Suicide and Moral Blame

Suppose that you hear about two cases in which a physically healthy 30-year-old man is killed.  All you know about the two cases is that in Case 1, the killing was a suicide, and that in Case 2, the killing was a homicide.  If you’re like me, it will seem natural to think that, absent further details about the two cases, the killer in Case 1 is less blameworthy than the killer in Case 2.  Moreover, it will seem natural to think that the killer in Case 1 is less blameworthy because suicide is less seriously immoral than homicide.  Together these beliefs–viz., the belief that those who commit suicide are less blameworthy than those who commit homicide, and the belief that suicide is less seriously immoral than homicide–comprise what I will call the Non-Equivalence Intuition.

It is interesting to note, however, that the two main philosophical accounts of what makes killing immoral furnish no obvious justification for the Non-Equivalence Intuition.  For example, according to the harm-based view of the morality of killing, killing X is immoral if, because, and to the extent that X is deprived of everything X now values and all the value of his future–all the goods of X’s future life.  But suppose it were to turn out that the killing in Case 1 deprived its victim of approximately the same amount of value as the killing in Case 2, or perhaps even more?  I doubt this would undermine your original intuition that the killing in Case 1–the suicide–is less seriously immoral than the killing in Case 2, and the killer in Case 1 less blameworthy than the killer in Case 2.  If we accept the harm-based view of the morality of killing, then, it seems we must either jettison the Non-Equivalence Intuition  or conclude, alternatively, that there are aspects of the immorality of killing that the harm-based view is ill-equipped to explain.

According to the respect-based view of the morality of killing, on the other hand, killing X is immoral if X is a person, because persons have a kind of value that is “beyond all price” (in Kant’s well-known phrase).  Now it is important not to conflate the value of the person, as indicated in the respect-based account, with what a person values or the value of the person’s future, as indicated in the harm-based account.  What a person values may change over time, and the value of a person’s future may increase or decrease over time, depending on events in that person’s life.  But the value inherent in being a person–the value inherent in being a valuer, say–is constant throughout one’s existence as a person.  On the respect-based view it is a kind of value that commands the utmost respect, and it’s because killing a person destroys this incomparable and absolute value that killing a person is so egregiously immoral.  In short, whereas the harm-based account bases the serious immorality of killing in the amount of value taken, the respect-based account bases the immorality of killing in the kind of value destroyed.

It will be obvious, however, that the respect-based account of the morality of killing does no better than the harm-based account in accommodating the Non-Equivalence Intuition.   The victim in Case 1 and the victim in Case 2 are both persons, and the killings in these two cases destroyed persons of equal value.  One may be tempted here to suggest that, in fact, the respect-based view can accommodate the Non-Equivalence Intuition by appealing to the notion of consent.  One might suggest that in a homicide the victim is killed without his consent or against his will, whereas in a suicide the victim consents to his own killing by virtue of the fact that the killing is an expression of his own will.  Add the not implausible assumption that nonconsensual killing is more disrespectful than consensual killing, and it seems we might have a basis for the Non-Equivalence Intuition.

But appealing to consent in this context is a non-starter.  First, there is the obvious fact that genuine consent is incompatible with decisions taken and actions performed under great emotional stress, and those who commit suicide are most often acting under great emotional stress (not always, of course).  Second, and perhaps more decisively, the claim that a person who commits suicide consents to his own killing by virtue of the fact that the killing is an expression of his own will has unacceptable implications.  It implies, for example, that we consent to every intentional act we ever perform–to bring out the peculiarity of this claim more forcefully, it implies that whenever I intentionally X, I am in fact doing two things: I am X-ing, and I am consenting to my X-ing.  The concept of consent, I would argue, is only at home in interpersonal contexts.  It is something one person can give or withhold vis-a-vis another person (or people).  It is not something it makes sense to ‘give’ or ‘withhold’ from oneself.

It thus seems to me that we are lacking a satisfactory philosophical explanation of a rather basic and widespread moral belief–the Non-Equivalence Intuition.  This is  a strike against both of the prevailing philosophical accounts of the morality of killing.  In a paper I am currently working on–soon to be forthcoming, I hope–I want to address this explanatory gap and offer a justification of the Non-Equivalence Intuition.  The key element in my explanation is that motives and states of mind more generally are among the things we can evaluate from a moral point of view.  This idea is hardly new, of course, but it sheds considerable light, I think, on the real basis of the Non-Equivalence Intuition.  It is because homicides are so often connected to morally bad motives and states of mind like greed, jealousy, callous disregard for others, hostility, hate, anger, and so forth, and because suicides are so often connected to morally neutral motives and states of mind like the desire to relieve one’s pain, depression, and so forth, that we tend naturally to judge those who commit homicide more blameworthy than those who commit suicide, and the former actions more seriously immoral than the latter.

This explanation of the grounds of  the Non-Equivalence Intuition has at least one surprising implication, which may be brought into relief by considering a case like the following.  Suppose Peter intensely hates gays, but that at some point in early adulthood he cannot any longer repress his own homosexuality.  And suppose he subsequently commits suicide, and that this act is motivated primarily by self-hatred.  My view, I suspect, would have a hard time explaining why Peter’s suicide is less seriously  immoral than if Peter had murdered a gay person other than himself because of his hatred for gays.   But I think I can accept this surprising implication of my account.

In any case, I’m anxious to develop my argument.  Criticisms and comments would be greatly appreciated.

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11 Responses to Suicide and Moral Blame

  1. juan says:

    why is the consent view so weird?it seems ok to say that whatever action is an expression of your will (and so intentional) is something you consent to.
    maybe it’s easier to see why it’s not such a big problem if we think of consent not as another action,besides the one you are already performing,but as an attitude towards and that colors that action.
    for example, it’s possible that everything i do i dislike:i gotta go shopping,go to school,write papers,etc.And all these actions i hate.Every action i perform is accompanied by an attitude of active dislike.Why can’t it accompanied by consent?

  2. David says:

    Thanks for the comment, Juan.

    I don’t think consent is an attitude, much less an attitude akin to ‘liking’ (or not actively disliking) the activity you’re engaged in. I can consent to things I don’t like at all (taxation), and I can like things I don’t consent to (your uninvited caress). So perhaps you could say more about the content of this alleged ‘attitude.’

    • juan says:

      thank you very much for the reply

      by the same token, i can believe things i don’t like (quantum theory) or i can like things i don’t believe(aristotelian physics).that hardly shows belief is not an attitude.

      there are many different kinds of attitudes.consent,perhaps unlike belief, and like liking or disliking,is not a propositional attitude.its content is not a proposition.its content is an action, in this’s a kind of approval, a sort of attitude you take toward any action you do willingly.even if it was a propositional attitude,it would be no less an attitude.

  3. Nates says:

    Very interesting, David. Before I get to your own proposal, I want to consider what you have to say about consent on the respect-based model. You say that appealing to consent won’t explain the difference in how we assess murder and suicide, for two reasons:
    (1) because “…genuine consent is incompatible with decisions taken and actions performed under great emotional stress” (such as suicide);
    (2) because it involves the unacceptable implication “that we consent to every intentional act we ever perform” — that “whenever I intentionally X, I am in fact doing two things: I am X-ing, and I am consenting to my X-ing.”

    Regarding the first point, I agree that emotional stress can lessen our self-control and thus threaten the genuine nature of our consent, but there’s a danger of exaggerating this effect. It seems to me that we can imagine many cases where a person suffering from severe depression is in more control of what happens than a person who is shot by a stranger. Perhaps there are cases where the depression is so severe that the two cases are effectively equivalent, but all I need is the claim that the depressed person often has more control. That’s enough to explain our differing intuitions regarding consent.

    On the second point, I think I need to hear a little more from you. Why is there this implication? I get that intentional action doesn’t necessarily involve consent:if someone has a gun to my head, I might intend to give them my wallet without consenting to do so. But I don’t see how this affects the more general point that many intentional acts do involve consent (and are more likely to do so than non-intentional acts). So, for instance, a suicide is more likely to involve consent than a murder. But I feel like I’m missing something here, so I’ll wait to hear more.

  4. David says:

    Basically, I think ‘consent’ is itself an intentional act, and not a common feature of intentional actions. But rather than defend this objection to appealing to consent to ground the Non-Equivalence Principle, let me raise a different and perhaps more persuasive objection. Suppose:

    Peter’s girlfriend just dumped him. He’s totally distraught. He’s gripped by the irrational fear that no one will ever love him again. He’s too squeamish to commit suicide, so he asks his acquaintance, Juan, to kill him. He says, “Juan, you have my consent.” So Juan kills him. Now maybe you don’t think Juan’s action here is as morally blameworthy as a garden-variety homicide, where consent of any kind is totally absent, but presumably you also don’t think Juan’s blameworthiness–and the immorality of his act–is on a par with a suicide under similar conditions. If that’s the case, then I don’t think ‘consent’ is capable of doing the kind of work you imagine it doing.

  5. Chad says:

    But I do think Juan’s actions are at least *closer* in moral blameworthiness as the suicides. I think this shows, contra you, that consent does really make a large difference. We have to explain that intuition, too.

    I wonder, too, if we might think of the problem in terms of assigning blame for a tragic act. In the case of both suicide and homicide, something terrible happens. With suicide, we are reluctant to blame the person — probably for many of the reasons you suggest: the person was probably suffering terribly, or depressed. There’s also no point to blame in those cases: we can’t punish the person. So it maybe that for the suicide — as opposed to the homicide, where punishment may be efficacious, and the motives may be evil rather than tragic — we focus more on the tragic event, the bad thing that happened, rather than about issues of responsibility.

    • David says:

      Hi Chad,

      –“But I do think Juan’s actions are at least *closer* in moral blameworthiness as the suicides. I think this shows, contra you, that consent does really make a large difference. We have to explain that intuition, too.”

      Closer, yes, but I don’t know if consent makes a “large difference.” For instance, I’m inclined to think on the spectrum of immoral actions, Juan’s act is much closer to regular homicide than to regular suicide. Would you disagree?

      • juan says:

        i share Chad’s intuition.that’s probably because of consent.cases of euthanasia also are like this.we don’t look on the doctors who do it as murderers.or maybe this is a minority view and i don’t know it.

  6. David says:

    The euthanasia example is a death blow for my view, I’m afraid. My analysis of the basis of our reactive attitudes towards those who commit suicide suggested that it is assumptions about their motives that largely inform our evaluation of their acts. But now consider these two cases:

    1. Motivated by mercy and compassion, Doctor Svolba kills his patient without his patient’s consent.

    2. Motivated by mercy and compassion, and at his patient’s request, Doctor Svolba kills his patient.

    Our evaluation of 2 is clearly going to be that it is less morally objectionable than 1, despite the fact that the doctor’s motives seem to be the same in the two cases. So appealing to an agent’s motives isn’t going to do the work I wanted it to do. I suppose I could try a desperate save and say that the doctor in 1 wasn’t sufficiently respectful of his patient’s own wishes, but the only reason we’re going to consider that morally objectionable is because we consider something like ‘consent’ to be very important. Oh well…back to the drawing board, as they say.

    • juan says:

      this idea of motives seems to run into problems in other cases as well,because bad actions can be done out of good motives,but we still think they are bad,so the motives may not have great impact on our evaluation.a lot of witch-burning,for example,may have been done for good motives (actually, excellent motives).

      on the other hand,to kill someone in order to save their soul (by burning at the stake, for ex.)seems less bad than to kill them in order to get your hands on ther wealth (this also occurred).so motives can do some work here.

  7. juan says:

    quick afterthought on harm: there are cases of masochism or people fond of self-mutilation.we would have to decide to decide whether there is harm involved here or might be that these people would just be miserable, and so not better off without engaging in these practices

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