Forced Life and its Discontents: An Interview with Sister Y

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of Hoover Hog interviews.




There are limits.  If you want to stockpile AK-47s or burn Old Glory or fuck for cash or snuff your fetus, your appeal will be met with rehearsed huzzahs from the wings. A constituency is waiting.  The polemics are signed and delivered, neatly punctuated with practiced elocution. Live and let live, young rebel. This is your heritage. Our ethos. Nobody's business if you do.

But how quickly those huzzahs fade when the subject turns to suicide. The confident rights rhetoric, so loudly trumpeted at every familiar turn, is traded for a different set of chords. The responsive default becomes concern. Becomes discomfiture. Becomes bristling incredulity.  You peer into the maw of nonexistence, only to be assured, emphatically and from all sides, that what you are contemplating is wrong. Your death wish is an expression of acute turmoil; it is the illness wanting, not you.  Applied to your pathologically confused desire, pop-libertarian slogans always read as perverse. There is no vocal constituency for suicide rights. There is no audible discourse over "choice" in this peculiar context. There is only removed compassion and anger, and a hotline. 

Because everyone knows. Suicide is a cry for help. Suicide is an
act of cowardice. Or hostility. Or strange mettle. Suicide is the easy
way out. A permanent solution to a temporary problem. Suicide is not
chosen; it is the failure of choice. Cosmically irrational. Properly
understood, suicide is foremost a public health issue. You have your whole life ahead
of you. You can
get through this. Think of how your friends and family will feel and
tomorrow is another day and there are coping strategies and there are
people who've been there who can help and you are suffering from a
mental illness and there are treatment options and there is medicine
and there
is always hope. You're not thinking clearly.
This isn't you. It simply can't be. Do you have a plan?

Even in academic circles, the study of suicide is aswarm with muddled premise-rigged thinking. Dubious statistics and theories are regurgitated with credulous deference. Emboldened by a deeply entrenched public health paradigm, scholars bow to the the coolly disinterested vantage of epidemiology to promote measures meant to thwart the scourge of self-destruction. This is for the good, they insist. Just look at the graphs.

When a choice is predefined as sick, it always circles back like this. And if you disagree, help is on the way.

Of course, there is another point of view. A heterodox suicidology, relegated to the fringe. This is the view under which the reasons of the would-be suicide can be considered in good faith. This is the view that sees suicidal ideation not as the symptom of some lazily presumed brainsick malaise, but as a rationally founded confirmation that the burden of existence is, at least for some, intolerable. This is the view that turns conventional assumptions on their head, by asking not whether self destruction is morally wrong, but whether a ubiquitous culture of "forced life" has blinded us to a far greater harm.

As Sister Y would have it, this is The View from Hell.

The moral issue of suicide has usually been stated in terms of whether suicide is morally permissible, under any circumstances. . . . This formulation assumes a major premise: that it is the suicidal
person who must justify his refusal to live, rather than the community
being required to justify the action of forcing him to live. These
notes will focus on the moral reprehensibility of forced life, rather
than attempt to justify suicide from a defensive perspective.

Known to her readers as "Curator" (possibly a nod to the Miller Williams poem),  Sister Y stands virtually alone, asking questions that are disallowed by the prevailing life-biased consensus. When she isn't working through the vicissitudes of  "Forced Life and its Ethical Alternatives," she enjoys hiking, M. Night Shyamalan movies, square-dancing, and Vietnamese cuisine. She is a triathlete in training. And yes, Sister Y wants to die.  

You can take or leave it if you please.



HOOVER HOG: You  describe yourself as a "currently non-practicing" suicide. What does this mean?

SISTER Y: I am very much in favor of my own death, and I've actively pursued
death in the past, but I'm not actively pursuing death right now. I
think "suicide" connotes someone who either has killed herself, or is
actively trying to kill herself. A "non-practicing suicide" would be
someone with the mental status of a suicide (a stable, long-standing
desire for death that is not the product of a delusion) but not
currently taking action to achieve death. I'm not acting on it because
(a) I find the methods currently available to me to be unacceptable,
and (b) I am still working through the morality of suicide in general
and in my case in particular, especially regarding my family and social

I've found that many people — usually those who have never
seriously contemplated suicide — scoff at the notion that self
destruction might be especially difficult, either for psychological or
practical reasons. Has this been your experience? And how do you

I don't think I recognized the difficulty of suicide until I made a
serious attempt. Just because someone is rationally set on suicide does
not mean that one's hard-wired self-preservation instincts disappear.
Most methods of suicide that are fairly reliable call for the suicide
to do something extremely unnatural and difficult (shoot oneself in the
head, cut an artery). Other methods have a high likelihood of failure,
and many are also likely to result in sequelae. The only comfortable,
reliable method of committing suicide is to take an overdose of
barbiturates, which are now extremely controlled and almost impossible
to acquire, even on the black market. Almost no other drug will
reliably produce death, and certainly not without substantial pain. I
graduated from one of the top engineering schools in the country, and
spent nearly two years researching suicide methods, and came up pretty
much empty-handed. I encourage anyone who thinks suicide is easy to
spend some time on the various pro-choice suicide boards on the
Internet. These people are desperate to die, but come up against
problems with the available methods. It's even worse in countries
outside the United States, where guns are restricted or illegal, but
even in the United States, those with previous mental hospitalizations
may not buy or own guns, limiting the method's utility.

In most western cultures, individual choice is highly valued. People
have come to be relatively tolerant of conduct that they may view as
being morally wrong or even harmful, provided that the harm is
self-inflicted and contained. But those who advocate greater personal
freedom to use drugs or engage in risky sexual activity seem less
enthusiastic when the topic turns to suicide. There may be some
allowance for end-of-life scenarios, but a more general "right to
suicide" has never emerged as a mainstream libertarian issue. What do
you think accounts for this difference in attitude?

There are so many reasons for this. A major one is the pathologization
of suicide. An important piece of received knowledge in our culture is
that suicide is, by definition, always the product of mental illness, a
premise that is more axiomatic than it is supported by real data. The
more people are aware of the variety of human experience, the more even
compassionate people tend to favor the right of consenting adults to do
whatever they please, so long as they do not harm others. But this
logic doesn't tend to include suicide, because to the degree that
suicide is seen as somehow the product of mental illness, it's not seen
as a free choice, and therefore it's not seen as compassionate to
support a right to suicide. (The attempt to medicalize, and
pathologize, various actions- from alcoholism to drug addiction to "sex
addiction" – might be, among other things, an attempt to subvert our
societal tolerance of individual choice in each of these areas by
making them appear to be less than free choices.)

Another problem is that suicide does, of course, emotionally harm
people other than the suicide, to the extent that the suicide has
family or friends. I think people get confused when evaluating the pain
caused by a suicide. They tend to compare it to murder – where a person
takes the life of another – rather than to truly analogous situations,
such as ending a relationship or quitting a job. Suicides are not seen
as having the right to inflict emotional harm on others, even though we don't generally posit
a right to other people's company or association, and this is exactly
the type of harm that a suicide inflicts (denying others his company).

People have strong emotional reactions to the idea of suicide
which, I think, prevent them from analyzing the morality of suicide in
a fair way. The above reasons partially explain this. But there is
another reason: people have so much invested in life being generally
good, and the idea of rational suicide threatens that belief. If
someone can rationally choose to stop living, especially when he or she
isn't facing impending intolerable pain and loss of bodily and mental
function, that must mean it's not an undeniable fact that life is, on balance, good. Jim Crawford of calls this "souring the milk of foundational meaning that everybody's sucking down."

But doesn't research show that the majority of
people who attempt suicide and fail will never make a second attempt?
And don't failed suicides frequently come to express profound regret
over their prior actions? Why shouldn't such observations lend
support to the view that suicidal thinking is the product of a deeper
mental pathology that should be treated therapeutically rather than

There are studies that show that few people who attempt suicide go on
to kill themselves within a short period of time afterward. I'm aware
of one study, though, that found that between 13% and 19% of people who
attempt suicide by self-poisoning go on to successfully kill themselves
during their lifetimes – and that the rate of suicide doesn't decrease
with time after the original attempt. A suicide attempt remains the
single best predictor of future death by suicide (though I've been
seeing the statistic tossed around recently that bipolar disorder comes
close, with 10-15% of people with the diagnosis ending up as suicides).

Still, that leaves us with 75% or so of suicide attempters
"deciding" to stay alive. Indeed, many express regret and say they are
glad to be saved from their suicide attempts. But, given the suicide
in our society and the general hostility toward suicide, I
don't think it's fair to say that this means that most people who
attempt suicide don't really want to die. Many people simply cannot
manage suicide for practical reasons. Others may be reabsorbed into the
anti-suicide position of mainstream society.

An analogy might be to members of an authoritarian religion in a
country dominated by that religion. It might be true that few leave the
religion, and many eventually "come back into the fold" if they do try
to leave, but it's not fair to use that as evidence that leaving the
religion is pathological and the product of a diseased mind.

But hasn't it been established that over
90% of suicides have a pre-existing mental illness? And if this is true,
doesn't it complicate the notion that most suicidal individuals can
rationally desire death?

The statistic that 90% of suicides have a mental illness is often
tossed around. Check the sources, though, and it becomes very

The source for the statistic cited on the National Institutes of Mental Health website, for instance, is a completely uncontrolled study
using the questionable "psychiatric autopsy" technique. Let me
emphasize again: it's a study with no control group. It's a myth, but
it's cited as if it were scripture. There have been some attempts at
controlled studies demonstrating this, again using that "psychiatric
autopsy" business. One of the larger controlled studies indeed seemed
to demonstrate the accepted 90% statistic – but that study also found
that 37% of its control group had a mental illness! Are we willing to
believe that 37% of people walking around are so mentally ill as to
justify interfering with their actions?

The other problem I have with this statistic is what is held to
constitute a mental illness. The DSM-IV criteria for depression (Major
Depressive Disorder), in particular, are so vague as to be nearly
meaningless. By its definition, almost anyone could be diagnosed with
depression at any time. The idea of suicide being a product of a mental
illness is more definitional than descriptive. (Interestingly, the
study about the Chinese women found that very few of
them had any mental illness.)

Though the 90% statistic is, in my analysis, a myth, it is true
that many suicidal people have a mental illness (bipolar disorder is
particularly likely to lead to suicide). But it's still a leap to
suggest that people with a mental illness should not have the right to
commit suicide. A mentally ill person may still make a will or sign a
contract or be held liable for a crime, for instance, so long as he was
capable of understanding his actions at the time. Mentally ill people
are still, in many cases, capable of forming rational desires. It seems
presumptuous to say that, as long as you're mentally ill, you couldn't
possibly rationally desire to kill yourself – although you might
rationally desire other things. In fact, the unrelenting suffering
ensured by many mental illnesses makes suicide, if anything, more rational for some people with mental illness than for those without mental illness.

People want to protect others. People are compassionate. But I
think there is an important failure of compassion when it comes to
suicides: people want to "protect" others from death, not from
suffering, even when suffering is preferable to death. I do not think
it is compassionate at all to substitute one's own judgment for that of
the person enduring the suffering.

You make reference to Jim Crawford's antinatalism site.  You would describe yourself as an antinatalist, correct?


Do your views on the ethics of suicide entail philosophical
opposition to having children? The fact that you characterize the
central problem as one of "forced life" seems to suggest a connection.

There is a connection, but I don't think that the one entails the other
(suicide rights –> antinatalism – antinatalism may entail a right
to suicide, though). I think it is wrong to force people to stay alive,
and I think that bringing people into existence is a similar, though
not identical, wrong. But there are many people who, I think logically and
coherently, support a right to suicide but do not subscribe to antinatalism. In the general population, support for a moral (and
legal) right to suicide seems rare, but it is the norm among
professional philosophers. However, antinatalism is still a position
held by few.

Suicides are the ones in the best position to understand that they
have been wronged by being brought into existence. Of course,
antinatalism has very little to do with suicide, and Benatar's
antinatalism implies that everyone is wronged by being brought into
existence, suicide or not. I worry that my intertwined support for both
suicide rights and antinatalism will increase the confusion between the
two, which seems rampant among non-philosophers.

You've devoted a fair portion of your project to exploring
antinatalist ethics and have specifically defended philanthropic
antinatalism against attacks, yet you express
misgivings about the the pain/pleasure asymmetry emphasized by
David Benatar in his book,
Better Never to Have Been. What do
you see as being the central weakness of Benatar's core argument? Is
there a better approach?

I don't think the argument is weak, but it is built on intuition, as is
almost all interesting philosophy. This gives people the option of
claiming not to share the intuition underlying Benatar's claim when
they come up against its uncomfortable consequences. I think this move
is usually dishonest – people claim not to see the asymmetry, but they
really do. But it's possible for people to either genuinely not share
the intuitions underlying the asymmetry, or to have such a radically
different conception of value that the asymmetry (and the interests of
those brought into existence) is not dispositive of the question of the
morality of procreation. Some people think it's so important that
humanity go on that any amount of suffering is acceptable. I'm not sure
there can be much of a response to this position. But this kind of honest objection
to antinatalism is rare; I've much more often encountered dishonest and
somewhat muddle-headed objections. But the idea is new in philosophy
time; serious philosophical challenges have yet to appear, and I await
them with interest.

Early on in your web project, The View from Hell, you observe that
ethicists tend to treat suicide as an option that demands careful moral
justification. You question the foundation of this default view by
asking why the burden should not rest on others to justify laws and
customs aimed at preventing suicide. Why do you think that scholars so
often approach the morality of suicide in these terms while seldom
considering the morality of "forced life," as you put it?

I don't know why this should be. I haven't come up with any
explanations for this that I find compelling. Perhaps it's the
psychological salience of the act of suicide, or the ubiquity and
ancientness of the prohibition, although philosophy is usually able to
get behind such things. To some degree, I wonder if the lack of
self-advocacy by suicides allows people to assume that the suicide
prohibition does no particular harm. This is part of the justification
for my project.

You emphasize that you are not "pro-suicide" and have argued that suicide is immoral in cases where would-be self-destroyers voluntarily
have children, thereby incurring positive obligations toward
those they bring — or force – to life. Having made this exception
to a general moral right to suicide (I don't gather that you are
arguing that voluntary procreation should nullify a
legal right
to suicide, but feel free to address this), you open the door to the
possibility that other voluntarily assumed trusts and obligations may
also be weighted against a presumptive right to suicide. In this
context, you specifically mention the formation of close
relationships, tentatively suggesting that suicidal individuals may be
morally compelled to avoid or terminate interpersonal bonds. 

But most lives are filled with voluntarily assumed obligations and
relationships, from the trivial to the profound.  Assuming that an
unpaid sewer bill is assigned less countermanding weight on a
continuum where a marriage or close friendship may be injunctive, how
do you address the seemingly inevitable clash between positive
obligations and suicide rights? 

I think that one of the factors that weighs in favor of a right to
suicide is the lack of having taken any action to come into being. But
it's not the only moral consideration. Voluntary action is not all – I
am in favor of a moral right to bankruptcy and abortion on demand, both
cases where the consequences of voluntary action are so harsh as to
require an "out."

Many voluntarily assumed obligations, from friendships to
contracts, are relatively minor compared to the pain of existence for a
suicidal person. Procreation is one case that seems to weigh heavily in
the other direction – voluntarily creating a new person seems
qualitatively different from making friends with someone. Children seem
to have a claim on their parents that other relationships do not
entail. It seems fine for a person to sell all his possessions and move
to Vietnam, "abandoning" his friends and even siblings and parents, but
it does not seem fine to do so if it entails "abandoning" his children.

I am circumspect about other obligations trumping a right to
suicide. One distinction I have been examining is that between
exclusive and non-exclusive relationships. By becoming friends with a
person, one does not limit their capacity to make other friends (though
one does hurt them by committing suicide). But by having a child, or
entering an exclusive romantic relationship with someone, one limits
the partner's capacity to acquire a substitute and "hedge" against
one's suicide. A similar principle operates when we impose liability on
a rescuer for doing a crappy job rescuing someone, because by
undertaking a rescue, the person deprived the endangered person of the
possibility of being rescued by a competent person.

As you imply, I don't think any of this should affect a legal right
to suicide. Mostly, I think, by procreating, one gives up one's moral
right to suicide.

Can you explain your concept of "mismatch and meaning," particularly as it might relate to the problem of forced life?

I have tried to make a list of some of what I conceive to be serious
limitations on human happiness. One of these is the idea of the absurd
as conceived by Camus – that, while there is no objective meaning to
life, humans naturally desire for life to be meaningful. One of the possible results of accepting that life is not inherently
meaningful, but that one will always desire for it to be so, is a
rational wish to end one's life. I have focused on the limitations on
happiness in order to show that "rational suicide" is not such a crazy

My understanding is that women attempt suicide about twice as often as men,
yet something like 75% of suicides in the U.S. are actually committed by
men because they employ more lethal methods — primarily firearms. This
disparity is often interpreted to mean that for many women,  attempted
suicide may be more of a desperate means of communication — the
cliched "cry for help" — than a sincerely intended act of self
destruction, while male suicides mean business. You have questioned
this interpretation. Why?

Lack of suicidal intent on the part of females is the usual explanation
for the disparity in success rates for women versus men. It's
unquestioningly, universally accepted. But I've almost never seen any
actual evidence for this claim.

One piece of evidence the "cry for help" explanation does not
explain is that female physicians commit suicide much more frequently
than females in the general population, that is, at approximately the same
rate as men. (The suicide rate for male physicians is elevated above
men in the general population, but not nearly as dramatically as that
of females.) Those who have investigated this phenomenon (which is
mirrored in the veterinary and chemistry professions, though not in,
say, finance) chalk it up to the hardship of gender discrimination
affecting female doctors. There's no evidence for this, though, and to
me, the obvious explanation is that female doctors, as opposed to
general population females, have access to acceptable and lethal means of suicide, and hence kill themselves more often.

Most male suicides are gun suicides. Many more men than women own,
and are familiar with the operation of, guns. In every measure of
violence, men far outperform women. Both in a practical and in a
psychological sense, gunshot is not a method that is available to
women, while self-poisoning is. Their failure to successfully commit
suicide is a function of the lack of lethal drugs in the United States,
as demonstrated by the high suicide rates of female physicians and of
females in countries where lethal pesticides are commonly available,
such as China (a February 2008 study in Current Psychiatry Reports revealed that female suicides actually outnumber male suicides in China by a 3:1 ratio).

It is access to lethal means that are psychologically acceptable,
and not lethal intent, that separates women from men in terms of
suicide success, in my analysis. However, the idea that the success
disparity demonstrates that women want to be "rescued" from suicide
attempts is often used to justify coercive suicide prevention tactics.

You also challenge the prevailing view of suicide contagion, the
so-called "Werther Effect" (referring to the spike in suicides said to
have followed the publication of Goethe's
The Sorrows of Young Werther).
In the first instance, you argue that the purported relationship
between highly publicized suicides and imitative events may result from
a kind of selective pattern recognition or apophenia. But perhaps more
intriguingly, you are critical of  the public health assumption that
impulsive suicides justify preventive or interventionist policies since
they constitute a departure from some theoretical (and arguably
acceptable) baseline. Your view seems to be that this view is biased by
the failure of experts to apprehend the nature and trajectory of
suicidal thinking, which may, at least for some people, necessitate a
trigger event. Can you describe your current thinking on the empirical
basis for suicide contagion and on the conceptual issues that may bias
researchers to read  impulsive or "excess" suicides as special grounds
for preventive public policy?

I start from the position that preventing suicide for its own sake is
not a valid policy goal. In other words, suicide is not, in and of
itself, wrong or bad. Suffering so serious that it leads to suicide is
bad, and policies to remedy that suffering are well justified, but
policies designed to staunch the suicide rate, but do nothing about the
suffering behind it, are merely cruel.

Preventing a suicide may be either good or bad, depending on the
individual situation. It is not automatically good. Preventing a
suicide is bad when it amounts to trapping a miserable, but rational,
person with a long-standing, clear wish to die in a miserable, unwanted
existence. Existing barriers to suicide, such as the drug prohibition and
the pervasive anti-suicide message ubiquitous in our culture, function
to prevent such suicides all the time. It is not good that they do so.

What might be considered an "impulsive" suicide by an outside
observer – a suicide triggered by a crisis, for instance – could very
well be the suicide of a person trapped into a miserable existence by
the unfair, immoral coercive anti-suicide practices of our society. A
person who clearly, unambiguously wishes to die may not be willing to
shoot himself in the head under normal circumstances, but in the middle
of a crisis, he may become willing to do so. This may appear to be an
impulsive suicide, but is really a genuinely desired suicide that was
unfairly prevented by arbitrary barriers.

In The View From Hell, you frequently wrestle with the
ideas of such thinkers as David Benatar, J. David Vellemen, John
Robert Nozick, Thomas Nagel, and Seana Shiffrin — thinkers who
tend to address moral problems in the language of what might broadly
be considered contemporary normative ethics. Readers enticed to your
site as a philosophical forum on suicide may be surprised by the
paucity of flirtation with Continental-branded celebrity philosophers
more commonly associated with the subject. I'm thinking of guys like
Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Batailles, Schopenhauer,
Amery, etc. (Even your obligatory discussion of Camus is appended with
a note in which you begrudge his vaguely mystical free-floating style
and approach.) Why has your focus centered around these more analytical
currents in philosophy? I mean, if you're a suicide, doesn't that mean
that you wear black, listen to Godspeed You Black Emperor and carry
around a dogeared copy of Being and Nothingness?

I find continental philosophy aesthetically irritating, but honestly I
don't know enough about it to trash it. Heidegger has his moments, but
I see the continentals as involved in a different project from the one
I'm interested in. I'm not doing deep epistemology. The
American/English-diaspora analytic style seems more suited to applied
ethics. And the continental stuff seems weirdly groundless. Camus, for
throughout all of Sisyphus, doesn't seem to be making a single
recognizable argument.

for myself, I wear pale blue and ride a bright red bicycle and listen
to Erykah Badu. I would never make fun of the goth kids, though.
They're fine by me.

In your discussion of Oregon's Death With Dignity Act (which allows
terminally ill patients under approved circumstances to be prescribed
— but not administered — a lethal dose of barbiturates), you argue
that this amounts to merely a narrow liberalization of existing drug
prohibition and cannot seriously be viewed as a form of "assisted"
suicide. But in the Netherlands the law permits more clear-cut  forms
of assisted suicide and even allows euthanasia at the discretion of
physicians. The Dutch law has been criticized by the suicide rights
advocate, Thomas Szasz, who contends that by entrusting too much power
in doctors, the law circumvents individual autonomy and leads to abuse.
Szasz argues that suicide rights are best ensured by lifting current
suicide laws and through a wholesale repeal of existing drug laws. Do
you think there is a danger that suicide rights advocacy could give way
to more paternalistic "pro-death" policies that may prove harmful? And
what specific policy reforms would you propose to redress the problem
of forced life?

The Oregon law is a step in the right direction. My main criticism of
that law is that it limits access to comfortable suicide to those
judged to have terminal illnesses. I don't see a good reason for this

But another problem with the Oregon law is that it limits physician
assistance to offering a prescription, not helping to administer the
drug (e.g. intravenously). This does no good to a person who rationally
wishes to die but whose physical functioning is limited. I cannot see
what difference it makes how the means of death is administered, so
long as it is at the request of the person who wishes to die, and the
wish to die is long-standing, clear, and not the product of a delusion
or of coercion by others.

The main problem others claim to have with the Dutch or the Swiss
situation is the possibility that lethal drugs will be administered
without the full consent of the person who is to die. But cutting off
access to lethal drugs is not the answer to this problem. Cutting off all access
to lethal drugs ensures that many people are forced to remain alive
against their will, which is a horror that few are willing to address.
Why is it ethical to remove the freedom of those who wish to die, to
prevent a theoretical risk to those who might not wish to? The harm of
being forced to remain alive is real. Most advocates of forced life
treat the harm of being forced to remain alive as a non-issue. But
wouldn't it be more rational to have safeguards in place such as Oregon
has? Oregon has strict requirements for mental competence and
witnessing to ensure that the decision to die is not the product of
coercion. The purported fear of people being put to death against their
will has not materialized there.

If we're concerned about coercion and consent, we can prevent that without prohibiting comfortable, reliable suicide altogether.

are many reforms that would allow society to stop forcing people to
remain alive while still respecting life. One is the ability to legally
opt-out of being forcibly "rescued" from a suicide attempt, perhaps
after demonstrating one's sound mind and a clear, long-standing wish to
die that is not the product of a delusion. Another is to allow doctors
to write a prescription for a lethal dose of barbiturates to anyone
under the same condition. (Recognizing a diagnosis like "unwanted
life," similar to "unwanted fertility," could provide a medical model.)

You often refer to your online writing as a "project," but projects
tend to have a conclusion. Do you foresee a point when The View From
Hell is complete? A synthesis?

I suppose you're right about projects usually having conclusions. I
can't say that my projects usually do, though. This interview is
forcing me to do a bit of synthesis. But I suppose the goal is to have
all the arguments written down in one place, where all the moving parts
can link together.

This may be a dangerous area, but suppose someone is reading this who
is considering suicide. Let's say this person is rational, has resolved
the ethical problems to his or her own satisfaction, and remains
determined. Do you have any moral or practical advice to impart to such
a person?

It is legally dangerous, because in most states "assisting" a suicide
is a crime, which could, theoretically, include advice about methods.
(A Vail, Colorado, man was recently charged with manslaughter for giving his friend a shotgun after they had spoken of suicide.)

But I am not in a legal bind at all, because I don't have any
practical advice about suicide. Suicide remains extremely difficult and
risky as a practical matter. There is no easy, comfortable, sure, and
widely accessible method available – no Peaceful Pill. I argue that
this is a moral horror.

As for moral advice – I think people need to make the decision free
from pre-packaged, demeaning judgments like "cowardly," "selfish,"
"stupid," and "crazy." I think the decision to commit suicide or to
remain alive requires a wide, balanced, and nuanced approach. That is
currently not happening in our society – only various flavors of
anti-suicide messages are tolerated. Like anti-drug messages, these
become unreliable to those considering suicide. I think a balanced
approach, respecting a right to suicide and realizing that suicide may
sometimes be morally acceptable, is more likely to help people
understand what their true moral duties and desires are, and to act
maturely on this reflection.

Thank you for your time.

29 thoughts on “Forced Life and its Discontents: An Interview with Sister Y

  1. What I think most people fail to understand is the ingredient of desperation inherent in the motivations behind, as well as in the contemplation of suicide. At least in my case, as well as others I’ve spoken to. Suicide was almost always at the forefront of my mind for a decade or so, and the most exasperating thing was that I knew I’d never be able to perform the act, precisely because of the hurt I’d cause to the people I love. And yet, I wanted to kill myself with all my being! I felt like a fly caught in the amber of my circumstances. You have no idea how many hours I spent, daily, working through scenario after scenario, trying to find that perfect method that would allow me to slip through the veil without ripping holes in other lives. I never found what I was looking for, and eventually I guess I just accepted the futility of trying.
    I know I am not a unique case, and I suppose most of the motivation behind my antinatalism efforts comes from my understanding of what deep pain is, both the mental and physical sorts, and my wish that others not be given the ‘opportunity’ to suffer these things. I have to admit, I don’t have much patience with peoples’ blithe dismissals and pollyannish counter-assertions. Although, I suppose I am at the same time grateful that they’ve managed to find a happiness which, for the most part, has eluded me. I think about my daughters, and I certainly don’t want them to learn the hard lessons I have. But, I also don’t want them to breed, and I’ve tried to explain the risks involved in creating new lifeforms, and to question the foundation of assumptions and prejudices that keeps this passion play from winding down.
    I salute you, Sister Y, for engaging this subject in such an open and challenging way. Thank you.

  2. I have two questions. First: Sister Y says that many unsuccessful suicides ” may be reabsorbed into the anti-suicide position of mainstream society.” Isn’t that another way of saying “They decide to keep living?” Given that the “anti-suicide position of mainstream society” is based on a will to live? If the formerly suicidal person is convinced to choose life instead of death, is that somehow a bad thing? Do you see it as a form of brainwashing? Isn’t that unfairly judgmental of the ‘mainstream’ will to keep on living?
    Second: Is there an age limit beneath which suicide might be considered a premature and uninformed decision? Is 21 old enough to soberly make this irrevocable choice?
    Okay, those are my questions. I hope that you, Chip, and Sister Y will accept my sincerest hope that both of you stick around, as genuine and based on my appreciation of your big brains and generous hearts.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Jim.
    Sister Wolf, the problem I have is not with people genuinely choosing to live because they want to – I think that’s unambiguously great. The problem I have is this: there is only one acceptable point of view that may ever be expressed in our culture, and that is the anti-suicide point of view. I feel it is religious in nature. I don’t think there’s any evidence for the reality of brainwashing, even in religious cults, but we don’t need to posit brainwashing. A background of only one socially acceptable choice available, especially one backed up by coercive tools to restrain those who disagree, is enough so that we should at least look critically at the purported “decisions” of suicide attempters to continue to live – just as we should look critically on the “decisions” of those who participate in female genital mutilation. (No real brainwashing there, either.)
    Which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think a low suicide rate of one-time suicide attempters (if 13-19% is really low) is good evidence that people all just stop wanting to die.
    That line-drawing question is an interesting one – why sick old people but not me? Why me but not a 20-year-old?

  4. Interesting interview. I differ fundamentally with Sister Y (and presumably with Chip) on the notion of the moral permissibility of suicide, and for this very reason have no proclivity to challenge her on this point. Debates, I have found, are only fruitful when one agrees on first principles with one’s opponent.
    It so happens that I just finished reading THE SAVAGE GOD, a book by Alfred Alvarez, which is both a firsthand account of the author’s own suicidal tendencies and a sort of literary-cultural examination of suicide, how it has been viewed throughout Western civilization. Although I find the book not wholly satisfying (Alvarez too easily conflates the thirst for martyrdom among early Christians with suicide, for one thing), I do recommend it on the whole. It is thoughtfully written has the aesthetic benefit of being unsentimental, which is rare when the subject is anything relating to death.

  5. By the way, I’m a Shyamalan fan too. I thought “The Happening” was one of the best films of the year so far. I found it amazing the brutalization it took from critics. And interestingly (related to the theme of this post), it’s about an airborne toxin that causes a sudden massive outbreak of suicides.

  6. TGGP, pretty cool video. In so many of these mythical, good vs. evil face-offs, the antagonist offers a ‘truth’, but one which is either partial, or twisted- at least, according to the apprehension of truth from the protaganist’s perspective. The serpent in the Garden of Eden offered knowledge; but a knowledge which was against the rules to obtain. Of course, the reason for the taboo is usually left out, or at best, murky. Thus it is with life: it MUST go on! Why? Well, because…THAT’s why! It’s ‘sacred’, or a ‘gift’, or, ‘life sucks now, but some day!’
    My mom called me the last week. After living 73 years as a more-or-less nominal Christian, she finds herself believing (or not believing, as the case may be) along atheistic lines. In her words, ‘faith is nothing more than hope in the face of the horrible alternative’. That alternative, of course, is that life ultimately comes to nothing. That all the suffering of the world is NOT somehow intrinsically valuable, and that it would have been better off if it hadn’t gotten started in the first place. I never thought I’d hear the words “I’m suddenly beginning to think like you” from her. Funny, though; I just can’t bring myself to feel good about that.

  7. TGGP – good question. I’m not sure which is dominant. If I actually had a bottle of Nembutal, the answer would be clearer to me. Sometimes I wonder if my purported altruistic concern for the feelings of people who love me is just a form of “sour grapes” for the fact that I lack the much-desired Peaceful Pill.
    In my own case, I’m fairly certain that I have a moral right to commit suicide – that my own suicide would not be morally wrong. However, it would be unkind to several people. And it’s important to me to be kind.
    I think there are ways to minimize the unkindness. I have studied the reaction to many suicides reported in the press. The ones where family and friends seem most okay with it are cases where the suicide had previously pretty clearly tried everything – had made an enormous effort to stay alive, if only for the sake of others. That long, arduous struggle, trying everything, where close friends and family see the person suffering miserably for years – that seems to help the survivors to understand, to hurt less, and to be less angry with the suicide. So I guess that’s my project for now.
    Ideas like “suicide is always preventable,” “depression is always curable,” etc. interfere with the effectiveness of this sort of harm-minimization project, though. I think survivors and suicides would both be better off if people were more realistic, and less sentimental, about suicide.

  8. Jim,
    I think it’s important to keep in mind that, while it might be frustrating to hear someone argue that statement “X” is true (in this case, X meaning “suicide is wrong”) “just because,” in fact all moral propositions ultimately come down to first principles, which can neither be proved or disproved. Christians and other believers in transcendent, supernatural truth have first principles, as do materialists and atheists.
    I agree, though, that too many people blithely dismiss a point of view and call it absurd or ridiculous just because it is unfamiliar to them, and I think antinatalists and those who argue in favor of suicide are among those who often get the brunt of such unearned dismissiveness.

  9. Andy: I think you’re right, IF one buys into the deontological authority of certain axioms. However, I’d assert that morality develops from the bottom up, solely based upon human desires and predilections. Of course, some of those predilections wind up embodied as universal cultural maxims, due to the commonality of certain traits within the species. These work as stabilizing agents within the community, are recognized as such, and are thus granted the status as ‘moral truths’ (I’m sure there’s also a genetic component to all this; but again, I’d argue that such predispositions are the result of evolutionary processes, and not givens from on high).
    This is why I believe all efforts to discover what’s truly ‘right’ are ultimately misled, and futile. It’s also my problem with the term ‘intuition’ when used as a claim- or at least, as some sort of fuzzy, mystical 6th sense- in seeking moral truth, or guidance. Morality isn’t something ‘out there’ to unearth; it’s simply the cultural byproduct of people living together, coming to terms with their own sensibilities, both individually and in the aggregate, along with the psychological internalization of rules of behavior, and maybe of feeling. At least, that’s my take on it.

  10. Jim– But it seems to me that your belief about the origin of morality is also a first principle. You have your reasons for believing it, and perhaps you have what you take to be compelling evidence for its truth, but ultimately (like all first principles) it can’t be proved or disproved. You subscribe to it or you don’t. Bringing us back to square one.

  11. Andy- Reason is a tricky subject. In a sense, it’s the overaching principle against which all these other conversations are subtexts. And while it’s true that reason can’t be ‘proven’ in the sense that we can’t stand outside of it so as to either ultimately confirm or falsify it, neither can it validly be questioned, since any question already presupposes reason’s validity. In other words, any coherent challenge to reason is forced to play by reason’s rules, thus immediately becoming self-stultifying. Now, you might try shaking your fist at it, and uttering a sentence like “Barbeque spaceship immediately bong-bong,” but you wouldn’t be communicating anything. So, we’re pretty much forced to accept reason if we’re to have any meaningful conversation. But reason is no arbitrary axiom we’ve pulled out of thin air. It’s the essence of thoughtful, meaningful discourse. It’s the tool with which we explore the world. Unlike philosophical theories like morality, ethics, and the like, which all require reasoning to even exist, reason itself is the backdrop against which all these conversations take place.
    Recently, I debated this a bit on another website with a theist, who argued that everything is ultimately based on faith, including reason. I begged to differ, pointing out that all faith is based on some object, some priciple or historical claim, or whatever, and that faith is ALWAYS approached from the standpoint of reasoning (whether good or bad reasoning is beside the point here). In a nutshell, faith is simply a personal assurance of one’s own reasoning; thus, reason maintains its preeminence, with faith being a subsidiary byproduct.
    I fear we’ve gotten a bit off topic here, but if you’d like to follow the thread of my similar conversation, you’ll find it at . Take care, Andy…jim

  12. Andy seems to make the interesting point that religious folks and evolutionary biology reductionists are in the same boat.
    Along the lines of Socrates, we should ask:
    (religious folk): is it right because God loves it, or does God love it because it is right?
    (evolutionary biology reductionists): is it right because we evolved to think it’s right, or does our rationality, the product of evolution, give us the ability to do a higher criticism of morality?

  13. Concerning the former, I find myself rather uncomfortably on T. Aquinas’ side, concurring that Euthyphro’s dilemma is a false one. God’s nature is consistent with his moral stance, and our ‘moral intuitions’ are the trickle down effect of His will. So morality becomes ultimate in the sense that it reflects the Ultimate Maker’s wishes; although, personally I’d still consider that a relativistic sort of morality, but since it’s relative to the guy with the biggest stick, any disagreements of our own ultimately mean squat.
    As to the latter, I’d have to say…hmmm…both? Although ‘right’ in this case lacks the sort of intrinsic, free-floating value of the former. It becomes more of a ‘according to tests, sample A tastes better than sample B most of the time, to most people’. Maybe Chip’s next publication should be along the lines of ‘The Myth of Underived Moral Principles’…or, sumpin’ like dat. Hehehe!

  14. Sister Y, I thought about you the other day and here’s why:
    A troubled young woman who I formed a bond with, died from an overdose, and was ultimately located by her family in the morgue.
    It’s so hard for me to process the fact that she’s gone from the world. She was indeed miserable and self-destrictive. But she was magnetic in her own way, and very affectionate.
    My feeling re suicidal thinking such as yours, Sister Y, is: Since one day you will be dead, and dead forever, why not stick around until then? You are secure in the knowledge that death awaits you and it is eternal. So, why the hurry? You are still capable of enjoying human connections, presumably you still enjoy food and sunshine. Life is all too short, as most old people will testify.
    I am not questioning the morality of suicide or your right to end your life. Just asking, why not see what else life may offer before throwing it away?

  15. Sister Wolf, I am sorry about your young friend. I read about it earlier but I wasn’t sure what to say. It sounds like you made her life better and showed her some love.
    It’s true that there are interesting things in the world. The world is bursting with fun and with interest. I am actually a big fan of a large number of people, and of the human species in general. But, to me, the fun and interest in the world do not do a bit to make up for pain. This is a feature of my psychology, and has nothing to do with the much-debated Benatar asymmetry – but it’s true, neither emotional joy nor physical pleasure nor intellectual epiphany take the slightest sting away from pain and suffering. Suffering is psychologically salient, to me, and memories of pain, and expectation of pain, are psychologically available to me in a way that pleasurable memories or expectations can never be. The one simply does not weigh against the other (psychologically, and also in the wider sense of value). I don’t write about this, because I don’t think it’s interesting and I’m not sure this idiosyncrasy of my psychology is widely shared. The non-suicidal people I know, at least, do not share this experience. But it is the core of mine. No psychiatric drug has ever changed this for me.
    So, since the fleeting joys of life can never make up for the suffering life entails, and since there’s certainly no objective reason to live or meaning to life, the only reason for someone like me to live is for the benefit of others. At best, life might become bearable, but never meaningful or desirable for its own sake.

  16. Okay, Sister Y. I hear you.
    Now I have another question, damn me. That’s how I am, but again, my aim is true, to quote Elvis C.
    If there were a drug that could alter your prespective, and effectively remove the propensity to experience psychic pain, and remove the black cloud that colors you life…..would you be willing to take it?
    Or, do you believe that you would cease to be the “real” you, if this change came about?
    (I personally resisted antidepressants for YEARS, arguing passionately against losing my “core self.” Now I see how wrong I was. I am still me, just without the crippling depression.)
    xo Sister Wolf

  17. I would totally take it! I’ve been on probably two dozen psych meds of many, many kinds, including tons of antidepressants, in various combinations, under the direction of more than half a dozen doctors. I have no problem with them, except for the fact that they didn’t work. (Also, I don’t think they should be forced on anybody – not least because, in many cases, their clinical effectiveness is overstated. But also, people should have a right to be depressed/crazy if they want to. I don’t want to.) I was even open to ECT but wasn’t a candidate for it. I can’t die, so I am very much interested in making life bearable! Biking 100 miles and running 20 miles a week helps a bit, but nothing has ever, ever put me into “I’m glad I didn’t succeed in committing suicide” mode.
    I am in favor of effective treatments for misery of all kinds, including depression. I just don’t think they exist, in the deep sense.
    See also, Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon,

  18. Sister Y, I’m so glad to hear you like my Sarah Palin tirades. I find great pleasure in the camaraderie among those who leave comments.
    Look at the miracle of forming bonds in cyberspace! It’s not an argument against suicide…but it is cause for a moment of gratitude, I think.
    I’m glad I came across Chip, and you, Sister Y. You know where to find me if you want company and/or atheist blessings!

  19. You state that, “There is no easy, comfortable, sure, and widely accessible method available – no Peaceful Pill. I argue that this is a moral horror.”
    You also inform that you are an engineer?
    C’mon Sis, you can do better than that.
    Non-practicing suicide?
    Very clever but you’re not fooling me.
    You’re waiting for……????

  20. That’s the first person who’s ever said anything like that to me. You’d think I’d get it all the time.
    I’m not an engineer, though. It is just that my undergraduate school is known for engineering – giving me “smart layperson” cred at least, as in, if I can’t figure it out, how do we expect suffering, sick 80-year-olds to figure it out?

  21. I started writing instructions out for you and then caught myself asking, “Geez, what am I doing?”
    I need people that are prepared to die. I wish I could catch everyone jumping off a bridge or pressing the pistols to their temples or sucking on the tailpipe exhaust in their cars. I need that army of people pushed to their private despair.
    People willing to commit suicide are powerful. A crowd of such people united and focused on a single goal could transform the world.

  22. I tried to commit suicide at age 15 and failed for the reasons listed by Sister Y.
    40 years later I look back and realise I have one 40 year long consistent regret.
    That I failed when I was 15.
    When you murder someone it’s a crime.
    But when life is worse than death, isn’t it a greater crime to keep them alive?

  23. Do you mind if an unintellectual Christian chimes in? How can you say that life is just despair? Haven’t you seen life outside of yourself? It is true that life can be full of suffering, but there is also peace and joy in life. Have you really tried to obtain this? I know you said you were atheists, but what if you are wrong about God? What if Jesus really is the Christ? The Bible, which you seem to be familiar with on other pages, says that God sent His son Jesus to the earth, and He died for our sins. Do you know what that means? If this is true, and I believe it is, then there is a way to overcome sin and the results of it that we face. If you are into philosophy, have you honestly given Kierkegaard a chance? I don’t think you are asking the right questions; or do you want to be where you are?

  24. Rebekah,
    Thanks for chiming in.
    Speaking for myself, I would never say that life is “just despair.” But despair is part of life for most people. And for some people, at some times, it can be unbearable.
    On matters of religion, we simply — and profoundly — disagree. I think I have a genuine sense of what Christians mean when they speak of the Christ and His message of salvation for all mankind. I just don’t believe it. I don’t even believe (with certainty) that Jesus Christ was a real person.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *