Madness, Social Issues, Violence

Informed Consent, Suicide, and the Ethics of Agency

If you use the internet, then you saw a lot about Robin Williams this summer. Or perhaps more accurately, you first saw a lot of people speculating about the impiety of suicide while posting links to crisis hotlines, and then after that a lot of people mourning the loss of a great actor. I don’t know Robin Williams–I never even met him briefly in a San Francisco park–so I can’t say much about him personally. However, to take the general case, say a man has struggled with a depressed outlook on life alongside drug and alcohol problems for many, many years. He has also created a prodigious body of work and positively affected the lives of millions. (Yes, there may be a debt to the world that we inherit by virtue of being born, but he has paid his.) He begins to develop Parkinson’s, a non-fatal but neurodegenerative disease that greatly affects one’s daily life in the long run. I would think that such a person has really tried to beat his demons, and lost. In my mind, his suicide seems like a sad but nonetheless thoughtful, informed decision. It is not my place to say he should have chosen differently.

Romeo and Juliet, on the other hand, were not practicing informed suicide. In their case–and in the case of most non-adults–I would think anti-suicide intervention not only reasonable, but necessary. Hospice care, on the other hand, is predicated on the idea that a person suffering from a terminal illness–including the illness of life, which shows symptoms of getting old–should be permitted to make their own end-of-life decisions. For example, a family member of mine has recently decided not to pursue additional treatment for his aggressive brain tumors. Surgery to remove the tumors could cause serious loss of cognitive functions, and he doesn’t want to spend his final days constantly traveling to and from the hospital in mentally diminished states. By declining the available “treatments”–which may or may not be effective in the battle against cancer–he chooses to end his life earlier than what otherwise might be possible. This seems like another informed kind of suicide. Continue reading