I watched the excellent movie The Sea Inside, about the real story of a paraplegic man, Ramón Sampedro, who fought 28 years for the right to assisted suicide. There is no doubt who the director thinks is sympathetic and who is despicable, especially his brother, who is bitter at having to support him but vociferously refuses to support his suicide.
Even though it is, after all, a story and not a documentary, I think it illustrates the selfishness of the anti-suicide position. There really is no reason for anyone to not be supportive of Sampedro’s quest. Yes, obviously a lot of people feel that life is always worth living and that suicide is regrettable, and some still cling to religious dogma which prohibits suicide because suicide takes asses off the pews and into the ground, but these are, after all, only opinions. Reasonable people should be able to accommodate the existence of differing opinions.
But a more interesting question is this: why is suicide regrettable? Yes, people who kill themselves make their loved ones suffer because of it, but only because they must do it in secret. In cases of assisted suicide which were planned for such a long time, surely no one will be taken by surprise.
Now, family situations are a different matter. When children depend on the income of a person or two people, a suicide of one of them will have a profound effect on the child’s well-being. And I don’t deny that suicide, in those cases, does inflict suffering and is questionable at best. The fact that this is not even a consideration right now in the public debate about suicide and assisted suicide is a reflection of the childism in our cultures: we don’t really care what happens to the children.
In the movie, the brother seems to be suffering from some strange version of the sunk cost fallacy: because he ruined his own hopes and dreams in order to take care of Ramón, he therefore believes that it would be unfair for Ramón to kill himself and undo all this work. While the situation is deplorable, it is deplorable because of the illegality of assisted suicide, not because of the suicide itself. Obviously I am not blaming anyone who’s angry or frustrated about such a difficult situation. But we must always remember who is suffering the most: the person who wants to kill themselves but is not allowed to.
Viewers of the movie seem to sympathize with Sampedro and his plight, even though he is trying to kill himself. Perhaps people sympathize because he is, after all, presented as the protagonist, and he is an extreme case. It’s easier for people to accept that someone who’s been paraplegic for 28 years should be able to kill themselves than for people to accept assisted suicide as a whole. And people do love a good story.
It seems to me that the anti-suicide attitude is very selfish. Parents don’t want to be seen as bad parents, friends and family would rather see them continue to live than bear the shame and loss of a suicide, and I think people in general oppose suicide because they have a selfish desire to make life something better than it is. We know from the way people argue against antinatalism and pessimism, and the popularity of religious and New Age beliefs, that they desperately need to see life as more than what it is.
Although the most extreme seekers are ready to lie to themselves in order to achieve this, most people are content with ignoring inconvenient facts. Such an attitude consists of looking at the positives and ignoring the negatives. One can say that, for example, Sampedro lives a life where he is free to write at his leisure (albeit with his mouth), where he is taken care of, where he may be pushed in a wheelchair whenever he needs to go somewhere. He publishes a book and clearly can do something with his life. But there are also severe negatives in his life, including, well, being paraplegic, with all the severe physical limitations that this entails, and a complete lack of independence or privacy. Optimists wants us to only look at the first list and not at the second. Obviously if you ignore all the negatives of a person’s existence, then you can easily argue against any suicide.
A lot of people pull the veil over their own eyes. This causes problems. But even bigger problems are caused by the fact that those same people try to restrict other people’s freedom based on this veiling. Ultimately, they want to turn society as a whole into a self-censoring torture cell, which is how they treat their own minds. They torture their minds to “exterminate negative thoughts” and keep optimism in the face of the negatives of life, and they want to physically torture others who refuse to align themselves with their delusion. For what can we call forbidding people, who are in psychological or physical pain, to kill themselves, but a form of torture?
It’s always easy to maintain our belief in a just world and blame the victims, call them whiners, and so on. That’s the easy way out, keeps us in our bubble, keeps us comfortable. But blaming the victim is never honest and doesn’t help anyone. Blaming people for killing themselves is selfish and dishonest, and no matter what, people just shouldn’t do that. Yes, you’re allowed to think that a person shouldn’t have killed themselves, but admit that it’s your opinion, and that others (including the suicide) are allowed to rationally disagree.
I have written a great deal about consent. The reason should be obvious: consent is a fundamental principle of ethics, and yet we seem to give it little respect, diluting the concept beyond all recognition. Some people also confuse voluntary agreement, or even just agreement, with consent (“yes is yes,” “enthusiastic consent”).
In a great entry on this very subject, Meghan Murphy points out the ridiculous argumentative load we put on consent:
Consent is the magical fairy dust which turns rape into sex; trafficking into free speech; and sexualized abuse, torture, and subjugation into sexual liberation — or so many people claim.
Indeed, for liberals (especially liberal feminists) and voluntaryists, “consent” seems to be the only standard of morality, but when they say “consent” they really mean “agreement.” There is a huge difference between the two: as I’ve written before, consent is a much more narrow concept than agreement. Saying “yes” does not equal consent. For instance, we recognize that sexual relations between a person in a position of authority and another person who is under their authority is immoral and improper, even if both said “yes.”
But beyond the sexual realm, which is the topic of Murphy’s entry, we can look at consent as a social problem. Consent is not a simple matter. For example, it is generally believed that the social order is in place based on the consent of the governed. Well, that’s obviously false: no one explicitly consents to whatever social order or structure is in place. But it is a fiction that serves the interests of those who are in power and those who benefit from that power, in short, those who already agree to the social order. It is those who disagree with the social order who are most likely to incur its wrath, but we then punish them in the name of that same social order they haven’t even consented to.
In short, there is an equivocation between “consent” and “compliance” or “submission.” The inferiors in a hierarchy are constantly asked to acquiesce to their own subjection. They do so because they have no other choice, as to refuse to acquiesce either means losing whatever place they already have, or losing face and risking punishment, if the former is impossible. But this is not “consent” on the same level as consent for an action between two superiors in a hierarchy. A worker agreeing to work late is not the same as two managers agreeing on a budget. A child agreeing to clean its room is not the same as two parents deciding where to go eat.
These are qualitatively different experiences, because inequality makes agreement more or less mandatory. As an inferior, you’re not really weighting alternatives, you’re managing expectations. Beyond being free from certain kinds of oppression and having certain opportunities, privilege also means not being pressured to say “yes” or to conform. It means being able to make up your own mind.
Consent as ideology cannot be distinguished from habitual acquiescence, assent, silent dissent, submission, or even enforced submission. Unless refusal or consent or withdrawal of consent are real possibilities, we can no longer speak of ‘consent’ in any genuine sense.
Dr. Carol Pateman, “Women and Consent,” Political Theory, vol. 8, p. 149.
There are some people, especially in BDSM, who believe that they can truly consent to submission. This is a bizarre concept, but it’s all part of the murky realm of “non-consensual consent” in BDSM, where consent is redefined and reframed so much that it basically reduces itself to a contract and a safe word. They are not “consenting” to submit any more than other inferiors consent to submit.
Another problem with consent in a context of inequality is that we only consider relevant consent to specific actions, not to the structures that mold those actions. We simply assume that the structures are valid and assume that any further issues are problems with the individuals involved (“bad apples,” “evil people,” “a twisted mind,” and so on). This is obviously closely related to vulgar individualism and the refusal to look at systemic issues, which I’ve written about extensively, so I won’t repeat myself here.
Consent does not exist for the inferiors, but for the superiors, who want to ensure obedience and maintain the illusion of consent. And the illusion of consent serves to justify ongoing oppression and exploitation. Pornography, prostitution, BDSM, black imprisonment, child control and abuse, workplace exploitation, and even war, are justified by a mechanical “yes,” a contract, or the belief in some hypothetical future consent.