Re: PHIL: Extropy, Boundaries and Suicide

GBurch1 (
Sat, 28 Feb 1998 12:41:16 EST

In a message dated 98-02-24 19:24:52 EST, Darren Reynolds wrote:

> [snip]
> How does one distinguish an event which
> CAUSED my death from one which merely FAILED TO PREVENT it? I challenge
> anyone to produce a satisfactory criterion. Again, there is no stark
> boundary. There are only differences in the degree to which one event
> contributes to another.

Lawyers and jurists have been struggling with this question for as long as
there is a record of law. Among the most insightful discussions of causation
in law and ethics ever written is the decision of the great Benjamin Cardozo
in Palsgraf v. Long Island Rail Co., 248 N.Y. 399, 162 N.E. 99 (1928). The
Keystone Cops facts of that case served as the focus of Cardozo's unraveling
of the concepts of duty, breach, cause in fact, proximate cause and harm.
Among the brilliant observations to be found in Palsgraf:

The risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed,
and risk imports relation; it is risk to another or to others within
the range of apprehension.

What we do mean by the word ‘proximate' [in causation] is that,
because of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of
justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events
beyond a certain point. This is not logic. It is practical politics.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the toughest application of these principles is to
situations in which the basic duty of one person to another is unclear or
subject to reasonable doubt. It is not cause, per se, that concerns you,
Darren, but duty.

> The introductory message to this list claims that Extropians may have an
> interest in "rational ethics (ethics for survival and flourishing)". This
> must surprise a lot of list members, who seem to take a far more
> libertarian view of ethics. Many here seem to take the view that it's OK to
> do what you like, so long as you don't harm anyone else. I challenge those
> people to place a boundary around causing "harm to anyone else". Every
> action a person takes will affect every other person to some small extent.
> You can't live your life without causing harm to someone else. All you can
> do is mitigate the degree of harm whilst promoting your objectives. I for
> one have an interest in the "rational ethics" declared in the introduction.

The answer lies not in conundrums of causation, but in an analysis of duty and
costs. Every action has consequences, intended and unintended, foreseeable
and surprising, proximate and attenuated. While I have a duty to not trespass
upon another, I also have a duty to protect myself from the unexpected, the
unintended and the attenuated results of others' actions. This duty is the
price of life in society. As it happens, in most instances protecting myself
from such things is far less expensive than protecting others from the
unlikely and distant results of my own actions. Through reasonable caution,
insurance and other financial and social risk-shifting devices, I create a
buffer zone of protection around myself that makes life with others possible.

> Which brings me, finally, to the point.
> Someone you know, rationally, carefully and thoughtfully, decides that it
> is time to end their life. Such an action has a number of easily
> identifiable anti-Extropic effects.
> What is the right thing to do? Do you give the person their liberty, or do
> you exercise your "ethics for survival and flourishing" and forcibly remove
> it?

This is one of the toughest problems of a rational ethics that prizes
individual liberty. On the one hand, one presumes that individual autonomy is
the bedrock of a rational ethics. On the other, a paramount value on life
itself seems to be the sine qua non of any POSSIBILITY of sane moral action.
For myself, I cut this Gordian knot in favor of judging any suicide by a being
not experiencing intolerable pain with an organic cause as so irrational, so
inconsistent with any sane view of life itself, that such a person has lost at
least some of their rights to autonomy. In this view, the truly self-
destructive person becomes, in a sense the adversary of his rational friends:
He may wish to kill himself, but that wish is in opposition to the judgment of
others that the would-be suicide be returned to a rational view of the
paramount value of life. For those who care about the self-destructive
person, a duty arises to stop the suicide and to provide assistance to them,
away with himself desires that end strongly enough, they will simply accept
the opposition of their friends as a condition of "success" in their desire to

This is not an entirely satisfactory solution to what is, at its essence, a
moral paradox. Rather, it comes from "a rough sense of justice . . . This is
not logic. It is practical politics." The practical politics of friendship.

Greg Burch <>----<>
Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
-- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover