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https://activeobjectivism.com/2020/12/05/on-suicide/ Peikoff’s argument is a proof by contradiction: since you are already pre-committed to remaining in reality in the very act of debating the issue, any conclusion which denies that premise is self-contradictory. Since choosing to die implies a contradiction, it cannot be rationally justified, and therefore cannot be morally justified. No one can exit the realm of morality guiltlessly.1 Peikoff unfortunately continues from this point to argue in favor of suicide: On the one hand he says the commitment to life is axiomatic, and that there is no justifiable basis for questioning it, and on the other hand that suicide is justified if one’s condition is hopeless. I submit that this is a contradiction. This defense of suicide is inconsistent with the basic moral premises of the philosophy. The mistake here is derivative, not fundamental. The philosophy as a whole is sound, but the position on suicide is not. To deal with his position as charitably as possible: his justification is reminiscent of Rand’s “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”, where she values one’s “metaphysical self-preservation” over and above one’s “physical preservation”, and she argues for keeping one’s integrity and one’s metaphysical view of reality intact, regardless of the consequences, even if it leads to one’s death. Rand’s argument is not to violate one’s moral code, to not collaborate with an enemy or play their game. I wholeheartedly agree, in circumstances where one faces such a choice, one should not for example steal from another in order to live, or in her example, that one should not give up the names of one’s allies in the face of torture or a firing squad, in the name of integrity, in the name of the best in man and addressing his essential nature, even when he has become a monster. But this doesn’t justify taking one’s own life. That is an act compromising one’s own moral integrity, and it is not a noble crying out in the name of a benevolent metaphysical view of man and reality, but rather a tortured cry of one who has accepted a malevolent metaphysical view of man and reality, and refuses to go on in that world2. So indeed the act of suicide has exactly the opposite nature as what he tries to attribute to it. Suicide is not an “affirmation of life” Consider Roark, for whom suffering “only goes down to a certain point”. Because he can create, because he can achieve positive values, nothing else can seem very important, and ultimately, “it’s not really pain”. Or consider Dagny: she did not believe in suffering. She would not allow pain to become important. She knew that “it does not count – it is not to be taken seriously” – “even in the moments when there was nothing left within her but screaming and she wished she could lose the faculty of consciousness”. As John Galt said, “I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence.” We exist for earning rewards. That is what motivates us, that is why we act – not for escaping pain. Pain is not going to make us function; it is not an incentive that gives us fuel. To commit suicide, purely for the sake of escaping pain – so far from being an affirmation of what life ought to be, it would be a declaration that suffering is necessarily a part of life, that it is important and that it does matter. It is the rejection of the belief that “suffering is unimportant, and is only to be fought and thrown aside and not accepted as a meaningful part of one’s view of existence”. To affirm life is to continue to seek happiness despite the tragedy and hopelessness of the situation. One cannot affirm one’s life by destroying it. In Peikoff’s own words: That is an affirmation of life. Positive values are possible despite suffering In psychology there is a concept known as resilience. Resilience is the ability to adjust one’s expectations and one’s goals according to one’s circumstances – even in the face of a dramatic change of one’s circumstances, as in the case of devastating loss or extreme suffering (or to use Peikoff’s examples, in the case of a painful terminal illness, or being a prisoner in a concentration camp where one can see no chance of escape). It is the ability to stay optimistic and look on the positive side – to seek and to find good things that are within one’s range. Consider the findings of a recent study: “Locked-in patients trapped inside their paralyzed bodies have told doctors they are ‘happy’ using an astonishing new brain computer interface which deciphers their thoughts… On seven out of 10 occasions the patients said they were happy despite their utterly debilitating condition”. Or consider the case of Christopher Reeves, as Louie describes: If Reeves committed suicide he would have achieved less than he was capable of – it would have been self-sacrificial. And yet if Reeves held himself to the same standard of being an able-bodied Superman actor, something more than that of which he was capable, he would have achieved nothing but failure – and still would not have achieved the things he could have, which would be equally self-destructive and self-sacrificial. So the fault with a former athlete or actor, for example, who decides to commit suicide because they can no longer pursue their previous career, is that they lack resilience (the movie “Me Before You” dramatizes exactly this issue). Even in pain and suffering one can love life, and realize that it is priceless opportunity that one should get the most out of that one can before it is gone. Note that she said “I love life in spite of them all” – she loves the positives in life in spite of the negatives. What these people are reporting, and others can personally corroborate, is that pain and pleasure are not mutually exclusive values on a single continuum. One can be in pain, and yet feel pleasure. One can be suffering, but happy. They are independent variables. Every positive thing one can experience, from the simplest joy of opening one’s eyes and enjoying the view, is still a positive, despite any level of suffering that is happening at the time. The pain cannot take that positive away. Joy is not “the absence of pain”. Such positive values do exist for anyone who is conscious at all. As I quoted from Eioul, “only a real nihilist may say existing at all is an excruciating horror.” You exist for the sake of enjoying those values, and every action you take should be for the sake of that end. Reducing suffering is a means to an end There is always room for rational risk-taking as a means to pursue one’s values, even significant risks. Risking one’s life in a military context, for example, is the defense of one’s life, it is the pursuit of life and the pursuit of happiness. It is exactly the opposite of making a deliberate choice to die. An irrational risk is a tradeoff in which the reward, in terms of one’s life and happiness, is less than what one is risking. In the case of suicide, one is sacrificing one’s life and happiness entirely – there is no tradeoff at all there! A soldier is risking his life for the sake of his quest to pursue life and happiness. Suicide does not serve such a quest. And this is not to say that pain is a good thing, either; pain is a miserable evil that ought to be fought. Pain and suffering are terrible afflictions, and if someone you loved were suffering, you would want to do everything you can to help them find relief. Pain medication is a good thing. Even if one wanted to risk one’s life with a dangerously high dosage it can be worth it. Pain interferes with one’s thinking, one’s values, and one’s actions. A person in tremendous pain can and sometimes should take a dangerous risk with pain medication in order to bring themselves to a more functional level, and it would be right to assist them in doing so. There is always room for rational risk-taking, even significant risks like in military contexts, or in this case taking high doses of pain medication. There is a risk, but it is a rational risk taken for the sake of a reward; it is ultimately for the sake of life and happiness. The pursuit of eliminating suffering is a good up until the point that it becomes an absurdity: where you are sacrificing your ultimate value – your life – for a lesser value: the relief of suffering. That is not a moral choice. *** 1) Gotthelf, “The Choice to Value,” p. 44 2)
A negative concept identifies the negation of another concept, its object, on which it logically depends. Negative concepts refer only to an absence of the specific object, not to the presence of anything else - they are merely the logical negation of the object, not the assertion of the existence of some other object. To assert the existence of a negative thing, as a different kind of existent, is a fallacy of the Reification of the Zero, a variant of the fallacy of the Stolen Concept. The concept "nothing" does not assert the existence of something called "nothing" - there is no such thing as "nothing" in and of itself, only the absence of a thing (the word literally means no-thing). The concept "non-existence" does not assert the existence of a "non-thing" - there is no such thing as "non-existence" in and of itself, only the absence of a thing in existence. In the same way, the concept "evil" depends on the concept "good". Evil is a negative concept indicating the logical negation of the good. The concept "evil" does not assert the existence of a "non-good", there is no such thing as an "evil" in and of itself, only the absence or contradiction of a good.1 Pain and fear are innate capacities to alert us that something is wrong, that there is a potential threat to our life and our pursuit of the good, but they do not by themselves offer us any positive value to seek. Pleasure tells us what is good, what is right, but pain can only tell us that something is wrong - it cannot tell us what is good or right.2 Rationally we can identify pain and suffering as a contradiction to the good, as a negative and an impediment, but innately pain simply does not offer us any pleasure, that is, it is a zero. It do not offer us the presence of any incentive to seek, so it cannot logically be the source of any conceptual values, nor can it be the fuel that makes us function.3 Man is by nature faced with a fundamental alternative: identity or non-identity, existence or non-existence – life or death. The concept of value, of "good or evil", is not an arbitrary human invention, but rather is based on a metaphysical fact, on an unalterable condition of man's existence: his life. The ultimate value, the final goal or end to which all lesser goals are means, is man's life. His life is his standard of value: that which furthers his life is the good, and that which threatens it is the evil.4 The choice to live is therefore the most basic moral choice that one faces.5 Only in life do we have any possibility of acting to seek the good or to enjoy happiness. Death offers no possibility of action or enjoyment. Moral action means to act for one's own rational self-interest, but there are no interests to seek in death. Only life can offer us a positive incentive. Death, like pain, cannot offer any positive incentive, but rather it is a zero. Suicide is the act of sacrificing life for death. Suicide is the sacrifice of the good for the sake of a zero. But it cannot be in one's self-interest to destroy one's self. One cannot rationally or morally act to end their life. John Galt Atlas Shrugged Observe the contradiction present in Piekoff's "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand" (aka. OPAR): and later, On the one hand he says the commitment to life is essentially axiomatic, and that there's no basis for questioning it, and on the other hand that suicide is justified if you're suffering and your condition seems hopeless. This is an apparent contradiction. But Peikoff is not the pope, OPAR is not the Bible, and Ayn Rand is not God. It's possible that this is merely a contradiction. OPAR is not inerrant. Finding such a contradiction does not fundamentally break the philosophy of Objectivism, either. On the contrary, the fundamental moral conviction of the Objectivist philosophy is that life is the ultimate standard. This defense of suicide is inconsistent with the basic moral premises of the philosophy. The mistake here is derivative, not fundamental. The philosophy as a whole is sound; only the position on suicide is not. I submit to you that this position on suicide is a contradiction to the fundamental moral philosophy of Objectivism. If you disagree, let's hear your arguments. I'll start by responding to Peikoff's argument for suicide: can suicide be an "affirmation" of life if it's impossible to achieve happiness? Suicide cannot be an affirmation of life - it's the deliberate choice to destroy life. You cannot affirm your life by destroying it. As long as you are alive, and you are conscious to think and act, then you can either choose to act in the best interest of your life and happiness, no matter how tragically hopeless the situation may seem, or you can choose to sacrifice your best interest for something lesser. Suicide is the sacrifice of all possible interest. Death is non-existence, it knowably has no value at all - it is a zero. You cannot seek values in death. To act on the assumption that happiness is impossible would not be an affirmation of a happy life - that would be in fact be the most damning denial you could make. In such a tragic situation where happiness seems impossible, the way to affirm your life is to continue to seek your happiness despite the tragedy and hopelessness of the situation. In Peikoff's own words: That is an affirmation of life. Footnotes: (1) John Galt Atlas Shrugged (2) - The Objectivist Ethics, Ayn Rand (3) John Galt Atlas Shrugged Howard Roark and Dominique Francon The Fountainhead Atlas Shrugged (4) See "The Objectivist Ethics", in "The Virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand (5) John Galt Atlas Shrugged
Recently there has been some talk on this forum about the ethics of suicide. In my view it is a mistake to argue that suicide is universally right or wrong, moral or immoral. Like all judgments of human behavior, context is critical. With that in mind, perhaps we can focus here on an unusual type of suicider: the captured spy. Sometimes a spy is captured, or about to be captured, by the enemy, and he or she decides to suicide rather than cope with whatever future awaits them. Let's consider a couple specific examples, which I've found on a list at Wikipedia. Meir Max Bineth was an Israeli agent who spied on Egypt in the 1950s. He got caught during a failed operation and was then tortured for months. The Egyptians wanted to put him on trial, but the night before his court date Bineth killed himself in jail. He did not want to give the Egyptians the satisfaction of publicly executing him. I think this is a perfectly justifiable reason to kill oneself. While some might argue that Bineth could have enjoyed a day or two more of imprisoned life, I would counter that such a brief and pointless extension of life might be utterly worthless compared to the final psychological satisfaction in knowing that one's suicide will deprive the enemy of a public victory. Sarah Aaronsohn, a Jew working for the British during World War 1, was part of a large network who spied on the Ottomans in the Middle East. The enemy discovered Aaronsohn and tortured her for days. She refused to reveal any secrets. Her captors then let her return to her house to change clothes. While inside she grabbed a hidden pistol from her bathroom and shot herself in the head. Aaronsohn killed herself rather than suffer more torture and possible betrayal of both her fellow conspirators and their greater cause in pursuit of a Jewish homeland. Not betraying her friends was clearly a more important value than the continued physical and psychological torment that awaited her. Such cases of captured spies killing themselves are perhaps the closest thing we have to a truly moral suicide. They are done with great and serious purpose, which might be condemned but certainly cannot be denied or evaded. The purpose is not merely to escape the pain of torture, but to deprive an enemy of the value which is the spy's own self. By killing themselves, they are maintaining the integrity of their chosen purpose in life, which is to fight the enemy and give them nothing. Spies like Bineth and Aaronsohn probably died with whatever joy they could get from knowing that they remained true to their purpose until the bitter end.