Ending something does not entail denying its value.
Note: edited from original 2008 version, all links updated.
In 1959, the artist Robert Rauschenberg asked the much older and more established artist Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing so that he could erase it. Eventually, de Kooning gave him a drawing, executed in heavy crayon, grease pencil, graphite, and ink. Over the course of a month, Rauschenberg erased the drawing and mounted it in a gold frame. View a large image of it here – it’s a beautiful object, evocative and moving in its silence.
I relate this here in response to J. David Velleman, whose “A Right of Self-Termination?” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 606-628) presents an ethical argument against a moral right to suicide, at least suicide committed in order to make things better for oneself.
The core of the paper’s argument is that it is wrong for a person to kill himself in his own interest, because by doing so, he devalues that which inheres to him – his dignity, in Kantian terms – that is not his to evaluate, but belongs rather to all of humanity. Velleman thinks that we ought to defer to a person to judge what is in his interests – he just does not think that killing oneself in one’s own interest is morally permissible “solely on the grounds of the benefits [one] will thereby obtain or the harms [one] will avoid.”
Velleman proposes that there is a special kind of value to every person, that logically must exist if his interests are to matter. It is an answer to the question, why should we act in the interests of other people? The answer is, because people matter. This mattering Velleman equates with Kantian dignity, which is further equated with man’s rational nature. (The capacity to rationally choose one’s ends is what gives a person dignity, in Kantian terms.)
Dignity is the reason we respect people (and respect their wishes). Velleman argues that suicide is a form of rejecting this dignity – and that we don’t have the right to do that, because it is not ours to reject, exactly, but a feature of humanity. (Compare this thinking to the moral claim of suicide contagion.) This dignity, says Velleman, is “a value that [a person] possesses by virtue of being one of us, and the value of being one of us is not his alone to assess or defend. The value of being a person is therefore something larger than any particular person who embodies it.” Therefore we don’t have the right to destroy it. It’s not just that suicide is failing to treat oneself with the respect due to persons, though it is certainly that, according to Velleman – it’s that suicide undermines respect for persons in general.
The story of the paper is this. Professor Velleman had cancer (in real life). A few years ago he was sitting around after dinner at a philosophy conference with some colleagues and a few people were smoking. One of the smoking professors said something about how he knew smoking would probably kill him, but that his enjoyment of smoking outweighed the probable early death it would cause him. Velleman, fresh from the chemo table, was deeply offended. Over the years, he came to realize that, by joking about trading life for pleasure, the professor was implying that human life lacks serious value (dignity), dehumanizing not only himself but Professor Velleman as well. The core of the paper, as I see it, is this:
My host’s remarks implied that an early death, of the sort he was risking and I was hoping to forestall, would be a loss to him that could be offset by sufficient gains. But what would it matter how much I lost or gained if I myself would be no loss? My gains or losses would merit concern only on the basis of concern for me – which, being the basis of concern for them, could not then be offset by that concern. Hence my gains or losses wouldn’t matter unless I had value that could not be offset by theirs.
My host was implicitly denying the existence of such a value. For he claimed that death was worth worrying about only in respects for which he could be compensated by the pleasures of smoking. He was thus implicitly denying the interest-independent value of a person, without which it couldn’t really matter whether I lived or died.
In an appendix to the piece, Velleman responds to criticisms from Professor F. M. Kamm, in her article “Physician-Assisted Suicide, the Doctrine of the Double Effect, and the Ground of Value” (Ethics 109 (April 1999): 586-605). Kamm calls one of Velleman’s arguments the Exchange Argument, and interprets it to mean (correctly, says Velleman) that it is forbidden to exchange the intrinsic value of one’s humanity merely to benefit one’s interests, as in suicide or some kind of voluntary slavery. But, Kamm says,
According to Kant, beautiful things (e.g., art) have a value beyond price, though not the dignity that persons have. Most would say (though perhaps Kant would not, given his theory of beauty) that beautiful things have intrinsic value, even if no one cares about them and they satisfy no human interests. Yet we may permissibly exchange beautiful things for money or food. The permissibility of exchanging them for things that have interest-relative value and a market price does not imply, I believe, that they only have interest-relative value. It implies that what has intrinsic aesthetic value has only finite value and could be permissibly exchanged for what has only interest-relative value (e.g., food). But this does not show that beautiful things have only interest-relative value rather than intrinsic aesthetic value. That we can exchange one thing for another does not mean that they share the same essential nature or type of value. The same might be true of persons.
Velleman responds that the painting analogy fails, because when we sell a painting, we are not destroying it, but entrusting it into the care of another art appreciator. A better analogy, says Velleman, would be burning a painting in the fireplace because one has run out of kindling. “But then,” says Velleman, “burning an artwork for kindling would ordinarily be objectionable. Not coincidentally, it’s also what would be analogous to self-interested suicide.”
But I think that analogy fails as well. I am so glad I heard about that empty, erased de Kooning drawing, because there is the proper analogy for a suicide, and, I think, a serious objection to Velleman here. The act of erasing or destroying does not imply a lack of respect. There is such a thing as respectful erasing. Rauschenberg could believe heartily in the value of de Kooning’s drawing – in fact, the drawing’s artistic value is key to the work’s success – and still, with the consent of de Kooning, erase it. Similarly, I think it is possible to commit suicide without implying that human life, and even one’s own life, lacks value or dignity.
In many cases, as with the de Kooning, the absence of the thing is what heightens its value. When I saw the erased de Kooning, I immediately thought of Miller Williams’ poem “The Curator,” in which a young assistant curator at the Hermitage in Leningrad comes up with a scheme to ship all the paintings out of the city to avoid their destruction by the German bombs. They ship the paintings out, but leave the frames up to make it easier to put things back in their place when the war is over. Williams says:
Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.
Russian soldiers come to the Hermitage from all over Russia, and are disappointed that the paintings are gone, so the staff gives tours despite their absence. And gradually the tour of this “Unseen Collection” becomes more popular:
We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves.
Eventually, blind people begin to come for the tour. Eventually, of course, the war is over and the paintings are replaced, but the blind people never come back, and people don’t pay quite as much attention as before.
Can one erase a person in such a manner? Certainly, many who have been erased by death are still valued. Although rational choosing must cease at death, I do not believe that the thing that causes people to matter ceases at death. It is strange that one’s biological life – and, especially, one’s rational capacity – should be the basis for one’s intrinsic claim to matter.
It might even occasionally be true that killing someone else could be done out of respect for his dignity, as in Sharon Olds’ poem “Things That Are Worse Than Death,” in which the speaker imagines killing her son in order to save him from being tortured by the police. An excerpt:
You are speaking of Chile,
of the woman who was arrested
with her husband and their five-year-old son.
You tell how the guards tortured the woman, the man, the child,
in front of each other,
“as they like to do.”
Things that are worse than death.
I can see myself taking my son’s ash-blond hair in my fingers,
tilting back his head before he knows what is happening,
slitting his throat, slitting my own throat
to save us that.
And in the recent novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road, a father in a post-apocalyptic horror of a world is constantly aware that he might have to kill his son to spare him from being raped, tortured, and eaten by cannibals. Late in the novel, the father and son find a baby lying abandoned over a smoldering cooking fire. It is certainly reasonable to conclude that the father’s actions, in keeping his son alive in such a world, are wrong – that he has failed to respect his son’s dignity and value by keeping him alive even more than the baby’s parents have failed to respect his dignity by burning him as if to eat him. (Some theories of familicide, the killing of spouse and children, including data regarding the virtual male monopoly of familicide compared with more equal gender ratios in killings of children alone, seem to suggest that real killings of children are generally motivated by proprietary feelings, rather than committed out of pure concern for the children’s dignity. But the possibility remains.)
And many of us feel that such a world – such an unending stream of horrors – is already upon us, and perhaps has been since humanity’s inception. For many people, the only way to genuinely respect themselves is to erase themselves.