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.