John Rawls and Suicide

On the question of suicide, the great question is whether philosophy gives someone a reason to live and while Albert Camus took an absurdist and existentialist approach, he is a more or less useless philosopher to anyone who doesn’t do philosophy. John Rawls is my go-to guy for anything about contemporary liberalism and the vernacular morals of broad society. I don’t care about the beliefs of the ivory tower but the beliefs of the janitors who sweep the floors of the ivory tower. John Rawls is germane to that.

John Rawls gives no one any reason to live and, arguably, gives ample reason for suicide. Rawlsian ethics impart zero value to life, love, interpersonal altruism, or anything since in a pluralistic society those things would amount to a thick-good and threaten liberalism. It is only a few steps, of course, from virtue ethics and a system of meaning, ritual, and honor to crusades, jihads, witch-hunts, and burning people at the stake. At least, that is the end of Rawlsian logic. Rawlsian ethics is fairly simple. It is a calcus of negative and positive liberties and those positive liberties amount to physical needs.

To use the example of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, no one has a right to be loved or accepted. Whatever marginalized class one is in, there is no negative liberty to acceptance and while there is a psychological need for this and the lack of it being met may lead to suicide, to require society satisfy that psychological need would be an imposition on the negative liberties of others. Because while treatment in the medical sense may be justified as a positive liberty, friendship cannot be because that would involve augmenting the will and value system of a clique or social group (the respect for which is the basis of Rawls’ liberal pluralism) and be contrary to their consent. An authority or community cannot impose that burden on them if they refuse it.

Therefore the circumstance that cause suicide cannot be countered in a Rawlsian system and furthermore in Rawls’ system, anyone who is unwanted is a contravention of the negative liberty to comfort and their personal consent. Therefore members of marginalized groups, by their presence, are contrary to Rawlsian ethics and if their marginalized traits are maligned broadly enough then it may be, according to Rawlsian ethics, morally proper to commit suicide so as to respect the consent of others. So, the Rawlsian system is pro-suicide for members of marginalized groups.

Of course, while most of our laws and bureaucracies are Rawlsian, they cannot, owing to strong cultural pressure, be pro-suicide. Their responses, however, are fairly toothless and milquetoast. They cannot be anything else lest they compromise liberalism. John Rawls was firmly against the expression of emotion by bureaucracies and for them being impersonal to be fair. There, then, cannot be empathy or the afirmation of someone’s humanity. Sure, they’ll throw out clichés like “You have so much left to live for” but when something is a cliché”, it doesn’t sound sincere.

And, while society is ostensibly anti-suicide, they are not very anti-suicide. As I have written on this blog before, the pop culture is extremely vindictive. Almost all of the advice I got about my bullies involved revenge and none of it involved science. They wanted me to hate them and disregard their welfare. While the advice was not to make them kill themselves, it was to cause them needless suffering and, in the end, there is not much of a difference. Does, for example, Taylor Swift know that writting revenge anthems about her exes probably have negative effects on their mental health? Yes. Does she care? No. She, of course, is not pro-suicide but her philosophy and canon contribute to suicide. Her fans are influenced by her and their revenge undoubtedly has had a body count.

It circles back to John Rawls because John Rawls is the justification for hatred. John Rawls’ thin-good has no mercy and nothing inside of it to prevent the deepest rancor over the pettiest things. It does stop physical violence against others on account of negative liberties but it doesn’t stop hatred or revenge up to that point. And, in the end, there is not much of a difference. It has nothing to constrain the worst human passions. Its answer is that in a liberal democracy that one has a right to hate and no responsibility to love. Hatred has a body cout and John Rawls is responsible for opening the flood gates to a tsunami of human hatred by abolishing love. It is why half the songs about relationships in the whole of pop culture are filled with hate. It is why the entire Syrian Civil War raged without a single major anti-war song and while The Grapes of Wrath played itself out on the Route 66 from Damscus to Calais (an adaptation I dearly want to be produced), there was not enough love for the public to care. John Rawls did a lot of that.

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