…reality is the starting point, and one cannot engage in debates about why one should prefer it—to nothing. Nor can one ask for some more basic value the pursuit of which validates the decision to remain in reality. The commitment to remain in the realm of that which is, is precisely what cannot be debated; because all debate (and all validation) takes place within that realm and rests on that commitment. About every concrete within the universe and about every human evaluation of these, one can in some context ask questions or demand proofs. In regard to the sum of reality as such, however, there is nothing to do but grasp: it is—and then, if the fundamental alternative confronts one, bow one’s head in a silent “amen,” amounting to the words: “This is where I shall fight to stay.”Leonard Peikoff, “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”
Peikoff’s argument is a proof by contradiction: since you are already pre-committed to remaining in reality in the very act of debating the issue, any conclusion which denies that premise is self-contradictory. Since choosing to die implies a contradiction, it cannot be rationally justified, and therefore cannot be morally justified. No one can exit the realm of morality guiltlessly.1
Peikoff unfortunately continues from this point to argue in favor of suicide:
Suicide is justified when man’s life, owing to circumstances outside of a person’s control, is no longer possible; an example might be a person with a painful terminal illness, or a prisoner in a concentration camp who sees no chance of escape. In cases such as these, suicide is not necessarily a philosophic rejection of life or of reality. On the contrary, it may very well be their tragic reaffirmation. Self-destruction in such contexts may amount to the tortured cry: “Man’s life means so much to me that I will not settle for anything less. I will not accept a living death as a substitute.”
On the one hand he says the commitment to life is axiomatic, and that there is no justifiable basis for questioning it, and on the other hand that suicide is justified if one’s condition is hopeless.
I submit that this is a contradiction. This defense of suicide is inconsistent with the basic moral premises of the philosophy. The mistake here is derivative, not fundamental. The philosophy as a whole is sound, but the position on suicide is not.
To deal with his position as charitably as possible: his justification is reminiscent of Rand’s “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”, where she values one’s “metaphysical self-preservation” over and above one’s “physical preservation”, and she argues for keeping one’s integrity and one’s metaphysical view of reality intact, regardless of the consequences, even if it leads to one’s death. Rand’s argument is not to violate one’s moral code, to not collaborate with an enemy or play their game. I wholeheartedly agree, in circumstances where one faces such a choice, one should not for example steal from another in order to live, or in her example, that one should not give up the names of one’s allies in the face of torture or a firing squad, in the name of integrity, in the name of the best in man and addressing his essential nature, even when he has become a monster.
But this doesn’t justify taking one’s own life. That is an act compromising one’s own moral integrity, and it is not a noble crying out in the name of a benevolent metaphysical view of man and reality, but rather a tortured cry of one who has accepted a malevolent metaphysical view of man and reality, and refuses to go on in that world2. So indeed the act of suicide has exactly the opposite nature as what he tries to attribute to it.
Suicide is not an “affirmation of life”
Consider Roark, for whom suffering “only goes down to a certain point”. Because he can create, because he can achieve positive values, nothing else can seem very important, and ultimately, “it’s not really pain”.
Or consider Dagny: she did not believe in suffering. She would not allow pain to become important. She knew that “it does not count – it is not to be taken seriously” – “even in the moments when there was nothing left within her but screaming and she wished she could lose the faculty of consciousness”.
As John Galt said, “I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence.” We exist for earning rewards. That is what motivates us, that is why we act – not for escaping pain. Pain is not going to make us function; it is not an incentive that gives us fuel.
To commit suicide, purely for the sake of escaping pain – so far from being an affirmation of what life ought to be, it would be a declaration that suffering is necessarily a part of life, that it is important and that it does matter. It is the rejection of the belief that “suffering is unimportant, and is only to be fought and thrown aside and not accepted as a meaningful part of one’s view of existence”.
To affirm life is to continue to seek happiness despite the tragedy and hopelessness of the situation. One cannot affirm one’s life by destroying it. In Peikoff’s own words:
if the fundamental alternative confronts one, bow one’s head in a silent “amen,” amounting to the words: “This is where I shall fight to stay.”
That is an affirmation of life.
Positive values are possible despite suffering
In psychology there is a concept known as resilience. Resilience is the ability to adjust one’s expectations and one’s goals according to one’s circumstances – even in the face of a dramatic change of one’s circumstances, as in the case of devastating loss or extreme suffering (or to use Peikoff’s examples, in the case of a painful terminal illness, or being a prisoner in a concentration camp where one can see no chance of escape). It is the ability to stay optimistic and look on the positive side – to seek and to find good things that are within one’s range.
Consider the findings of a recent study: “Locked-in patients trapped inside their paralyzed bodies have told doctors they are ‘happy’ using an astonishing new brain computer interface which deciphers their thoughts… On seven out of 10 occasions the patients said they were happy despite their utterly debilitating condition”.
Or consider the case of Christopher Reeves, as Louie describes:
[To] give up life because you were once a famous actor and are now a quadripalegic is plainly cowardly and foolish… to give up as soon as life is a bit tough, or needing to alter what usually makes you happiest. Changing course isn’t the end.
If Reeves committed suicide he would have achieved less than he was capable of – it would have been self-sacrificial. And yet if Reeves held himself to the same standard of being an able-bodied Superman actor, something more than that of which he was capable, he would have achieved nothing but failure – and still would not have achieved the things he could have, which would be equally self-destructive and self-sacrificial. So the fault with a former athlete or actor, for example, who decides to commit suicide because they can no longer pursue their previous career, is that they lack resilience (the movie “Me Before You” dramatizes exactly this issue).
Even in pain and suffering one can love life, and realize that it is priceless opportunity that one should get the most out of that one can before it is gone.
In this depression and dreadful uninterrupted suffering, I don’t condemn life. On the contrary, I like it and find it good. Can you believe it? I find everything good and pleasant, even my tears, my grief. I enjoy weeping, I enjoy my despair. I enjoy being exasperated and sad. I feel as if these were so many diversions, and I love life in spite of them all. I want to live on. It would be cruel to have me die when I am so accommodating. I cry, I grieve, and at the same time I am pleased – no, not exactly that – I know not how to express it. But everything in life pleases me. I find everything agreeable, and in the very midst of my prayers for happiness, I find myself happy at being miserable. It is not I who undergo all this – my body weeps and cries; but something inside of me which is above me is glad of it all.Marie Bashkirtseff (found in “Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James)
Note that she said “I love life in spite of them all” – she loves the positives in life in spite of the negatives.
Other experiences are present despite that pain, and those are valuable to some degree. Better yet, with a proper mindset, that pain diminishes to entirely bearable. As a minor example, my knee hurts a bit if I focus on pain from a minor injury, but it goes to the back of my mind as other experiences matter more and are present as a degree of pleasure. The proper attitude would reduce it to manageable levels; only a real nihilist may say existing at all is an excruciating horror.
I’m not saying pain is unreal, or only the fault of bad thinking. The point is that with a good attitude, the pain will be there, but it isn’t going to be so bad that life is impossible. Difficult, yes, but people can cope. Attaining and reaching for value is always possible. This may appear awful, terrible, a “clawing for life” perhaps. Here is where I agree with the word “reification”, that is, making pain into something more than it is. In fact, the pursuit of life is there, the values are there – life didn’t stop. Nothing about her nature as a person ceased.Eioul on Objectivism Online
What these people are reporting, and others can personally corroborate, is that pain and pleasure are not mutually exclusive values on a single continuum. One can be in pain, and yet feel pleasure. One can be suffering, but happy. They are independent variables.
Every positive thing one can experience, from the simplest joy of opening one’s eyes and enjoying the view, is still a positive, despite any level of suffering that is happening at the time. The pain cannot take that positive away. Joy is not “the absence of pain”.
Such positive values do exist for anyone who is conscious at all. As I quoted from Eioul, “only a real nihilist may say existing at all is an excruciating horror.” You exist for the sake of enjoying those values, and every action you take should be for the sake of that end.
Reducing suffering is a means to an end
There is always room for rational risk-taking as a means to pursue one’s values, even significant risks. Risking one’s life in a military context, for example, is the defense of one’s life, it is the pursuit of life and the pursuit of happiness. It is exactly the opposite of making a deliberate choice to die. An irrational risk is a tradeoff in which the reward, in terms of one’s life and happiness, is less than what one is risking. In the case of suicide, one is sacrificing one’s life and happiness entirely – there is no tradeoff at all there! A soldier is risking his life for the sake of his quest to pursue life and happiness. Suicide does not serve such a quest.
And this is not to say that pain is a good thing, either; pain is a miserable evil that ought to be fought. Pain and suffering are terrible afflictions, and if someone you loved were suffering, you would want to do everything you can to help them find relief. Pain medication is a good thing. Even if one wanted to risk one’s life with a dangerously high dosage it can be worth it. Pain interferes with one’s thinking, one’s values, and one’s actions. A person in tremendous pain can and sometimes should take a dangerous risk with pain medication in order to bring themselves to a more functional level, and it would be right to assist them in doing so. There is always room for rational risk-taking, even significant risks like in military contexts, or in this case taking high doses of pain medication. There is a risk, but it is a rational risk taken for the sake of a reward; it is ultimately for the sake of life and happiness.
The pursuit of eliminating suffering is a good up until the point that it becomes an absurdity: where you are sacrificing your ultimate value – your life – for a lesser value: the relief of suffering. That is not a moral choice.
1) Gotthelf, “The Choice to Value,” p. 44
She had to escape from Jim, she thought. Where?–she asked, looking around her with a glance like a cry of prayer… the harder she worked, the more malevolence she would draw from the people around her, and she would not know when truth would be expected of her and when a lie, but the stricter her honesty, the greater the fraud she would be asked to suffer at their hands…
Now she knew that they were not exceptions, that theirs was the code accepted by the world, that it was a creed of living, known by all, but kept unnamed, leering at her from people’s eyes in that sly, guilty look she had never been able to understand–and at the root of the creed, hidden by silence, lying in wait for her in the cellars of the city and in the cellars of their souls, there was a thing with which one could not live.
…Cheryl, Atlas Shrugged
Then the girl screamed–and the scream went beating against the blank walls of the street as in a chamber of torture, an animal scream of terror. She tore her arm loose and sprang back, then screamed in articulate sounds: “No! No! Not your kind of world!”