Suicide watch seems to be relatively uncontroversial. Prisoners or patients who are believed to be suicidal are routinely monitored in order to prevent suicide attempts or to be able to engage in a successful rescue when an attempt occurs. There’s been an interesting story in the press lately about NYC’s “Jumper Squad“, a police unit specialized in trying to talk people out of jumping from bridges and rooftops.
Suicide watch is clearly paternalistic in most cases: if there are no dependent children or others who may incur serious harm resulting from someone’s suicide, then a suicide is strictly self-regarding. If a suicide does not, in general, harm anyone – apart from possibly the perpetrator – then why should anyone be allowed to stop it? Is deciding that someone else has to continue living not an unethical attack on people’s agency and free choice? Most of us have conflicting moral intuitions here: on the one hand, we feel strongly that we have to respect people’s right to make their own fundamental choices regarding their lives – especially when these choices do not harm others; on the other hand, when faced with an actual potential suicide – especially in the case of a loved one – we’ll do almost anything to stop it. We look for any shred of evidence that the person about to commit suicide isn’t clear-headed, hasn’t thought it through, isn’t really able to make an informed choice etc.
Let’s look at a fictional example. In the TV-series “The Walking Dead”, a young girl called Bethe is unable to cope with the zombie apocalypse and lies despondent in bed for several days. She ultimately decides to try to kill herself. When her friends discover her intentions she is placed on suicide watch. Friends take turns watching her. [Spoiler alert]. When it’s Andrea’s turn, she slips outside and leaves Bethe alone. Bethe then does indeed try to slit her wrists. It’s not clear if it’s a serious or half-hearted attempt, and neither do we know if Bethe is delusional, unstable or clearheaded. Andrea afterwards justifies her actions by saying that Bethe should be allowed to make her own choice and to find out whether she wants to die or live. The fact that the attempt failed proves to Andrea that Bethe really wants to live.
Given the following uncertainties about the case:
- Bethe’s state of mind cannot be correctly assessed – she may be either very clearheaded or completely delusional
- Bethe is a very young person, a fact which may render a judgment about her agency somewhat more difficult
- It’s not clear whether the attempt is “for real”, and neither can we tell whether the failure of the attempt proves that Bethe really wants to live
can we decide that her suicide watch was justified, or should we follow Andrea in letting her be?
More moral dilemmas here.