Libertarian Ethics and Suicide

Via Tam I came across the following post by Roberta X discussing libertarian ethics, namely as it applies to suicide. Apparently there has been a bit of a debate in the libertarian/gun blogger realm over whether or not it’s ethical, according to libertarianism, to intervene when somebody is threatening suicide. I left a rather lengthy post on Tam’s site but I wanted to discuss this in a bit more detail and cleanup my thoughts. Roberta X had the following to say regarding the threat of committing suicide:

You don’t own other people; you don’t get to control what they do. When you threaten to harm someone — even yourself — you’re initiating force, attempting to extort something from the persons to whom you are expressing your threat.

I disagree with her statement. I’ve discussed self-ownership in more depth previously, but surmise it to say your are the sole owner of yourself. One cannot control your actions, even if they are in a position of authority you have the ability to rebel. Slaves have the option of attacking and attempting to kill their masters because humanity hasn’t yet (thankfully) developed a technology to entirely control the minds and actions of others.

Ownership in libertarian ethics implies some amount of control. The amount of control one wields depends on the amount of ownership one holds, if you are the sole owner of something you have total control over it, if you are a partial owner of something you have partial control over it. Let’s use the example of an automobile. If you are the sole owner of an automobile you may do with it as you please. Whether your drop a higher performing engine in the car, put in a more powerful sound system, or simply burn the car to cinder is nobody’s concern except your own (unless your action puts another or their property into harm, for example driving your vehicle into a building owned by another). On the other hand if you are a partial owner then anything done to the car must be agreed to by every other partial owner. You cannot rightfully drop in a faster engine in the car, put a more powerful sound system in the car, or burn the car unless the other owners also agree to your actions.

As the sole owner of yourself you have the right to do with yourself whatever you please. If you want to drink alcohol you can drink alcohol, if you want jump around in a mosh bit then you can just around in a mosh pit, if you want to destroy yourself entirely by committing suicide then you may commit suicide. No other person holds a stake in your person and therefore has no right to prevent you from taking any action that doesn’t harm others or their property. What about the statement that threatening to commit suicide is a form of extortion? This too I disagree with.

Extortion, under libertarian ethics, is generally considered a threat of action you have no right to perform. For example, if somebody pulled a knife on you and demanded your wallet they have performed an act of extortion, they have threatened to stab you if you don’t surrender your wallet. This can be considered an act of extortion because the attacker has no right to attack your person, such an act is considered an initiation of force. Were you to say to your attacker, “I have a gun and I will draw it an shoot you if you attempt to attack me” you would not be performing an act of extortion, you have every right to take such action to defend yourself against an initiator of force (I know such an act is not a good idea in a self-defense situation, I’m merely using this as an example to demonstrate a point, I’m certainly not recommending you perform such an action).

We’ve established that a person is a self-owner and therefore has total dominion over themselves and that extortion is a threat to perform an action that the threatener has no right to perform. Therefore suicide is not an act of extortion because one has a right to commit suicide by the fact they are the sole owner of themselves.

Does that mean one cannot intervene to prevent somebody from committing suicide? No, at least I don’t believe so. Ethics are black and white when discussing black and white situations but they aren’t so clear cut when discussing issues with a great deal of gray area. Like hypothetical self-defense situations, people who argue ethics usually create hypothetical scenarios where a “good” option exists. Unfortunately a “good” option doesn’t always exist. Murray Rothbard discussed one such situation in The Ethics of Liberty. Chapter 20 discusses lifeboat situations:

IT IS OFTEN CONTENDED that the existence of extreme, or “lifeboat,” situations disproves any theory of absolute property rights, or indeed of any absolute rights of self-ownership whatsoever. It is claimed that since any theory of individual rights seems to break down or works unsatisfactorily in such fortunately rare situations, therefore there can be no concept of inviolable rights at all. In a typical lifeboat situation, there are, let us say, eight places in a lifeboat putting out from a sinking ship, and there are more than eight people wishing to be saved. Who then is to decide who should be saved and who should die? And what then happens to the right of self-ownership, or, as some people phrase it, the “right to life”? (The “right to life” is fallacious phraseology, since it could imply that A’s “right to life” can justly involve an infringement on the life and property of someone else, i.e., on B’s “right to life” and its logical extensions. A “right to self-ownership” of both A and B avoids such confusions.)

In the first place, a lifeboat situation is hardly a valid test of a theory of rights, or of any moral theory whatsoever. Problems of a moral theory in such an extreme situation do not invalidate a theory for normal situations. In any sphere of moral theory, we are trying to frame an ethic for man, based on his nature and the nature of the world—and this precisely means for normal nature, for the way life usually is, and not for rare and abnormal situations. It is a wise maxim of the law, for precisely this reason, that “hard cases make bad law.” We are trying to frame an ethic for the way men generally live in the world; we are not, after all, interested in framing an ethic that focuses on situations that are rare, extreme, and not generally encountered.

That is to say an extremely rare situations are special cases and should be treated as such. Being in a position to stop a suicide is one of these rare situations, one where other factors come into play. Using another example let’s say you come across a situation where somebody is being held a knifepoint by an attacker. Do you have a right to intervene if the victim doesn’t specifically ask? I would say yes, because it is a very safe assumption that the victim would gladly take you up on an offer to help if he or she was in a position to ask. In many cases people threatening or attempting to commit suicide are not in complete control of their faculties, they are often extremel depressed, mentally disturbed, under the influence of some kind of drug, etc. A schizophrenic may threaten or attempt suicide because a voice in their head is telling them to while a manic depressive may threaten or attempt to commit suicide during a depressive episode. Were the individual in full control of their faculties it is a safe assumption that they would ask for intervention. In fact the threat or even attempt of suicide is often a cry for help in of itself.

Considering the fact that being in a position to prevent a suicide is one of those rare situations akin to lifeboat situations and that threats or attempts of suicide are often cries for help I believe it just to intervene. That isn’t to say that all interventions to prevent suicide are warranted, if a person is in a state of perpetual pain and in full control of their faculties it is very possible that they would want to end their life to prevent ongoing suffering. In such a case intervention would be unwarranted.

Black and white situations seldom exist, there is usually a great deal of gray area. Because of this there are rarely absolute answers and thus some amount of common sense must be considered. Saying somebody has a right to commit suicide is correct, saying that intervening to prevent that suicide is a violation of libertarian ethics is subjective. Sure, ideally, such an intervention is a an encroachment on the rights of another. We don’t live in an ideal world, numerous circumstances often exist that would lead one to believe such intervention is desired. Perhaps the person threatening or attempting suicide is crazy, perhaps their family is being threatened and suicide is the only option that person sees to protect his or her family, perhaps the person is merely sick of living and desires to die. It’s nearly impossible for somebody in a position to prevent a suicide to know all the facts and therefore make the right decision. We don’t want to do what the state does, make an environment that discourages people from helping one another, and thus must rely on a great deal of individual judgement and at the moment common sense.

Ethics are great for general cases, which is why I like the “don’t be a dick” rule. Yes, there are times when one must certainly be a dick but for a vast majority of the time there is no need and thus not being a dick is a great general rule.