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Topic: Suicide
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Guest: Michael Cholbi
Michael Cholbi, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
What is it? Taking human life is wrong. But what if it is one's own life? Is suicide worse or less bad than murder? Is it wrong at all? Can suicide be rational? How about helping another commit suicide? The Philosophers discuss the metaphysics and morality of taking one's own life.

Listening Notes

Can anyone ever have a good reason to commit suicide? Can it ever be morally permissible to commit suicide? John and Ken start by doing a conceptual analysis of suicide. Not all self-killings are suicides. For instant, accidental killings and a soldier throwing himself onto an exploding grenade to save her fellow soldiers are not suicides. John points out that the paradigm case for suicide is someone who kills herself due to the suffering, despair or pain she has.

Ken distinguishes between the intended consequences of an act and the foreseen consequences. A suicide bomber intends to kill other people with an act of terrorism but his death is only a foreseen consequence. Even in the paradigm case the intended consequence might be to end suffering. The foreseen consequence might be one's death.

John introduces Professor Cholbi, the author of suicide entry at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Motives for suicide are usually things like pain, misery and despair but suicide can also occur due to other reasons, such as altruism, shame and honor. In the early days of Christianity, suicide was a serious worry. Suicide could be a motivation to go to heaven but of course the Christian doctrine forbids suicide.

John points out that presidents worry about history's verdict and what people will think of their actions in the future. So why is it so irrational when the troubled, suicidal teenager is motivated by the scenes of her future funeral and the suffering her death will bring? Cholbi answers that the president cares about the thoughts of people, whereas the troubled teenager really cares about the actual experience and feelings - the stress, the pain of the parents.

John points out that the Beatles, who have been playing a song for 4 minutes, may suddenly notice that the drummer Ringo is not doing well and decide to cut the song short instead of going 5 minutes. This way, they'll have a good 4 minutes song instead of bad 5 minutes song. Can a similar argument apply to people's lives? Cholbi agrees that longer life is not necessarily the better. Suicide can be a rational choice. However, people are usually confused that once that they kill themselves, they'll experience the consequences of their death - such as the misery their death will bring to other people.

Ken argues that I don't have the right to kill other people. I am also a person. Therefore, I don't have the right to kill other people. Cholbi comments that this argument was first pointed out by St. Augustine. He mentions that suicide depends on some sort of specialness of the "I". It ultimately rests on a unique status that "I" enjoy and gives me the permission to kill "me". Cholbi raises skepticism about whether such a special status can be justified.

Ken asks Cholbi how he would react to the case of a friend who is in pain and contemplates suicide. Ken notes that in the case of this hypothetical friend, he would have legitimate reasons and his suicide would be moral. Cholbi thinks that most suicides are due to temporary depression or despair. Cholbi doesn't have a settled position on whether it is right to prevent suicide by coercion but certain populations, teenagers, children, should be coerced for prevention.

On a listener's note, Cholbi concludes that afterlife considerations have impact on suicidal thoughts. Any doubt about the afterlife weakens reasons for committing suicide since suicide becomes uneffective in ending one's life.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter Polly Striker (Seek to 4:39) interviews Eve Meyers, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention about the causes of suicide. She also interviews Ken Baldwin, a teacher in Northern California, about his failed suicide attempt.
  • Conundrum (Seek to 47:52): Francesca, a translator who used to live in a developing country, used to offer lower rates for his work. Now he has migrated to the US and has to offer high rates. Therefore, he can't compete with the lower rate. Should he try to undercut the job offers his colleagues in the developing countries get? What is the effect of globalization?
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