Suicide and Responsibility

Strange (or perhaps not), I have become rather numb to the constant attacks and shootings that have been happening during my adult life (The FBI reports that there has been 160 active-shooter situations the first 13 years of the millennium). I say –with the least intended morbidity– that I almost look forward to them, as an outlet from insulating this culture that we live in (mostly peaceful and rarely unsettled), from all of those of the past.
Although I would rather have a peaceful world, one without sickening violence and constant fear, it seems unattainable, so, I simply ask for congruence between what we experience today and the great minds of the past have experienced. Yet, this also seems phantom, as with each “terrorist” attack, with each school shooting, we remain insulated, we remain in a fantasy of safety; so, I continue to not be moved much, letting these tragedies fall to the wayside of history (and I don’t think I am alone in this).
We all let these terrible events come and go like a sigh, even large social disasters are lost to the next regime or empire (I mean how many of us actively reflect on the earthquake of 1811). The only thing that seems to be kept from these events are the deeper philosophical questions, the lessons that can be learned. Few things will draw me back into a thorough reflection of the specific event, I just don’t seem to be moved by the tragedy of the day.

This undated photo provided by the Lafayette Police Department shows John Russel Houser, in Lafayette, La. Authorities have identified Houser as the gunman who opened fire in a movie theater on Thursday, July 23, 2015, in Lafayette. (Lafayette Police Department via AP)

The recent tragedy in Lafayette, for some reason moved me. It wasn’t a special case, I don’t think there was anything in the details that made me feel sympathy. It seems to be the often repeated narrative that the shooter “took their own life” that made me stop and reflect.

I just don’t get it!

Why do people feel like their life is not worth living? What sort of implied beliefs bring someone to this act as being the most tenable option? Even more so, why take other people’s lives? How is there any justice in such a tragedy?

I, again, am not alone. Camus stated that this question of suicide was the one truly serious philosophical question. We must ask “whether life is or is not worth living.”

I think I have good reason (as I will briefly lay out) that this question (and it’s answers) derives out of tragedy, and that tragedy derives from the anxiety of making sense of nature and man’s place in it.

I think rather than working top down, it would be best to look at this anxiety.

What is man? What is our purpose? What is the meaning to all of this?

These are questions that every cognizant person asks at some point in their life; they have gone above the level of necessity (living to meet their basic needs) and have come to some self-actualization.
And these aren’t easy questions (which should be any indication of the depth at which the answers must reach). All around there are possible answers, some people point to religion, others to social progress, some to science and psychology, others to a cacophony of various points. These questions in reflection of nature will create anxiety.

Arthur Schopenhauer explained a scene that may add perspective

In Java a plain, as far as the eye could reach, entirely covered with skeletons, and took it for a battle-field; they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles,…which come this way out of the sea to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off the small shell from the stomach, and devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs

This is nature.

This brute survival, this battle between species, the natural scarcity, which causes a constant scourge for resources, all of this is life. But for humans, there is much more than just this. Our ability to socially cooperate and to communicate with one another has pulled us above and beyond any other animal. But not just that, we experience things like beauty and we create things we call art and literature, that make us unique and different than just animals. So, we balance this amoral chaos with a seemingly ordered, anthropocentric universe. We are the rational animal. We see the world for what it is but see ourselves as being moral agents, capable of changing our nature, changing the brutality of survival.

Schopenhauer states that this, our default moral character, demonstrates the most valuable form of tragedy “because it shows us the greatest misfortune not as an exception, not as something brought about by rare circumstances or monstrous characters, but rather something that develops effortlessly and spontaneously out of people’s deeds and characters, almost as if it were essential, thereby bringing it terribly close to us.” And he concludes the above image, which paints survival as a dim reality, with the fact that Man is not any better. “Yet even the human race…reveals in itself with most terrible distinctiveness this conflict, this variance of the will with itself; and we find homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to his fellow man).”


Humankind, then, puts itself back among the animals, although there is a sense that it is something separate or different. But humans want to be special, we have foresight and cognitive tools that allow us to not only live in the world, but to construct a world that is separate and unique.

We try to pull ourselves out of this brute nature with Society.

We have an innate social order in us that is conducive to our survival, but society is more than this; it is an evolution of this and has taken on it’s own place in the human experience. Even if it is partially constructed, no person is excusable, this isn’t something that can be opted out of. Ludwig Von Mises, neo-classical economist that founded what is commonly known as the Austrian school of economy, had much to say about society and the individual:

Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders, no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us.

Sartre follows this sentiment:

…Man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.

Whoa. Woe. That seems like much more responsibility than most are ready for.

I don’t think this idea (that you are responsible for everybody else) is an idea that most people are prepared to deal with and actually give much thought to. Some will outright reject this, claiming that autonomy trumps any form of society, but just as much as society is constructed, so too is the individual. In fact, one may argue that the individual can only be fostered, and thus created, through the society. As John Donne says, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;” This is not the argument to be had here, but assume (as most do) that the individual is just as important as society as a whole (because the society is a conglomerate of individuals), and that society, then, is important. I am responsible for not just me and my actions, but the whole of society, as each action I take will effect others. And this is a lot of pressure. This creates anxiety.

So, how do we respond?

One way, the most common way, is to reject it. We reject the anxiety by pretending the natural absurdity that exist, the very state of mankind, is just non-existent. One way in which rejection of the absurd emerges, is through distraction ( and this is probably the majority response). We distract ourselves with political commentary, entertainment, and what ever the fancy of the day is. We don’t stop to consider, we ignore the response to this question entirely.

Suicide, then, is just another way that rejection arises, one way in which rejection of the absurd comes to head. Suicide, homicide, abuse (etc.), these are all self-perpetuated forms of tragedy. Rejection of the absurdity of man in this tragic existence is not a viable response. Creating tragedy does not displace tragedy.

Sartre again:

The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions…and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the “divine irresponsibility” of the condemned man.

To live absurd is to not distract or to reject our lot.

Tragedy is natural, there are the stark brutal realities of nature, and then there is man, and we struggle to fit in with this seemingly bleak picture, so we often distract ourselves or reject ourselves. Camus, Sartre (et al.), they would say this is inauthentic; rather, we ought to embrace ourselves. We ought to live life embracing the absurd (or at least the appearance of the absurd) along side the other things; the joy, the wonderment, the happiness, all of it!

Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men. (Camus; Sisyphus)

We must not allow some vain idea of fate or tragedy dictate our actions entirely, unless, if for nothing else, to give us strength to climb the hill once more. I won’t let the tragedies that are brought about by human hands do anything but persuade me to keep searching, keep hoping, for a greater truth, knowledge, and wisdom for Man and our place in nature.



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