in the way it has.

How do we know when the outcome is worth the ordeal? We know when:
  1. The individual either has or would have agreed to go through the ordeal.
  2. The individual going through the ordeal wishes the ordeal to continue.
  3. The outcome of the ordeal is satisfying, which typically means it is long-lasting (most likely permanent) and high in intensity of good (re: pleasure).
  4. There is a reasonable chance that the individual will succeed in the ordeal and appreciate the outcome.
  5. The problems inherent in the ordeal do not leave permanent scars on the individual, physical and mental alike.

How does this pan out in regards to birth? That is to say, is the ordeal of life worth starting?
  1. Did the individual agree or would have agreed to go through the ordeal? This is impossible to know, since nobody exists to ask consent of or to base a rational decision off of.
  2. Does the individual wish to continue the ordeal? Some certainly do. But some certainly don't. And then there's the majority who don't consciously wish to continue to live but do so out of habit.
  3. Is the outcome of the ordeal satisfying? Depends on what you consider satisfying. The satisfaction of banal needs and desires is surely not satisfying in the accomplishment-sense. And it is surely obvious that satisfaction is temporary while disatisfaction is ever-lingering. What is the "ontological" outcome of life? Death (re: Heidegger Being-Towards-Death). Apart from death, are there any long-lasting and high-intensity outcomes of life that make up for our otherwise uncomfortable existences?
  4. Is there a reasonable chance that the individual will succeed in the ordeal and appreciate the outcome? If we're talking about death as the final outcome, then it's 100% guaranteed. Does someone appreciate dying? Most likely not. Is it a given that life will be worth it to every person on the deathbed? Not in the "licking their wounds" Pollyannaism but a genuine appreciation of their existence? I personally doubt it.
  5. Are the problems inherent to the odeal leave permanent scars on the individual? Absolutely - just look at exponentially-rising amount of suicides every year. The process of growing up means to sufficiently repress and hide the scars of childhood. People inevitably grow old and die of some kind of disease, most likely. The celebration after the battle will always involve licking our wounds and mourning the dead - the outcome of the battle is not worth the battle itself, unless something needed to be solved by the battle. But without life, there are no problems to be solved, thus no battle is necessary.

Thus birth is at best a risk imposition and at worst a zero-sum game.


  1. D,

    "Absolutely - just look at exponentially-rising amount of suicides every year."


    I am a practicing psychiatrist who has spent the last 35 years trying to prevent people from committing suicide (among other clinical pursuits) so of course my opinion is tainted by what I do. This is not just some hypothetical scenario *for me.* It’s what I actually do, daily.

    The vast majority of people who attempt suicide and get rescued (that is, are not allowed to die) or fail in their attempt (like in a botched attempt that doesn’t kill them) come to change their minds in the future and to feel grateful for having been saved (or for having survived).

    Whether or not an individual has a *right* to do it depends exclusively on a societal judgment. In certain societies euthanasia is allowed; in others it is banned. “Rights” are conventions. I don’t think they are inherent to someone. I think they are *granted* by the societal organization that precedes and succeeds that someone (a society is larger and more enduring than an individual). In my view, it’s as simple as that. There is no real self-determination in society. If the society in which one lives grants a person this right, then he or she has this right. If it doesn’t grant it, then one doesn’t, in the views of that society, and that society would be justified in trying to stop the person. Of course one most likely would still do it. I find, in my practice, that people who are really adamant that they want to die (that minority of those who don’t change their minds), end up doing it regardless of the help they get. They always find a way. You can’t put them on suicide watch forever, so eventually they’ll do it.

    But our effort as psychiatrists is to try to avoid it, exactly to give that person the opportunity to change her or his mind, which most of them do. All this self-determination, apparently ethical stance of respect for the person’s autonomy, is actually in my opinion a form of neglect. The decent and humane thing to do given the fact that most suicidal people change their minds, is to step in and avoid the event as much as possible. Failure to intervene would be neglectful, just like if you see a blind person walking towards a cliff, you wouldn’t just cross your arms and say “oh well, he has the right to walk in whatever direction he chooses” — that would be grossly neglectful. You’d step in and prevent the fatal fall from the cliff.

    Now, you’d say, but if the person is really determined and is one of those who won’t change their minds about it, it’s a violence done to them. Sure, sure…. But the number of people who are what we could call victims of this violence is *far* outnumbered by the number of people who change their minds, therefore it is also ethically defensible, in the name of the larger good, to intervene. Just like rights are relative, ethics are also relative since they have conflicting approaches. There is the ethic of personal autonomy, but there is also the ethic of the larger good. Traditionally, in Western thinking, the latter outweighs the former.

    This is why I *am* in favor of forceful suicide watch to prevent someone from committing suicide, and most states have ruled that attempts to harm oneself are grounds for involuntary civil commitment.

    1. Thank you for your reply. I am not opposed to suicide-prevention. If we can help people who are suicidal, we should try to.

      I say this not because I worry about the person's death itself but about the process leading up to the death. It's horribly traumatic and painful. Whereas death doesn't really harm anyone, since once you're dead, you don't know you're dead.

      Being supportive of suicide prevention, however, does not make me supportive of life-enforcement. If someone wishes to die despite what everyone else tells them, they shouldn't be forced to continue to live. Since nobody asked to be born, there are bound to be people who aren't as appreciative of their lives as others are.

      Suicidal people who are forced to continue to experience their poor lives do so because the state has to keep a positive exterior. It has to come across as genuinely concerned for the well-being of other people and since life is seen as an inherently good thing almost across the board, the state has to keep a good appearance. But I think the better method would be to accept that some people are determined not to live anymore, and the best the state can do is to say that they tried. Otherwise it's totalitarian.

  2. Hi darthbarracuda,

    I am new to your blog and would and appreciate your thoughts on this hypothetical situation.

    A 40 year old lady wants to kill herself. This is not a view that she has come to lightly. She has been thinking about suicide fairly systematically for the last five years – ever since she turned forty in fact. She can think of reasons to live – her sister, for example, will miss her if she’s gone – but she can think of many more reasons not to live. She would say that she is not depressed exactly. It is more that she is profoundly bored: she is suffering from seemingly terminal ennui.

    She has thought hard about the morality of suicide. She knows that there are religious objections to the taking of one’s own life. She is aware, for instance, that the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states that suicide is ‘seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity’. But she isn’t religious, and doesn’t believe in the afterlife, so she isn’t much impressed by such pronouncements. She has taken into account that some people, such as her sister, will mourn her death. But she does not believe that their suffering will be very great, and certainly not great enough to outweigh what she sees as her right to do as she wishes with her own life – including ending it. She is also aware that she might feel differently about things at some point in the future. However, she thinks that this is unlikely, and, in any case, she is not convinced of the relevance of this point: certainly, she does not think that she has any responsibility towards a purely hypothetical future version of herself.

    She has canvassed other people’s opinions about suicide, but so far she has heard nothing to persuade her that killing herself would be wrong. She is frequently told that she ‘shouldn’t give up’, that ‘things will get better’, and that she ‘should just hang on in there’, but nobody has been entirely clear about why she should do these things. For her part, she can’t really see that she stands to lose much of anything by ending her life now. She does not value it, and in any case, if she’s dead, she’s hardly going to regret missing out on whatever it is that might have happened to her had she lived.

    Would it be wrong for this woman to commit suicide? If so, why?



    1. Hi Clarendinea, thanks for posting a reply.

      In regards to the morality of suicide, I don't think there is anything objectively right or wrong about suicide. Perhaps this is because I don't think there is anything objectively right or wrong at ALL; I'm a moral anti-realist.

      Would it be good or bad for this woman to kill herself? I think the only answer to this is a personal one, and a quote from Schopenhauer comes to mind:

      "They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice... that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person."

      It's this kind of radical freedom of the existentialists that made suicide such a pressing question - what does it matter if I kill myself or have a cup of coffee?

      So I think suicide may be a rational option for certain people in certain situations. If a person's future looks grim and bleak, then perhaps suicide is a valid option. You have to remember that by committing suicide, you are preventing not only suffering from occurring but also pleasure, and we make our choices largely due to how much suffering or pleasure will be derived.

      Another thing to take into mind is that suicide is not generally an easy thing to do or to take lightly. You can't just kill yourself in the same way you would go to the grocery store or stroll around the park. Usually you have to be in a certain state of mind - desperate for a way out.

      So it is often the case that someone's life isn't exactly "worth" living but neither is it "worth" ending either. They're just stuck in this valley, going through the motions of life without much thought or conviction.

      Anyway, I am strongly opposed to preventing people from killing themselves because other people will suffer. So what if these people will suffer? It merely instrumentalizes the individual suffering instead of treating them as an actual person who can think and feel.

      Another thing to consider is that I don't think that suicidal people want to DIE, per se, it's that they want the pain to END. I think that everyone wishes to continue to live, but they also wish the pain would end. And unfortunately the wish for the pain to end can end up in conflict with the wish to continue to live - thus why suicide is not an easy thing to accomplish. It's only when the pain is overwhelmingly horrible (psychache) that a person forgets about their wish to continue to live and attempts to kill themselves. It's also why there's so many ATTEMPTS at suicide - people don't want to die, even if this is only motivated by a fear of death.

      So I'm not going to cheer people on in their suicide. I will be concerned about their well-being and ask if I can do anything to help them out or see if I can help them deal with their pain. But if they're truly adamant in their death, I (hypothetically) would not intervene. I won't help them kill themselves but neither will I oppose them.

      If by chance this hypothetical person happens to be yourself, I hope you feel better. Thanks for checking out my blog.