Russell Madden
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It Mattered
Russell Madden
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Suicide and the Choice to Live


Russell Madden


(A reply to Bill Dwyer who disagrees with the Objectivist idea that the actual choice to live or die precedes morality and thus is, in and of itself, not subject to moral evaluation.)

Tue, 19 May 1998

Bill Dwyer raises some interesting issues on the subject of suicide/ethics. While my thoughts are preliminary on this, I do not believe the relationship between the two is as problematic as he proposes.

In terms of those who are thinking/planning/committing suicide, I do not think their attitudes are always that they specifically do not want to live. In my reading and conversations on this subject, quite frequently the potential suicide desperately does want to live...but he does not want to live in what he views as a hopeless situation or under intolerable conditions. That's one reason many people (especially women) attempt suicide in ways which leave them a potential "out," a chance that someone will stop them and recognize the extreme emotional pain they are in...and offer them the help they desire but are unable to ask for.

As for attempting to "talk them out of it," I see no problem with that. After all, if I see someone acting in what seems to me to be an irrational and potentially lethal manner (and especially if that someone is a value to me), I would violate my ethics if I did not at least try to keep that value from disappearing from my life. Simply because someone is contemplating suicide does not mean he is irrevocably committed to that course of action and impervious to persuasion. If he was, nothing I said would prevent his death.

Even if he ought to continue to live, he has to make the choice to do so. If he firmly decides to die, ethics -- for him -- ceases to be an issue -- for him. Ethics, by definition, is a guide for living. However, if he retains at least a tiny desire to live, ethics would still matter to him even if he is moving strongly towards suicide. Only he, though, can truly know that. As an outsider I might strongly suspect here is still some part of him seeking life. It would be to that small segment of his self that I would address my arguments, again because my choice to live and act according to my ethics would continue unabated.

Would I be justified in physically restraining him and thus violating his rights? That would depend on the context. If someone truly had given up on life, he would find a way to die regardless of the restraints placed upon him...or would do so immediately after any restraints were removed. Restraining him would only postpone the inevitable...and I don't believe I would have the right to so restrain him. For someone acting more impulsively, I might be justified. These are borderline cases and thus difficult to judge.

As for the altruist sacrificing for a stranger, I could as easily think that he, too, would hold to some small hope that he might survive. Given the obviously extreme and sudden nature of the proposed situation (a bullet from an assassin), one would have difficulty arguing that the altruist knew beyond all doubt that he would die.

As for cultists, there is no reason we cannot evaluate their actions from the outside, from our perspective. We can judge the irrationality of the way they lived prior to their deaths. Indeed, the Heaven's Gate people seem a poor example since they expected still to live after the death of their present bodies.

The Kantian and a duty to live? We can evaluate the ethics he chooses to live by. But even from his perspective, he obviously does have something to live for...honoring his philosophy, even if objectively he is wrong to do so.

As for drinkers or smokers as "slow suicides," this seems to be assuming what one needs to prove, i.e., that such people truly want to die. Most such people do not literally want to die any more than do those who overeat or don't exercise or climb mountains or engage in whatever risky behavior one cares to name. Such people may be acting irrationally, but it seems unwarranted to label all irrational, dangerous behavior as examples of suicide in any literal sense.

Bill seems to be be conflating a true choice to die with the self-destructive actions of those who may claim they want to die.

Seeking to live and thus having an ethics is not optional. Everyone who is alive is following an ethics, no matter how self-contradictory, irrational, or destructive that ethics might be. Until someone seeking suicide actually kills himself, he is still living and -- for our own benefit, if nothing else -- we can assume [even if we are wrong] that he is thus operating from at least a tattered thread of ethics/morality. As long as that thread remains, we can attempt to convince him that his stated desire to die is wrong.

If he truly has chosen to die and does not want to live, ethics -- FOR HIM -- ceases to be an issue. In a very literal sense, he needs no guidelines for action since seeking death does not require him to act. He can lay down, not eat or drink, and physical reality will lead him to his goal. Using a gun or pills or whatever merely hastens what would otherwise occur without his active involvement.

A choice to live or die is profoundly personal and fundamental and cannot in and of itself be evaluated morally. One can evaluate the reasons which might influence one to live or die, but not the choice per se. Compare this to the issue of free will at its most fundamental, i.e., whether one will choose to focus or not. There may be reasons/influences that make that choice difficult or easy, but the actual choice that is the essence of free will means that nothing else causes it...if that choice did have prior causes in a fundamental sense, it would not be free.

Analogously, choosing to live or die is, in this sense, no more arbitary or subjective than is choosing to focus or evade.

Once that choice is made, however, one can then follow a rational ethics, an irrational one, or -- as most people do -- a mixture of both. Those choices and subsequent actions can be objectively judged.

Bill seems to be arguing that if an ethics is not correct, it does not count as an ethics. But an ethics is simply a set of guidelines by which to live one's life. Deciding whether it is objectively correct or not is another issue.

Again, these observations are preliminary, but at this stage, I still believe Rand and Kelley are correct and Peikoff and Dwyer are not.


Bill Dwyer disagrees with the idea that the choice to live or die is not subject to moral evaluation. After thinking about the issues for a bit, I have a few additional points to add to my original post. In that post, I argued that the choice to live or die is a precondition to ethics since ethics is, by definition, a guide to living. Dwyer responded by correctly stating that ethics is a guideline for making choices. I would answer that point by agreeing that it is a guideline for choices, yes...but not for all choices; only for those related to living.

If one has decided to commit suicide but has not yet done so, the choices one makes from that point until one kills oneself are different in nature from the actual choice to die. One is still living: the potential suicide, if he is trying to decide when and how to kill himself, must still make rational choices in those remaining areas of life required for him to reach his "goal" of death: he must continue to eat; perhaps to drive to the store; purchasing the means of his death (if he does not already possess it); choosing the time and place to kill himself; etc. While these choices may be directed to achieving his death, in the constricted realm in which he is operating, he must act reasonably rational while still living.

One can compare this to the compartmentalism which occurs in many people's lives in which they are rational at work, say, but irrational in their private lives.

In many of Dwyer's examples of destructive behavior, the actions equally fit a case where someone chooses/wants to live but has evaded the objective requirements to do so. An alcoholic might in some sense be aware that his behavior could or probably will lead to his death, but he could still suppress that awareness. Dwyer's objective evaluation of such a person's behavior in no way implies that the alcoholic really accepts that fact. That's what "evasion" means.

But that is a secondary issue. The real crux of the disagreement is the actual choice to live or die. In my previous post, I attempted to compare the choice to live or die to that of the choice to focus one's mind or not (the source of free will, according to Objectivism). I stated that this latter choice is self-caused, even if it is influenced by other sources, e.g., upbringing, believing a bad philosophy, fear, physical exhaustion, etc. Even if one focuses "because," as Dwyer suggests, one ought to do so, this "ought" is still an influence, not the fundamental cause itself. If the "ought" was the cause, then one could not claim the act to focus was truly one of free will.

This situation reminds me of a student of mine who, upon hearing of the Obj. idea of free will, asked me, "But what causes one person to focus but not another person?" I responded that the question is not a valid one. The choice is the person herself. The student was still looking to something/someone else for the cause. But this choice to focus or not is of a different nature than that of other choices one makes. One can choose not to think about some thought; one can choose to do something; but external forces may prevent you from actualizing those kinds of choices. (Try not thinking right now about a pink elephant carrying an umbrella...) This is why Obj. locates free will in the choice to focus one's mind: to think, to be aware of reality. That is the only choice fully and completely within your control.

"The process of focus is not the same as the process of thought; it is the precondition of thought." (emphasis added), Peikoff, AR LEXICON, p. 168.

"...[F]ocus is more fundamental than [concentration]. You need to be in focus in order to concentrate, but focus is the particular 'set' of your consciousness which is not delimited by the particular task, object, or action that you are concentrating on....The concept of 'focus' isn't tied to the remains the same no matter what you are focused on. It is the 'set' of your mind." Rand, LEXICON, p. 169.

As I stated in my earlier post, I see the choice to live or not to be fundamental in a sense similar to this notion of focus. It is a precursor to morality, the generalized "set" of your mind in choosing to live or not.

Dwyer's examples and criticisms of suicide seem directed more to the "concrete" level of actions and, sometimes, to the process of dying while I believe the choice to live/die is more global and primary. Given the hierarchical nature of these ideas, this latter choice must lie at the base of morality. To place morality prior to this choice is to invert the pyramid, both conceptually and metaphysically. Dwyer also seems to forget that the only imperatives in Objectivism are conditional, i.e., "If one seeks X, one must do Y." He seems to be seeking to eliminate the "if" and to focus solely on the "one must."

"If one chooses to live, then one must have an ethics to guide one's behavior." "If one is following an ethics and acts upon that ethics, those acts and that ethical system are subject to evaluation as to their correspondence to reality."

Dwyer's argument rings similar to those people who ask, "How do you prove that logic is valid?"; "How do you know you exist?"; "Why is there something rather than nothing?"; "How do you prove you are conscious?"; "How do you prove you have free will?" These are all invalid questions.

Questions of this type ignore the fact that there has to be a starting place. The starting places -- whether existence or consciousness or whatever -- are not arbitary but inherent in the nature of things. The choice to live or die -- while not the same as these -- is similar in the fact that it is the ground, the foundation, the starting point for ethics. Just as an infant implicitly chooses to focus at whatever level available to it, so too it implicitly chooses life. Only as it grows in knowledge and awareness do other influences enter its life making it easier or more difficult to choose to focus, be aware. Along with that growth come other influences making it earier or more difficult to choose to live. ("...[A] social environment can offer incentives or impediments; it can make the exercise of one's rational faculty easier or harder...," Rand, LEXICON, p. 179.) But the choice to live must, as with the choice to focus, remain ultimately self-caused...even if one can also understand and evaluate those "incentives and impediments."

"Only the alternative of life vs. death creates the context for value-oriented actions, and it does so only if the entity's end is to preserve its life." (Emphasis added; Peikoff, OPAR, p. 212). This would seem to me to mean that if one does not seek to preserve one's life, i.e, that this is not one's goal, then the proper "context for value-oriented actions" does not exist. Plants or animals do not choose that goal; people must.

"The distinctively Objectivist viewpoint not that life is a precondition of other values -- not that one must remain alive in order to act. This idea is a truism, not a philosophy. Objectivism says that remaining alive is the goal of values and of all proper action." (Emphasis in original, ibid, p. 212-213.) "...[M]an needs [morality] for one reason only: he needs it in order to survive." (Ibid, p. 214.) A person does not need morality in order to die. "Man...has to hold his life as a value -- by choice." (Rand, VOS, p. 23.) But that choice, per se, is not subject to moral evaluation since it is a precursor to actively holding one's life as a value, which situation then requires that one have an ethics, not the other way around. One does not have an ethics in order to choose to hold one's life as a value.

To ask, "What causes a person to choose life rather than death (or vice versa)?" is, in the sense above re: focus, an invalid question. Even though one can discuss influences, the real answer to that question is, "He does."

So I still would say to Dwyer that he can make all the moral evaluations he wants to of the actions which people take, either while living or while living and heading towards dying. But the choice to live or die itself is not the same kind of choice and hence not subject to moral evaluation.

Russ Madden


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