Content Warning: Arguments for suicide. No catch.
There’s a lot of arguments against suicide.
This is a good example. On the surface, it looks like everything an argument against suicide should be. It’s well-written, and it actually raises the reasons suicidal people have for it before making the counterarguments against them. I still think it’s wrong. For one thing, it has motivated reasoning (nobody wants suicidal people to be right). But from inside the argument, there’s something off about it. It reasons backwards: It assumes people shouldn’t commit suicide, comes up with scenarios where that’s the case (a guy who’s a useless burden now might have been useful as a dockworker a hundred years ago), then kind of implicitly assumes the change in circumstances shouldn’t matter.
If we don’t have any motivated reasoning, the case for suicide seems pretty clear: Some people feel like burdens. They’re net negative drains on the world, draining resources that could better be used for someone else. Are they wrong?
Scott brings up Robin Williams as a counterexample, and some guy who designed safety mechanisms for cars. Alan Krueger’s another potential counterexample that’s come up since. But how sure are we that they really are counterexamples? You’d expect them to know more than us about the situation. Maybe the car safety guy knows his designs aren’t really effective or useful, or maybe he doesn’t really do much and only got to keep his job because of office politics. We found out Robin Williams had Dementia. I don’t know why Alan Krueger died, but nobody else seems to either. He probably had his reasons.
In general, every bias we know should push people away from suicide. People tend to believe they’re more important than they are, that they’re more useful, that they know more. People tend to be unreasonably optimistic. People have status-quo bias. If we’ve reached the point where even the person in question thinks suicide is a good idea, it probably is.
There’s a counterargument to suicide, saying that suicidal people often get better, even grow to regret it. That’s not inconsistent with suicide being the right choice. We’d expect people to become suicidal at their worst point, so we should expect some reversion to the mean for most. But if suicidal people are reasonable about it, they’d leave some buffer – they price in the possibility of mean-reversion, so they don’t jump to being suicidal as soon as they can. They wait until they’re thoroughly convinced. And sure, if they don’t commit suicide, they’ll probably go back into the uncertainty band – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t kill themselves. And in general, we trust people to make their own decisions. Not because they’re always right, but because we don’t have a better method, and people’s judgement in the moment is generally the most accurate way to judge things.
The common sentiment is to treat each suicide as an unbearable catastrophe. This seems wrong. We have a lot of humans, and most of them are pretty easily replaceable. If anything it seems like it would be helpful for humans to be a little more k-selected, rather than keep everyone we possibly can alive.
Alternatively, we can think of internal experience as inherently valuable. But suicidal people are generally pretty miserable and probably have net negative internal experience anyway. Unless there’s some reason to assume things will suddenly get better for them (say if they’re in an abusive situation they can get out of soon), this doesn’t really change the calculation.
I’m not actively suicidal, but I’m increasingly convinced that I should be. In theory I have a lot of talents, but in practice I don’t seem to contribute much, and I seem to be a net drain on the people around me. There’s a limit on how much I can blame other people for this.
Is this evidence for or against the above argument? It’s at least consistent with it – it makes sense that I’d be in the uncertainty band, at least (I can come up with reasonable-sounding arguments for why I actually contribute more than I drain, or might in the future). I’ve only been convinced I shouldn’t exist for a few months now, maybe I just haven’t reached the tipping point yet.
There is one good counterargument: I have friends who are suicidal, and there are people I know who the world would probably be better off without. As far as I can tell, the two groups are entirely distinct (although, of course, plenty of suicidal people probably haven’t told me about it). My suicidal friends are some of the kindest, smartest, most helpful people I know. They’ve done a lot for the world. And they’ve done a lot for me.
But then, my judgement about worth might be suspect (remember, I’m one of the people who shouldn’t exist). But if my judgement’s that far off I can’t trust anything I say anyway, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.