Thoughts on economics and liberty

There is no “fundamental right” to suicide!!

From the issue of the Anna Hazare fast to death came the absurd argument from Bhagwad Jal that there is a fundamental right to suicide. This deserves a separate post. Here's my response.

Bhagwad Jal's argument:

I am indeed saying that we have a fundamental right to suicide. And you're wrong when you say that no major philosopher has agreed with suicide.

Indeed, the right to suicide is the most basic right of all. Without the right to commit suicide, none of our other rights is worth having. If freedom is a value, then the suicide is the ultimate freedom. One of the definitions of freedom is self ownership. If that is so, then the right to end the ownership of the self is a natural consequence.

The very fact that Gandhi was willing to go on a fast unto death meant that he was comfortable with the idea of ending one's own life by one's own free will.

Also, you're making an error of causality. One is responsible for one's own actions. If A threatens to commit suicide based on whether or not B does something, then A and A alone is responsible for their choice to kill themselves. Unless you can show that A loses the power to choose whether or not they want to kill themselves, B is in no way responsible for the choice that A makes.

Suppose a parent threatens to kill themselves if their daughter marries outside their gotra (or whatever.) Is the daughter responsible for the death of her parent? Such a position is absurd since it's the parent's choice to kill themselves which is more fundamental.

My response:

Dear Bhagwad

There is no right to suicide in the classical liberal school of thought that promotes LIFE and liberty. Liberty taken to the extreme is called libertarianism and fanaticism that contradicts itself and ties itself up in knots.

I have argued extensively (and in my view conclusively) against the freedom to commit suicide – given that of the 10 million suicide attempts each year in the world the overwhelming majority are by mentally distressed people.

As I have noted in DOF (still a draft manuscript):

Our lower and mid-brain can, of course, in moments of extreme emotionality, lead us dangerously astray, even to suicide. We remain the only animal known to take its own life.

Had we created our life we might have possibly held some such claim, but we cannot give claim the right to destroy a human life (ours) that we didn’t create. Note also that if suicide were acceptable then arguments against suicide-bombing would weaken considerably (for how would it matter to us – if our death by our own hands is admissible – if we also unleash death on others while on our way out of this world?). On the other hand, however, euthanasia under controlled conditions is justifiable in at least a few rare cases.

Further, in DOF (note that there are many more aspects of suicide and such things discussed in DOF. This is merely a key extract)

Not free to injure ourselves

Some aspects of morality are culture-specific, but it does appear, at the broadest level, that all conceptions of morality hinge ultimately on these two propositions. In that sense, Albert Schweitzer’s approach (sanctity of life) is useful as long as we don’t go overboard. Together, life and liberty form the basis of all moral questions. Both the Golden Rule and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative reflect these two basic principles (Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’; Kant’s categorical imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law’[1]).

What happens if these two propositions come into conflict? Are we free, for example, to harm ourselves? More bluntly, can our liberty be permitted to destroy our life? I explore this difficult issue at some length, below.
a) Suicide
We are the only creature known to take its own life. Although behaviour that resembles depression is displayed by some primates cast out from their tribes, no other creature consciously and deliberately self-destructs. Since no predominantly rational argument can be made in favour of suicide, its existence should be considered as the price we (as a species) pay for our complex brain that can generate mixed signals. Suicide can only be motivated when conflicting signals from the mid- and lower- brain – emotional distress, depression, or guilt – mingle with our higher brain capacity to plan and enact self-destruction. No healthy and wealthy person has yet been born who has gotten up from bed one fine day to ‘rationally’ declare: ‘I own a healthy body and happy mind, thus I have the theoretical option of killing myself. And so, today, instead of going on my planned holiday with my beautiful wife and children whom I adore, let me go and kill myself’. This never happens. Someone who is healthy and happy never commits suicide.
The existence of suicide, indeed the monotonous statistical regularity of the world’s suicide rate, poses a serious conundrum to philosophy. Suicide rates in USA and India are both being quite high and thus clearly unrelated to the level of wealth or freedom.[2] Overall, between ten to twenty million people attempt suicide globally each year, of which about a million ‘succeed’ in killing themselves. This means about 100 million people committed suicide in the 20th century. Indeed, ‘More people die from suicide [in an average year] than in all of the several armed conflicts around the world’[3] (noting that this claim doesn’t quite match the rate of war and genocide fatalities reported by Rudolph Rummel).
Emotional factors that can lead to suicide are matters for sociologists and psychiatrists to investigate and address. I want to examine underlying philosophical issue. Does being free give us the option to commit suicide?
David Hume (1711-76) thought it does, arguing that ‘no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping’. Also: ‘I am not obliged to do a small good to society at the expence of a great harm to myself; why then should I prolong a miserable existence, because of some frivolous advantage which the public may perhaps receive from me?’[4] Hume assumed that people rationally determine whether their life is worth prolonging. But no suicide (excluding euthanasia) is based even remotely on rational thought. It is irrational – under almost all circumstances – to not strongly defend one’s life. Hume perhaps had a spell of irrationality while thinking about suicide!
Nozick’s strong version of self-ownership also affirms his right to suicide. Even J.S. Mill seems to suggest that this may be the case. Thus, he writes:
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[5] [bolding mine]
Clearly, if we were to possess absolute self-ownership, then we must have all rights to deal with our body and life as we please, including the ‘natural’ right to euthanasia.[6] But Mill fails to confirm this. For instance, he denies us the liberty to dispose ourselves into slavery: ‘The principle of freedom cannot require that … [a person] should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate … [a person’s] freedom’.[7] And if we are not free to become a slave because that alienates our freedom, we can’t be free to commit suicide – for that would alienate all our future freedoms. Mill also wanted the state to intervene and abolish (the purportedly) voluntary act of self-immolation that some Indian women undertook on the funeral pyre of their husband (sati):
Suttee, or the voluntary burning of widows on the funeral piles of their husbands, after having been long discouraged by every means short of positive prohibition, was finally made a criminal offence in all who abetted it, by a legislative Act of Lord W. Bentinck’s administration, and has now entirely ceased in the provinces subject to British administration. … Various other modes of self-immolation practised in India,—by drowning, burying alive, or starvation,—have been, with equal success, prohibited and suppressed.[8]
And so, Mill’s view of self-ownership did not translate into a right to suicide (effectively nullifying the concept of self-ownership). Rawls and Nozick both supported ‘rational’ euthanasia. Rawls too advocated personal property, including a weak form of self-ownership (recall that he believed that our talents belonged to the entire society). Therefore he agreed with Nozick on this matter. But both then restricted this further. Reasonable restrictions could be imposed, they said, to prevent irrational euthanasia. Thus, the ‘[s]tates have a constitutionally legitimate interest in protecting individuals from irrational, ill-informed, pressured or unstable decisions to hasten their own death.’[9] For grievous self-harm to be a valid moral option, the decision must at least be made rationally, and thus in full command of one’s faculties. One should provide a coherent, detailed justification of the self-harm proposal. Nozick thus ruled out the ‘right’ to emotionally driven suicide, weakening if not entirely destroying his self-ownership claims.
John Locke was explicitly against suicide.
[T]hough this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of License, though Man in that State have an uncontroleable Liberty, to dispose of his Person or Possessions, yet he has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it.[10] [emphasis mine]
Kant’s categorical imperative would automatically reject suicide. Suicide would be permissible only if it is good for everyone else in the world to do so! Suicide is thus necessarily immoral. It also violates our accountabilities (refer: Proposition 3), because it can harm others in many ways, not just psychologically. An unsuccessful attempted suicide can permanently disable a person, such as by damaging the brain, and thus impose a significant economic burden on the (consequently) disabled person’s family. This could then lead to a demand from the family on taxpayers. On the other hand, if (say) a young person successfully commits suicide, he would have destroyed the time and money invested by his parents in bringing him up, not to speak of the severe emotional loss involved. We do not get to choose to be born, but we do become accountable for our actions if we were happy upon birth. Since I have yet to come across any infant who does not display genuine pleasure in his life, we all become accountable for our parents’ investment in upbringing us up. The free society must therefore impose brakes on our alleged ‘freedom’ or ‘right’ to kill ourselves.
Our innate physical animal power to destroy ourselves can’t ever be taken away (except through imprisonment – and even that does not guarantee this), the free society can prevent suicide by providing emergency counselling services as part of a publicly funded social insurance scheme. This service should assist those who are emotionally distraught and actively considering suicide. When the rational circuits of the brain of a suicidal person become overwhelmed with emotion, it may even be necessary to temporarily lock up this person, for the defence of life must necessarily take precedence over the claims of liberty.

[1] Cited in Anton-Hermann Chroust, ‘About a Fourth Formula of the Categorical Imperative in Kant’ in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 51, No. 6, (Nov., 1942), pp. 600.

[4] Hume, David, Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, 1783. []

[5] On Liberty, Chapter 1.

[6] Eg. See Peter Singer, ‘Law Reform, or DIY Suicide’, Free Inquiry, 25, no. 2 (Feb/Mar 2005), pp. 19-20. [–.htm]

[7] Mill, J.S. [1861], ‘On Liberty’, On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, World Classics Paperback 1991, p.114.

[8]MEMORANDUM OF THE IMPROVEMENTS IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF INDIA DURING THE LAST THIRTY YEARS 1858’ in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXX – Writings on India – November 1868, ed. John M. Robson, Martin Moir, and Zawahir Moir (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990). []

[9] ‘Brief of Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Thomas Scanlon, and Judith Jarvis Thomson as Amici Curiae in Support of Respondents’, in Issues in Law & Medicine, Fall, 1999. []

[10] Locke, in his second Treatise. 
Euthanasia needs a lot more work before it can be accepted: "Studies of those who sought out Kevorkian, however, suggest that though many had a worsening illness, cancer perhaps or a neurological disease, it was not usually terminal. Autopsies showed five people had no disease at all. Little over a third were in pain. Some presumably suffered from from no more than hypochondria or depression." [Source]

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28 thoughts on “There is no “fundamental right” to suicide!!
  1. Anuj

    This post once again shows how the "classical liberal" tenets are so dangerously at odds with the fundamentals of liberty.
    Sanjeev, I have two questions for you:
    1) Faced with the choice of immortal slavery and daily rape if captured,will you prefer suicide or slavery?
    2) Who are you to pass value judgement on whether some healthy person's benefit in ending his life is less than his being alive?
    Speaking about myself, I have had enough of this classical liberal nonsense of parroting irrelevant quotations of 18th century philosophers/ economists (all of whom I respect a great deal). Agreed John Locke was brilliant but I don't care about his thoughts on his 18th century thoughts on suicide and nobler use of life.
    Lastly, the fact whether animals commit suicide or not is irrelevant, reminds of the natural vs unnatural argument people gave against homosexuality for a long time.
    Wonder what your "classical liberal" view of homosexuality is? (considering you have made enough fun of Keynes being a closet homosexual)

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Calling something nonsense without argument doesn’t add value. Wasted energy. Don’t attack the person. Attack his ideas. What is the issue here?

    What’s your point? What justifies a fundamental right to suicide?

  3. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    I got bored while reading above. I think ‘self suicide’ is a sort of disease and hope you do agree. It hardly needs any elaboration like above. The problem is whether the act of Anna Hazar was an act of ‘self suicide’. You would better have posted a blog on this rather than the above one.
    The entire Hindu culture, philosophy, the supreme god etc or rather the world itself with all principles is synonymous with ‘WELFARE’
    It is the welfare everything begins with not to talk of FTI etc. Now how that welfare is achieved it’s worthwhile to discuss the same and thing is different.
    Here is my version of Anna Hazare act.   Hazare has no value for his life and body other than this social good end. He thinks that people believe in his goodness and government fears morally the people from which it has received its power. Was he going to commit suicide then? Never. People who think so are no different from the living (technically) corpse. If he had died he would have become an immortal or a sort of Samadhi and this people with few exceptions would never have looked it down like self suicide. If it was suicide then Shri Jnaneshwar (From Maharashtra, hope you know him), and other host of Rishis who went on SAMADHI would have committed suicide. If you say yes, then Please it is not your business. Better confine to the practical success of FTI.
    Government can control Hazares body not his intentions and mind. Without help of mind your controlling the body is meaningless.
    If Hazares thoughts are disease and needs to be rectified through counselling on par with the suicidal thoughts then definitely everybody including you needs counselling in Hazares view some way. You cannot disagree? No reasons.
    Note: If Hazare would have done the same for some category of people e.g. reservations etc. my arguments are not for him, you properly understand. It is only for universal good reasons like against corruptions etc.
    Refer my comment
    In your reply on above post you have missed the very question of how a mature educated Indian thinks. You have grossly neglected and failed to understand the issues I raised there.  You may answer sincerely to the exact and all the points which I raise. Let it be arguments not for the sake of arguments. Here is one more reference for you for the same. You may take sufficient time. Let it be worthwhile.

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Ramesh

    I have argued in DOF that suicidal actions which are clearly intended to SAVE life can potentially escape the calumny of suicide. Hence if Gandhi fasts to prevent communal violence, one could (not necessary will) understand.

    Here is a case not of saving lives but of changing a law.

    That is a POLITICAL act, and cannot use suicide as a tactic.

    In which case then suicide bombers are equally valid in their actions (the fact that samadhis are made for them in Palestine doesn’t justify this action).

    I’ll have more to say on this in the coming days.


  5. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Sanjeev, to start off with, your post begins with calling the idea of suicide "absurd" – which is a weasel word since a neutral reader immediately knows what your stance is before he/she has heard the arguments. Now this is a minor detail, but it's just an indication of how yours isn't as logical a post as you would like it to be.
    Second, let's reject all labels – liberal, neo liberal, conservative etc. I refuse to bind my thinking to a rigid set of rules and take each situation separately as my mind dictates. So it matters little to me what a particular school of thought says – though in the overwhelming majority of cases, I can be called a liberal. It's also entirely irrelevant to me what particular philosophers said even if they agree with me.
    I only listen to outside "experts" in matters of science where they are more qualified than me. But in personal experience, I listen to myself – though I readily quote people who say something with which I agree with. The very fact that two philosophers can come to different conclusions means that there's no absolute standard the way Spinoza envisioned.
    Third, you entire premise rests on the assumption that suicide can never be a rational act. I disagree. It's strange that you haven't mentioned the many examples of "rational" suicide – taken by people who for example rationally decide that a particular situation is too intolerable. It might mean leading a life where their principles are compromised.
    Petronius for example committed suicide elegantly and with full knowledge of what he was doing. No time here for a history lesson, but it's recorded with typical flair in the "Annals of Tacitus." I hardly think it necessary to give you dozens of more examples of suicide carried out after a rational line of thinking.
    I would very rationally commit suicide if I was faced with the prospect of eternal torture! I would not even think twice :D
    A few years ago, an IIT student wrapped electrical cords around his wrist, committed suicide and left a note saying "he was curious about what lay on the other side."
    The most poignant example (albeit fictional) is that of Javert in "Les Miserables" – who commits suicide merely because he suddenly realized that the law which he had worshiped all his life wasn't always in the right.
    So I reject the claim that everyone commits suicide due to a mental imbalance. I can kill myself in full possession of my senses and with perfect celerity of thought. And to claim that no such situation is possible is … well I don't know what it is.

  6. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Another point is that there are many countries where suicide is not a crime. The UK passed the "Suicide Act of 1961" which decriminalized suicide as well as attempted suicide. In many other countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland,  and most of the US states.
    Most remaining countries which criminalize suicide do so for religious reasons – never moral ones.
    So it's far from being "obvious" that suicide is unethical. It's certainly not "absurd."  To call it "absurd" you have to show that my stand extremely unusual, whereas it's slowly becoming the norm.
    In fact, no country has ever criminalized suicide once it has been decriminalized – showing that as countries progress and as we throw off the shackles of religion, suicide is obviously an ethical and legal act.

  7. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    Please read again, I did NOT say that suicide is absurd. I said YOUR ARGUMENT is absurd.
    “absurd argument from Bhagwad Jal that there is a fundamental right to suicide”.

    I do NOT ask for suicide to be criminialised. I have never done that. I have clearly offered a different solution (if you care to read what I’ve written). Again, please read what I write carefully.

    I do ask that using Gandhi’s extremely pure methodology to threaten an ELECTED government to pass a bill, be declared criminal. No one before or after Gandhi could even remotely use this method ‘properly’ (if that is the word).

    Re: suicide being rational. That is an impossibility. Nature designed ALL creatures with a view to living longer. The IIT student you refer to was NOT being rational, but was clearly suffering from issues in his personal life which (if you care to explore) you will definitely find. NO animal was designed to commit suicide. Humans are an exception because we have such a top heavy brain that can at times delude/confuse us.

    Finally I am NOT labelling you. You are doing so yourself. I don’t know why you don’t stick to the point and keep inventing new things.


  8. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Humans do a lot of thing which no animal does. We brush our teeth, bathe and wear clothes. That doesn't make any of those activities irrational. It's true that we are animals. But we have something which no other animal does. And it's because of that quality that we can legitimately do what no other animal can.
    Incidentally, the question of whether or not animals can indeed commit suicide is up for debate:,8599,1973486,00.html
    You say you offer a solution. But then if you don't believe that suicide should be criminalized, what is the problem which needs solving?

  9. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Also, you're making a bland statement with no evidence to back it up: "Namely that anyone who commits suicide is mentally unstable."
    I've given you several examples where this is NOT the case. In feudal Japan for example, it was very normal for a defeated warrior to calmly commit "seppuku" (suicide) – it was an honorable thing to do. They were not "mentally unstable" by any definition of the word.
    There are many well documented cases about perfectly rational people committing suicide for very rational reasons. What do you have to say about them?

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    Suicide is not rational. Rationality implies something done for a gain. It is irrational to throw away what one has. If rationality does not increase life, wealth, or prestige, then that behaviour is irrational. In the case of suicide the outcome is negative, hence irrational by default. There can be NO ground for a rational suicide.

    Also if it was rational for A to commit suicide it must be rational for EVERYONE to commit suicide. The rationality must be generalised. I’d like to see a SINGLE clear and rational argument for suicide. If it is rational, then I’ll commit suicide (and so should everybody in the world).

    Animal and suicide! I don’t think so but I’ll investigate your article. That’s a furphy. Animals are driven ENTIRELY by instinct and do not harm themselves deliberately.


  11. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I disagree. Rationality isn't merely to achieve a net gain but also to avoid a net loss. When all other options are closed, suicide can become perfectly rational simply because without suicide one faces a stupendous net loss which outweighs the loss of life.
    Someone had already given you an example. I have given you an example as well. Suppose you were to face daily torture and rape for the rest of your life, are you saying that suicide isn't a perfectly rational solution? Would such a person be mentally disturbed? Not at all. It's entirely rational to commit suicide in such a case. I would do it. Am I mentally disturbed?
    Finally, animals are driven by much more than just instinct. If you've had significant interactions with animals of a higher order you would certainly know this. Humans are on a continuum of evolution. It's not as if the ability for thought suddenly sprang to life with the first homo sapiens. We're capable of much more thought than animals, but to say that animals aren't capable of any thought is simply wrong.

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    The example you give is not applicable to the free person who lives a normal life in a free society. And I’d need full details of the example to decide what is rational in this case. Why can’t the person simply report to the Police? Why can’t he/she run away? Why can’t he/she kill the rapist/torturer? Why can’t he/she scream and let neighbours know? Etc. You get the point.

    This kind of wild imagination about a PURE CRIME doesn’t explain the 10 million suicide attempts in the world each year (of which 1 million actually die). Are you telling me that all these 10 million people are subjects of deep criminality and are prevented from moving/screaming/reporting a crime to the Police? That’s rich, I’d argue. Absurd is the word that comes to mind.

    I’d therefore continue to assert that ALL run-of-the-mill, garden variety suicide IS a result of mental imbalance that blocks rationality. It is irrational.

    I’d request more solid argument for a rational suicide – namely a suicide in which the common man actually benefits. That is the kind of rationality I seek, not weird cases related to criminality, which are best addressed by the state stepping in to reduce crime in society, not by the state asking people to commit suicide.

    Please prove to me that the 10 million suicide attempts every year (e.g. students who do badly in exams and commit suicide, jilted lovers, etc.) are rational in their suicide.

    Re: animals. I don’t say that animals can’t “think”, but their cerebral cortex is so shallow and undeveloped that their thinking capacity is FAR weaker than an infant. They are naturally driven by instinct. Study their brain and you’ll quickly understand what I’m saying. Dolphins, chimps, and elephants come closest to us in brain capacity – but these DON’T commit suicide.


  13. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Since everyone's circumstances are different, what is rational for one may be stupid for another. When you say "common man" actually benefits, what do you mean? You mean suicide for the public good? Most people don't commit suicide and so clearly it's a wrong decision for them. But were the circumstances different, they might find it a reasonable option too.
    I had no idea we were discussing a "normal life in a free society." We're discussing the issue of suicide vis a vis humans in general. We're not making any assumptions about the kind of society they live in. And my case is simple – depending on the environment/circumstances, it's quite possible for a rational person to conclude that suicide is the best way out of an intolerable situation.
    You don't need to look very far to find good examples of horrible situations where humans commit suicide. The Nazi camps were one example where thousands upon thousands of fully rational and mentally stable individuals decided that suicide was a better way out than a life of eternal torment. And if I were in their place I might well do the same.
    Also, you place way too much faith in the state. The state isn't always there to help you. And the state may be corrupt itself. Or you may face an opponent who knows how to keep the state out. You seem to be saying "if everything is alright, there's no need to commit suicide."
    But the world is a complex place. Lots of times rational people find that everything is NOT alright. And rational people might well make a decision that it's best to commit suicide in some cases.

  14. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    When I talk of suicide I clearly refer to the garden variety suicide, not when someone is under a criminal attack. What explains 10 million suicide attempts each year? Is it rational? That’s the point.

    If something is rational it is good for EVERYONE to do it. It is rational for a mother to feed her child. Every mother does it, and we appreciate and understand that. It is rational for someone to accept Rs.20 instead of Rs.10. Rationality is something that increases our self-interest.

    The common suicide does not. It is irrational.

    Any dispute with that interpretation, please? Let’s close this topic first.


  15. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I certainly dispute this interpretation. To start off with, you're admitting that not all suicides are equal. That is certainly an improvement from your earlier assertion that ANY suicide was because of mental health problems.
    Second, something can be rational ONLY when the circumstances are amenable to that conclusion. For example, it's rational for me to brush my teeth. But if I have no teeth at all, then it's irrational for me to try and brush them. So when something is rational, it's rational ONLY under a specific set of circumstances.
    Since humans live in a wide variety of circumstances, it's logical to conclude that what is irrational for one person may well be rational for another depending on the circumstances. The same obviously goes for suicide – and you seem to agree with me.
    Finally, you say you "clearly" refer to the garden variety of suicide. I'm afraid it's not very clear at all. To start off with, we were discussing Anna Hazare's act which is certainly not your "garden variety" of suicide! Secondly, you made a blanket statement that suicide under ANY circumstance is because of an unstable mind. Since I'm not a mind reader, there's no way I can know what you're referring to unless you spell it out and certainly no way to know when you clearly state otherwise!

  16. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    We can revert to the exceptions you are proposing after you first agree (if you will) that suicides – which we commonly hear of – and which constitute at least 99% or more of the 10 million suicide attempts each year in the world – are based on irrationality and mental instability.

    I’ll come to the others later, since I already have an extensive discussion on these “exceptions” in DOF. Hazare’s fast is illegitimate in my view and I’ve shown that clearly. The state must force feed such people, but you are not talking about Hazare but people who are under criminal duress.

    There is the issue of euthanasia in which rationality COULD potentially come into play, but I’ve investigated that separately and at great length.

    So there are at least 3 types:
    a) Garden variety suicide (more than 99.9% of all suicides)
    b) Coercive (e.g. sati/ criminal confinement, etc.)
    c) fast to death to coerce others.

    Let’s close off (a) by agreeing that ALL these are irrational. Then we can proceed to (b) and then to (c).


  17. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I'm not sure how you get the figure of 99%. It seems to be a basic guesstimate. Nevertheless, I'm perfectly willing to admit that most people who commit suicide are quite disturbed – perhaps not seriously (lovers commit suicide regularly), but certainly not quite thinking straight and with perspective.
    Second, this entire discussion started with Hazare, so that should be our only focus. The problem arose when you claimed that every single suicide attempt is carried out by a mentally unstable person. That is patently false – even you can see that Hazare is anything but insane.
    Finally, your use of the word "illegitimate" is curious. What do you mean? Not permitted according to law? In Indian law certainly. In lots of other countries no. So it's not an absolute truth.
    Is it "illegitimate" ethically? I know a person's body belongs entirely to them. Your usage of words like "rent" is spurious because none of the conditions of "rent" are met. There is neither a lesor, nor is there any payment made. Since a person owns their body, it's their own business as to what they want to do with it. If that means letting people kill themselves off, then it's no business of mine.
    So what are we arguing about exactly? You've admitted that not every suicide is caused due to mental imbalance. You have to agree that it's not illegal in every country in the world. The only contention is the use of the word "illegitimate" which I haven't been able to understand.

  18. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    I think we were debating Hazare’s case of strategic threatened suicide and you argued that he has a right to suicide because he apparently owns his body.

    I argued that not only is that argument spurious but there is no case of rational suicide (I’ll talk about euthanasia separately) and that philosopher has consistently advocated a fundamental right to suicide.

    You declined this argument suggesting that suicide can be rational. I declined that argument. Now you agree that suicide in the common variant of it is actually an outcome of brain disturbance. The solution to that is (in my view) a supportive society and state. Won’t repeat that argument in detail, not making it criminal.

    Thus, the vast majority of suicide, NOT being rational, is not to be treated as a criminal act but we ought to empathise with it and try to minimise it. (If it was rational I’d have argued that all of us should commit suicide!)

    So now we have three types left:
    b) Coercive (e.g. sati/ criminal confinement, etc.)
    c) fast to death to coerce others.
    d) euthanasia

    Re: suicide committed as a consequence of criminal restraint or forcibly throwing someone on a funeral pyre (sati), you’ll agree that the entire situation is a criminal one and we can’t apply any test of rationality without examining all details. There are severe penalties in law for anyone who oppresses/coerces anyone to such an extent that he/she thinks that suicide might be the only option left. That disposes off (b).

    Now for (c). I examined Gandhi’s case fairly closely the other day and found that he STRONGLY DISCOURAGED others from imitating his fasts. In his view the standards to be met to get to fast (thus basically attempting suicide) were too high for any ordinary person to legitimately attempt. I am a bit staggered by Gandhi’s dubious arguments, but can (perhaps) admit them under certain very rare circumstances (I’ll explore this further in DOF, this being a real sticky point in my view, and I don’t quite understand what Gandhi is trying to say.

    However, Hazare CLEARLY doesn’t get authority to fast using the arguments that Gandhi was using. In that sense he may be a Gandhian but he has broken Gandhi’s (dubious) arguments in arrogating to himself the right to fast unto death. I can’t even see why Gandhi could fast unto death. I definitely can’t see why Hazare – a petty mortal who praises Hindutva fanatics like Modi – gets any authority to use this method.

    The law CANNOT make a distinction (if even I find it hard to do so). So in ALL cases, the state must force feed those who claim to fast unto death.

    This disposes (c).

    Finally (d). That is a topic I’ve discussed at length in DOF. The rationality of euthanasia CAN be tested – but its test is very high. Pl. read DOF.


  19. Bhagwad Jal Park

    "(b)" is not disposed of. Why dispose of it so easily? In fact, any rational purpose can find themselves in a "b" situation regardless of the law – either due to its absence or poor implementation.
    Anyway we seem to be in agreement that not all suicide is irrational – since I can find myself in a "b" situation at any time. It's no consolation to me that my oppressor is committing a crime. The fact is that it's happening to me right now and given the circumstances, suicide is a very rational and logical option.
    Also as I mentioned, Gandhi's view on fasts is pretty irrelevant to me. He had his reasons – that doesn't mean they're correct. The entire argument must hinge on whether or not we own our own body. If so, then suicide is a right – otherwise not.
    We don't need to make anymore distinctions. It's like saying "I own this apple. Can I eat it? Let's break it down into four situations. a) I'm hungry. b) I feel like eating an apple c) I want to make someone jealous d) I don't want to carry it around"
    It serves no philosophical purpose as to what I want to eat the apple. I own the apple. I eat it.
    Similarly I own my body. I can end my body. No more distinction required.

  20. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    The theory of what you do with your body is a matter that we should leave aside, since we differ so vehemently on fundamentals on that. Both can’t be right. One of us is wrong.

    On the matter of rationality of suicide, I don’t see why suicide must be rational under (b). If I can have the energy and means to kill myself under criminal duress, surely I have the energy to at least try to kill my oppressor. If in doing so I die or am killed, that’s not suicide.

    I am unable to see how suicide will be rational in ANY situation (euthanasia excluded – and I’ll come to that on a separate blog post). In Pappilon the hero who was in solitary confinement did not commit suicide. Most Jews in Nazi camps starved but DID NOT commit suicide. Please show me one even relatively normal situation (i.e. not some absurd hypothetical situation) in which suicide is the best, rational response.

    In other words I’m saying this. It is POINTLESS to argue whether you own your body or not. It is definitely possible to commit suicide. That’s not in dispute. That’s an ANIMAL POWER that we have. I’m arguing that you’d be grossly irrational to commit suicide. And so you won’t, even if you “own” your body. Therefore anyone in his right mind will work hard to EXTEND his life, not to eliminate it. That is why I say that the body (and life) owns us, not we the body.


  21. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I feel you're painting the word "mentally unbalanced" with an overly broad brush. To start off with, all of us can be temporarily irrational and perfectly fine the next moment. When I was a teenager, I did insane things for love that I would never dream of doing now. That didn't mean I was mentally disturbed or unbalanced.
    No one – and I literally mean no one –  behaves rationally all the time. We mustn't forget that our neo cortex is a relatively new development and our reptilian brain still exists with all the force and power of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. It's not going away any time soon. We've all felt its power and continue to feel it ever so often.
    However, this doesn't mean that we're crazy or mentally imbalanced. When two lovers commit suicide, it's not because they're suffering from a mental condition :)
    In Romeo and Juliet, the girl kills herself when she thinks that Romeo is dead. Was she crazy? Certainly not in any psychiatric sense. There's no test in the standard psychiatric diagnostics that would label her with a mental health disorder. At that point of time, her brain told her that life wasn't worth living with Romeo. Who are we to say she was wrong?
    As far as killing your oppressor goes, please don't force me to be imaginative! You can surely do that yourself. But let me humor you and give you a situation.
    I'm a captured combatant and I know I'm going to be tortured to death by the enemy (not an unreasonable situation I'm sure you'll agree.) If I'm a woman I know I'm going to be gang raped for several days first. Trying to kill my oppressor will probably result in them grabbing me and tying up my hands and legs – thus rendering me incapable of harm either to them or to myself. And I'm screwed – literally and figuratively.
    Far better to plan out my suicide in advance. As I'm sure you can imagine, it's not particularly easy to kill oneself with 100% surety even if you have the will but don't possess any tools. I'm not going to risk what little chance I have in a foolhardy attempt to overwhelm my numerous captors and risk even worse torture when I fail.
    There are thousands of variations I can come up with. You want "normal" situations. Why should I stick to normal situations? I'm interested in showing you that everything DEPENDS ON THE SITUATION. How will "normal" situations help me in that?

  22. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad,

    Re:“At that point of time, her brain told her that life wasn’t worth living with Romeo. Who are we to say she was wrong?”

    Shakespeare’s girl was confused and incapable of understanding who she is. That state of mental confusion is caused by our emotional circuits going haywire. That is a very good example of the mental imbalance I refer to (I don’t mean to imply that these people are psychologically ‘abnormal’. Mental imbalance is not the same as mentally unsound). Decisions taken under such a situation are IRRATIONAL. I’m not discussing whether these are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (an ethical judgement). 99.9% of suicides are undertaken in such an irrational state of mind.

    Re: other cases, I’m not really interested since each criminal situation is different and it is not worth our while arguing that an extreme exception cooked up in our heads is an example of “rational” suicide. You are most welcome to use these absurd cases as proof that suicide is rational. These imaginary cases don’t prove anything but they keep some people busy. Please carry on with your imaginary cases. I prefer to talk principles and generalities.

    What I have proved is that REGARDLESS of whether you “own” your body or not, you will NOT commit suicide if you are in control of your senses, it being against your fundamental interest – to advance your own life.

    The fundamental right is therefore of LIFE and LIBERTY, not of suicide. QED.

    We are unable to justify virtually ANY suicide (euthanasia cases – let’s leave aside for now). A thing that can’t be justified with reason but is the result of mental imbalance and brain chemistry disruption does not lead to a fundamental right, but to treatment and care. Such people whose brains have been overwhelmed need our empathy and sympathy, and treatment, not supported by suggesting that they have a fundamental right so they should please go ahead and commit suicide. I would be shocked if that is what you are trying to imply, which I’m sure you are not.

    You are simply hung up in your shoddy logic that just because you “own” something (in this case apparently your own body), you have a fundamental right to destroy it. It begs the question: who are you, what does ownership mean, etc.

    Going by your argument all the 10 million suicide attempts each year are rational and justified and you should not care about the causes. Just wash your hands off saying: these people owned their body, they chose suicide, so fine. So be it. Almost the same as brushing your teeth, it would appear. Of no consequence.

    I argue that we are obliged to look for the causes of suicide and build systems in the society to prevent them.

    Consider farmer suicides in India. Are you saying we should wash our hands off them. Just the farmer’s right to his own body, so pretty good – just commit suicide! No. Obviously not.


  23. Bhagwad Jal Park

    I don't think I've every argued that every suicide is rational (and I doubt if you can find it in my writing).
    The hypothetical situation is an accepted technique of logical debate in both philosophy as well as science. Any person with even a cursory knowledge of debate in either field knows that bringing out extreme (but not impossible) scenarios are the best way to define the "edges" of a theory. In fact, many ideas sound perfectly ok but become absurd when applied to extreme scenarios.
    Even in science, we use what is called the "Gedanken" or "Thought experiment" to iron out and debate many scientific principles. The best examples of course are the Einstein-Bohr gedankens were the two scientists tested out their theories of general relativity vs quantum mechanics.
    So by brining out "edge" cases, I'm following a very well respected and logically consistent way of arguing which is immensely useful to me to build my case. Calling it "shoddy" is a weasel word and is not a logically consistent way of making a counter point.
    You call it an imaginary case. Are you saying that such a situation is IMPOSSIBLE? In fact, the case I've "cooked up" isn't even that far fetched. It's probably taken place millions of times before and will take place many times again. Anyone – even yourself – can be placed in that situation!
    You gave the example of farmer's suicide. In fact, that's a good point for me in an academic sense. Are you saying that all these farmers are mentally imbalanced? No. From their perspective what they're doing is perfectly rational given the circumstances.
    I don't think I've ever argued (as you seem to be implying) that I recommend doing nothing to improve the circumstances. We must surely improve the situation so that farmers are not forced to take this extreme step. My point instead is that GIVEN the circumstances and the situations, the farmers suicide is the product of rational thought. And that if YOU were in THEIR exact situation (given their environment) you might well do the same…rationally.

  24. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Bhagwad

    I am a policy thinker and not an idle man with time on his hands to resolve idle issues re: “ownership” of one’s body and the rationality of farmers’ suicides. These idle discursions are the reason why I detest philosophy (but not political philosophy, which is a practical application and based on solid evidence).

    I talk about a theory of the state and laws that can be well understood and easily implemented. In my view I DENY any fundamental right to suicide in the constitution of a nation. I DENY the right to Hazare (or even Gandhi) to threaten the parliament of a nation with suicide in order to achieve a political outcome.

    And I ASK the state to take action to identify the causes of normal suicides and to deal with them systematically.

    And finally the euthanasia issue needs to be discussed and resolved.

    You are welcome to live in your delusional world of imaginary experiment. I’m clearly working towards a practical application of principles for the society.


  25. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Merely calling something delusional doesn't make it so. You can't brush off real life instances under the carpet simply because you find them unpleasant to think about.
    Finally, contrary to your assertion it seems you do indeed have the time to dabble in philosophy. Your entire post itself is proof of that where you've cited various philosophers and their opinions etc etc.
    I can understand if you don't want to discuss the issue any further, but then end it gracefully instead of resorting to "below the belt" tactics like you just did!

  26. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    I really don’t want to discuss this, Bhagwad, when all you have to offer are unreal surreal and fictitious cases to “prove” your point. I do tend to live in the real world.

    I do cite POLITICAL philosophers, not nitwits who call themselves “philosophers”. Big difference. Political philosophers are grounded in reality, philosophers imagine their own “systems” much as all religions do.

    You’ve tied yourself badly in knots. From making suicide a fundamental right now you are making it a right in some extreme surreal case. It applies to the world of fiction, not to reality. I talk about India and its constitution. I talk about magistrates and judges who should be able to readily understand something and form a view.

    And it is clear to me that NO ONE can distinguish between an “moral” fast unto death and a blackmail or threat to democratic process. Hence Hazare must be force-fed if he tries this stunt once more. He is no Gandhi, and even Gandhi would have needed to be force-fed had it unilaterally tried to dictate to India’s parliament.


  27. Bhagwad Jal Park

    Since you don't want to discuss it further, I'm willing to let it go. But as for your distinction between "real" philosophers and "nitwits," that's an artificial distinction. The coin of every philosopher is logic. And logic is something which you claim to revere. So unless you point out logical flaws in the "nitwit's" arguments, you're merely indulging in rhetoric – which again is an illogical technique.
    Finally, you repeatedly call my examples "fictional" and '"surreal" – as if the rational suicides by farmers are made up! Apart from showing disrespect to the farmers who are forced into this extreme step, it's once again rhetoric with no evidence to back it up.
    I'm surprised to see you indulge in this kind of speech and argument especially when you claim to revere logic above all else. By pursuing this style of debate you're not being faithful to your past declarations of your love of logic.
    A "threat to the democratic process" can only occur in a case of a coup. Wake me up when the Maoists burst into parliament with their guns on the military takes over. THAT is a real threat to democracy – not Hazare who forced the govt.'s hand by making them afraid of losing the next election. Hazare has actually strengthened our democracy instead of harming it – a case I made in my latest post.
    But let's leave this since you say you don't really wish to discuss it further.

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