The meaning of life — and suicide

Economists have long attracted criticism for saying “you don’t need anything; you just want things,” and then rejecting the (common) response of “what about air? I need air to live” with the rejoinder “you don’t need to live, you just want to live… Suicides provide proof of that difference.”

This post is not pro-suicide. I am putting suicide into a larger context. If you have suicidal thoughts, then get help from others who have experienced and overcome such thoughts. Here’s more from US, British and Dutch health authorities. 

Indeed, we see copycat suicides by those who admire someone who killed themselves. We see (willing) suicide bombers who kill themselves for their cause. We see soldiers on “suicide missions” who are willing to die for their country or comrades. In less-violent terms, we also see humans and other species where individuals forgo their chance to reproduce to help raise the offspring of others, for a mix of personal and collective reasons.

Indeed, we see many communities and states where “genetic suicide” via a range of (in)actions ranging from withdrawing from mating to running towards certain death has contributed to the group’s survival and prosperity. These are cases in which self-sacrifice strengthens collective outcomes and thus increases “group fitness.”

We (as a group) have not lost our ability to have suicidal thoughts, but you (as an individual) don’t need to let them run your life. What you need is a way of re-framing thoughts of worthlessness or self-sacrifice into a goal of long-run effectiveness that works because you make a difference not once but many times. Killing yourself will not help your tribe or group or cult or club get ahead compared to contributing to collective strength.

(I’ve long wondered what recruiters tell suicide bombers. Besides “72 virgins,” do they promise that that individual’s death will turn the tide to victory? Given that bombers can’t give post-bomb feedback, I’m guessing that recruiters lie a lot.)

Pushing back from individual actions to national outcomes, it’s easy to see how self-sacrifice helps groups. Most nations trace their history to founders who spoke out rather than remaining silent, who sacrificed rather than remain in comfort. In successful states, leaders are lauded for contributing to the greater good. In failed states, selfish leaders cannot united a divided people.

In today’s geo-political reality, most people live in nations defined by past sacrifices, fear the disruption of would-be suicidal “revolutionaries,” and seek leaders against challenges from Man and Nature.

In the pre-Anthropocene world, we consumed natural resources and destroyed environments in our competition with each other and our desire for comfort and ease. Now, those habits are part of the “sustainability challenge” in which climate chaos, collapsing biodiversity and natural resource shortages not only slow and reverse our progress but also pit every nation, tribe and community against the others, in a struggle to one “least worst off” in a world of shrinking possibility.

What we need now is not more suicides but more self-sacrifice — via lower consumption, childlessness, refusing destructive jobs and so on — that is designed to help the group. We need people who feel better when they forgo a flight abroad; we need societies that admire these people more than “jet-setters.”

My one-handed conclusion: We won’t need to live empty lives if we want to live full lives. Find your place and purpose, and you have found life.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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