Thoughts on economics and liberty

Tag: Suicide

Research into Gandhi’s views on suicide #1

I had a few minutes (not really: I had to squeeze them out), and thought I'd pursue Bhagwad Jal's claims that "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."

Whatever I know of Gandhi rebels against such a wild claim, and indeed, a very cursory research at: (please use google advanced search restricting your search to PDF files; that way you'll quickly be able to scan 98 volumes of ALL of Gandhi's writings) has proven this to be so.

In the less than 30 minutes I've spent in research on this topic I've come to the following view (to be further confirmed):

a) Gandhi detested suicide

b) He thought that his fasts were NOT fasts unto death because no one could control their life or death

c) He saw his fasts a spiritual cleansing of HIMSELF.

Anyway, this more or less confirms my high esteem of Gandhi and I will further explore his precise views in order to distinguish between when someone try to fast – to cleanse the society – and when someone cannot. In my view Hazare's fast has all the trappings of a political tool. It is nowhere in the league of Gandhi.

Yet to finalise my views. Your input/research is invited. Please spare me your opinions. Provide me with SOLID research.

Here are some initial findings:

Gandhi is REPELLED by the thought of suicide

The whole of my own religious upbringing has been such as to make any thought of suicide on my part impossible. vol. 58
There is general agreement between Hinduism and other faiths that suicide is a sin. vol. 58
The Hindus even aspire to escape from the encumbrance of this body, but do not commit suicide for that purpose. Vol 25
His imploring people to NOT commit suicide
We should make up our minds that we ourselves will never commit suicide. The kind of people who commit suicide either worry too much about the world, or try to hide their faults from the world. We should never pretend to be what we are not, or try to do what is clearly beyond us. Vol. 39
He notes that fasting is illegal and suicide prohibited
12. Simple suicide is an offence under the present Law as I have been told.
13. If Gandhi took up his stand at the Viceregal gateway and threatened to fast even for one day unless the British Government withdrew from the country, the Government would be justly entitled to arrest him and imprison him till he came to his senses. Vol 58
One case when suicide is permitted:
Someone reporting his views:He would think of only one occasion when it would be better to kill oneself. That was when a man cast an evil eye on another woman.” Vol. 25
Yes, if his thoughts become impure and he is tempted to infect another person with his impurity, he may by all means commit suicide. Committing suicide is a thousand times preferable to sleeping with another’s wife. Vol. 25
The power to die everyone has but few desire to use it. When someone wishes to dishonour a woman, when a man is in danger of being overmastered by lust, such a man and woman have a right to commit suicide. It is indeed their duty to do so. Vol.25
But then he adds:
If you wish to go and lay down your life, do so. Dying for India is not suicide. Suicide is bad both for Hindus as well as Mussulmans. Rather than violate a woman’s chastity it is better for one to go and drown oneself. Suicide is bad but this type of suicide is good. Vol. 25
Fasting with a goal of death is repulsive to him
The method of fasting, committing suicide, still instinctively repels me. vol. 58
The mental model of spiritual fasting that Gandhi then employs
My fast was not a fast unto death in its literal sense. The Roman Catholic priest, who is a visitor to this prison, knows me, and when I was on the eve of taking that fast, he came over to me in his kindly manner just to say one word, and he said how he drew the distinction between a suicide and a sacrifice. A suicide carried with it a certainty of destruction. A sacrifice meant risking life, the greater the risk, the greater the sacrifice. But there should be nothing beyond risk. I had no hesitation in agreeing with the distinction, and my fast being conditional was not a fast amounting to suicide, but it was a fast involving the greatest risk, but still a risk and no more. vol. 58
Needless to say I write of spiritual fasts. I know that fasting may come also from despair. Then it is rank suicide. I should defend my fast against such a charge. For me it has always been a process of penance and purification. The fast of 1921 was not born of despair. The basis of all penitential fasts has always been faith in mankind, God and oneself. It gives an inward joy that sustains one. I therefore want you to share with me the joy of it. I hope you have understood my argument. Of course you know that there is no certainty about the 2nd January fast. It may have to be postponed. vol. 58
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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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Calling upon India to criminalise coercive fasts-unto-death

I'm posting here the comments from Bhagwad (and my response) in relation to my call to Hazare to stop subverting the constitution of India to achieve political (policy) goals. I wrote: I therefore encourage Anna and his supporters to form a political party and contest elections and then, once they have a formal mandate for change, bring about the reforms they have obtained people's authorisation for (subject to preserving the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution).

Bhagwad Jal, a blog friend (we've never met), believes that everyone has a right to coerce the Government to anything, and that suicide is our birth right.

Here's what he has to say

We've discussed this before. My view is that self harm should certainly be allowed. My body, my rules. If at all we take property rights seriously, then a person has to own their body. A man may have nothing – not food, no clothes and no house. But they always have their body. It's the one thing a person owns without doubt and without restraint. It's the only thing they have real control over. To say a person doesn't own their body is repulsive and unjust since they and only they suffer when their body is not working properly.

Hazare has every right to fast to death. Let the government not listen if they don't want. No one is forcing the government to pay heed.

n fact, I'll go one step further. So strong is a person's ownership of their body, that whether the government "legalizes" it or not is immaterial! In their heart, everyone knows that their body belongs to themselves regardless of what the "law" says. Which is why no one who commits suicide ever thinks "Damn…this is illegal!" Which is why no one really listens to laws which tell them not to drink…even in private.

You think if the govt. came out with a law saying people don't own their body, anyone would care? It's a natural law beyond the purview of parliament or any man made structure. It's a deeply rooted natural way of things.

Incidentally, if you term fasting to death as "coercion," what about strikes which threaten to disrupt the economic system in which we live? I'm not talking about forced strikes and breaking cars etc…I'm talking about basic non cooperation.

Unless someone takes a gun to the govt's head and forces them to do something, it's not real coercion. Many "fasts unto death" have been initiated in India's history. The vast majority of them have been safely ignored….as they should. Rarely is an issue of such importance that people sit up, rally round and take notice. Such issues cannot be manufactured. They come when they come and you can't do anything about it.

Now, here was my response

Dear Bhagwad

Ownership of one’s body is a piece of absurdity that makes no sense from any angle. One rents one’s body till one is alive. But that is NOT relevant to the discussion here.

Note I’m not asking that suicide be made a criminal act. That it can’t be prevented through law should be obvious. Instead, it requires the creation of a social insurance health system that identifies and assists suicidal people. I’ve explained at length in DOF.

However, Hazare’s was not suicidal act in that typical sense (normal suicide is a consequence of mental distress, but Hazare’s was not a case of mental distress but a case of deliberately causing others mental distress). Such threatened suicide is used precisely like a bargaining chip: a commercial transaction. You do this or I will kill myself at great emotional cost to the entire nation. Even ordinary suicidal people might try a bit of this strategy before actually taking their life. But they don’t aim to bring down an entire nation to its knees through their suicide.

Hazare-type suicide threats are different since these impinge deeply on emotions of millions of people, and put extra-constitutional pressure on governments to do things they would have otherwise not done or done differently. Instead of using the hustings to create laws, this technique uses the streets to make laws. That is grossly improper. I am calling for a specific prohibition of this kind of emotional stunt.

Gandhi invented this technique for specific purposes and mostly used it to douse communal violence. Hazare and many others of his ilk have used this technique to short-circuit the constitutional process. It has the same goals as a terrorist act: a coercive method to force an ENTIRE COUNTRY to do something.

The point about strikes is well taken. That is actually illegal particularly where violence harms others. But I trust you are aware that “peaceful” strikes (e.g. stop-work strikes) need to be regulated as well because they force someone (employer) to pay someone (employee) for a service they have not provided. This is a breach of contract, and the direct action, even if non-violent, is essentially criminal (asking something for free: Note that dissatisfied workers always have the option to resign and leave – but they don’t do that: instead, they COERCE the employer if they don’t like a particular wage: that is basically a criminal act).

I’m saying here that it is the intent to blackmail (and the Anna has repeatedly said that he is happy to blackmail the government) that is criminal.

When you or I fast for a few days we do so peacefully at home, not with the intent of blackmail. It is when the fast is undertaken to coercively subvert the constitutional processes of India, then force-feeding is absolutely necessary.

I would call upon the Government of India to create a law on this matter immediately.





What's the essential problem with a fast unto death? Apart from the philosophical problems outlined above, this is problematic because the concept of one person one vote is distorted comprehensively.

Why is it that the vote of a non-fasting person is valued less than that of a fasting person? There is no possible reason to distinguish between the two. Both have the same option for changing the laws: USE THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM, get elected, form a majority and then change the laws.

I have worked for over 13 years now, trying to change many laws in India. Does it mean I use extra-constitutional methods? No. I still argue that I am only entitled to one method: electoral.

Had India degenerated into a tyranny, I would have also resorted to civil disobedience, even violence. But India is NOT a tyranny. There is no ground to short-circuit the social contract.

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