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    Did Aaron Swartz Commit Rational Suicide?
    By Sascha Vongehr | January 15th 2013 06:35 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Sascha

    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    Aaron H. Swartz was one of the most outspoken and hands-on activists for the transparency movement, which I largely support. He was especially active with open access issues and copyright reform.  He was part of the team that built an early version of Reddit and the widely-used RSS protocol, which he worked on at age 14, and there is more to his name inspite of his young age.  But he committed suicide in New York last Friday. 

    Now, like so many creative and far above average intelligent people, he killed himself; he was only 26.

     

    Although we find much rationality in all he has done before and generally sneer upon the suggestion that something like wanting kids could be possibly irrational, there seems to be no question in this case:  Aaron acted irrationally, because there cannot, must not be rational suicide.  And yet, more and more of the most rational people commit suicide.  Suicide rates are increasing especially in technologically advanced and secular societies like Japan’s and Denmark’s, but suicide rates are climbing in almost all subcultures and groups, say among students or soldiers (this year is yet again a record year for suicide among US soldiers).

    Measures of well-being and positive affect are no longer naïve about people having to keep up a happy façade, and suicides rates increase along with those measures [Daly 2011].  The conclusion that depression is especially distressing if surrounded by happy people seems ad hoc and too convenient.  Modernization implies individualization and rising suicide rates for a long time to come.  What distinguishes the modern person, say a highly educated baby boomer in her midlife crisis, is a "postmodern" moral relativism and neo-enlightenment about human irrationality, about that consciousness is anyway merely a sort of self-delusion, and suspicion about the idea that one is an actor rather than merely an observer of one’s actions, a crisis of the idea of agency and responsibility, all accompanied and enhanced with the cold utilitarianism that is exercised by functioning in a technologically and socially demanding environment that requires ever ongoing re-adaptation.

    Source: Read more about Aaron and his battle with US “justice” on motherboard here.

    We must address suicide anew in order to be meaningful in such a modern perception, where the traditional response fails to reach the target audience, because the usual reaction is, in that very perspective at least, naively moralist, or even the dishonest self-interested demand of an exploitative society that one for whatever reason does not consent with or feels abandoned by.  Should I kill myself?” needs an honest answer that respects the validity of that perception of modern individuals who contemplate suicide, as we all do, since all ethical people ask "What should I do?"

    Decision theory is based on rational actors being defined via aiming for non-regret after decisions.  Especially in the presence of large uncertainty, when I cannot know the regret in the future situations that my decisions will lead to, suicide is clearly a rational answer, because non-regret is guarantied.  For a highly intelligent and moreover rational person, the question is not whether I should kill myself, but what "I" exactly is and how much of it should I kill.

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    Daly, M.C.; Oswald, A.J.; Wilson, D.; Wu,S.: “Dark contrasts: The paradox of high rates of suicide in happy places.”Journal of Economic Behavior&Organization 80(3), 435-442 (2011)

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    Comments

    Industrial, post-industrial and westernized societies do not address suicidality and its causative and related distressors.

    Very, very few researchers and even fewer clinicians address suicidality. But we create, perpetuate and celebrate the conditions which lead to suicidality and unbearable psychache. Suicide is a rational choice when people are suffering permanent harms such as ostracism (especially that of whistle-blowers, whose suicidality rates are over 50% and all of whom suffer multiple harms), psychache and other forms of mental torture.

    The Incompatible With Life blog is where I chronicled my efforts to mine the research and try to find effective help for suicidality. The Reading List page includes most of the major research and clinical resources. It is notably anemic.

    More eyes from every discipline and especially from those who are interested in social justice will help.

    mhlongmeyer
    For a highly intelligent and moreover rational person, the question is not whether I should kill myself, but what "I" exactly is and how much of it should I kill.
    It appears that you define rational people simply as those who become ever more aware of how little control they have over their own actions (and, how much their own brain is trying to hide that fact from them).  When they find, despite this ever-growing awareness, that they remain unable to gain more control, suicide appears preferable as an alternative to less than total control.  It sounds like you might limit the term "suicide" to identifying and eliminating, if possible, those parts of you that are trying to delude you, leaving what is left of you (the purely rational) to see and function more perfectly.

    As an alternative, maybe these rational people should use their growing awareness to try to accommodate and make the best use of the parts of themselves they cannot control.  Even if awareness never leads to direct control, maybe one can listen to the uncontrollable parts, take them for what they are worth, and even steer them in preferred directions.  In some circumstances, people with that capability might succeed where the purely "rational" would fail.  (Whatever "succeed" means.)  We'll never find out, however, if the people with the most awareness decide to quit rather than undertake the experiment.
    vongehr
    you define rational people simply as those who become ever more aware of how little control they have over their own actions (and, how much their own brain is trying to hide that fact from them).
    "Rational actor" := maximizes a utility U via decision/game theory.  New-enlightenment takes this rationality and asks for the rationality of the arbitrary utility U.  It demands a justification via decision theory (how to decide what U to maximize).  In that sense, you are right with "who become ever more aware of", as they get down to ever further layers of utilities that justify utilities.
    It sounds like you might limit the term "suicide" to identifying and eliminating, if possible, those parts of you that are trying to delude you, leaving what is left of you (the purely rational) to see and function more perfectly.
    Well, "purely rational" is of course the problem.  But mindfulness does aim to create a "meta-rational" component that observes my own irrationality.
    We'll never find out, however, if the people with the most awareness decide to quit rather than undertake the experiment.
    That is the absurd self-consistency of suicidal philosophy (rather than philosophy of suicide).  The Zen that sells itself is not Zen.
    Gerhard Adam
    As we've discussed before, part of the problem is defining what we mean by "rational" and whether some arbitrary criteria such as an optimal outcome, or non-regret is something that is actually measurable.

    In my view, such an assessment is impossible, since such values are always subjective.  Consequently most of our notions regarding rationality are based on what other people think, rather than providing any insight into what the actual individual involved thinks. 

    So, the real question remaining is whether the individual is actually evaluating their choices and reaching a conclusion that is rational to them, or whether they are merely responding to an emotional crisis generated in their brain that is out of proportion to the situation being evaluated.
    Mundus vult decipi
    vongehr
    defining what we mean by "rational" and whether some arbitrary criteria such as an optimal outcome, or non-regret is something that is actually measurable. ... such an assessment is impossible, since such values are always subjective.
    Regret is reported by the system saying in some way:  "I envy the situation where I decided differently; if I could; I would change the outcome."
    This is the subjective start before any continuous measure U can be considered as the one I may not regret.
    Consequently most of our notions regarding rationality are based on what other people think
    That is the social norm, what is given to me as "should", and precisely what individualism holds suspicious and insufficiently justified.
    So, the real question remaining is whether the individual is actually evaluating their choices and reaching a conclusion that is rational to them,
    Yes
    or whether they are merely responding to an emotional crisis generated in their brain that is out of proportion to the situation being evaluated
    No idea what any of this means, but it sure looks like "emotional crisis" and "out of proportion" belong to the vocabulary that is in doubt.
    John Hasenkam
    If a person sacrifices their life to save another we that a person a hero. Yet there is no often rationality to that decision, especially if the person saved was a stranger and may be an oxygen bandit. In wars lots of soldiers in essence commit suicide. We often call them heroes. So to kill yourself to stop others' suffering is heroic, to kill yourself to stop your suffering is irrational. 
    but what "I" exactly is and how much of it should I kill.
    Bukowksi has a wonderful paragraph on that .... 



    When I was young I was depressed all the time. But suicide no longer seemed a possibility in my life. At my age there was very little left to kill. It was good to be old, no matter what they said. It was reasonable that a man had to be at least 50 years old before he could write with anything like clarity. The more rivers you crossed, the more you know about the rivers - that is, if you survived the white water and the hidden rocks. It could be a rough cob, sometimes.


    "Women", page 244.(my emphases)


    Studies show again and again that we get older we generally become happier. Yet age often makes life more demanding and we become less capable. So stuff you Knut Hamsun author of unbridled pessimism. 

    If you have suffered too much pain in your life, if that rough cob has broken too many psychic bones, death loses its fear. People who think suicide is irrational are often people who have not suffered enough to know that what is life affirming, what keeps us going, is not a reason but the daily experience of our lives. I've been through too much shit in my life, there are days when I wake up and ask myself why do I bother? I don't know. There are days when I think they should have just let die on the operating table, it wasn't worth the effort and the outcome of my life hardly justifies all that effort. I have next to nothing to offer this world. I don't care because I don't believe in I. I did not create I so why should I be responsible for I? 


    Quentin Rowe
    ...the question is not whether I should kill myself, but what "I" exactly is and how much of it should I kill.
    So really, this article is not about suicide, but is using suicide as a vehicle of understanding, Sascha style.

    So we should perhaps discuss the boundaries of self-identity, which to me is a vast and wide-ranging subject. I think of a game that gives you three lives, and the strategies of 'winning' is to get the maximum points from each life. I recall playing earlier (now vintage) games where I would just give up the game if my first life didn't score so well, but learned later that sometimes you could hang on by a thread onto the last life and score quite well in a game. Perhaps we could equate these three lives with the three stages of a typically long-lived human life. Some folks give up if the early stages of their lives are tough, but others, in adversity, can hang on too the bitter end.

    In terms of what you 'should' do, it could be looked at as a kind of menu of choices of action or To Do list. For example:

    8. ...
    7. Raise Family/Discover theory of everything (it ain't gonna be both!)
    6. Pursue career
    5. Find partner
    4. Party&have fun for fun's sake
    3. Seek warmth shelter&love
    2. Seek help
    1. Commit suicide (die by action)
    0. Do nothing (die by non-action)

    This is extremely simplified, and would function in the sense that as each higher level was blocked or thwarted, you would revert to the next available option. This example highlights the emotional&social reasons for suicide, and that the 'list' is generally provided by society. This has been my experience in life when I have found myself nearer to zero on the great 'Do's List' of life.

    I recall a nature program showing the plight of a wounded cheetah. She limped off into the long grass and quietly died. From her point of view, this would surely have been the most natural&obvious course of action/non-action, and perhaps a wonderful experience.

    But back to identity. It could be argued that we die at every given moment and are born anew, with a new but similar self, that identifies with the momentary past self by virtue of similarity. Or, how and where is the experience of a group stored? Say, a large gathering that experiences a beautiful concert together, and years later reminisce together in a forum. Is it that shared and equal feeling felt at the time or invoked from discussion?


    There was your earlier article, pointing out that if an woman jumps from a high enough building in order to die, then she will not experience the impact due to neurological delays. An important point missed in that article was, that from the point of view of the 'fallee', she never existed, as there is no longer a place for her memories to be stored. Of course, this applies to all beings. We never existed, from our internal point of view.

    Then, the big one for me, we all seem to share the same sense of 'I', so that anyone born after my death might just as well be me. And for that matter, anyone born before my birth might just as well be me. 'I' is timeless. If we add to this the modal universe view, this lets in more confusion. How can it even be possible to have an individual sense of 'I'?

    The short answer is that the sense of 'I' is built into the situation at hand. If it involves a human body, it is not hard to define the boundaries, but is is also easy to blur them. An astronomer gazing through a telescope at a distant galaxy has blurred the boundary by light years. A soldier marching in step has blurred his personal boundary via a social contract.