Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The advantages of literature over philosophy.
Gravity's Rainbow describes two acts of collective suicide by two groups of Herero tribesmen almost half a century apart: the first as a refusal to accept death at the hands of Germany and as a last humanist act of choice against the inhuman; the second by the remnants of the Schwarzkommando, the elite Herero stormtroopers, as last act of nihilism after their war is lost.

You need to try each case on the merits. There's no one definition.
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David Velleman
The commander of the detention camp at Guantánamo has condemned the recent suicides of three detainees on moral grounds. Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. is quoted in today's New York Times as saying: "They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own." 

Now, the morality of suicide is a topic on which I have published a couple of papers, taking what might be called a pro-life position, somewhat to the consternation of fellow liberals, who tend to believe in a right to choose between life and death.  I try to explain and defend Kant's argument against suicide, which I interpret as based on "the sanctity of human life".

Yet even a Kantian such as myself cannot agree with Admiral Harris about the Guantánamo suicides.  What makes suicide immoral, according to Kant, is that it uses one's own personhood merely as a means, by destroying it for the sake of some desired end. And what makes it immoral to use one's personhood merely as means is that its essence is rational autonomy, which is the capacity to commit oneself to ends and adopt means of pursuing them.  Kant's argument is complex and controversial, but the basic idea of it is that our very capacity for adopting means to ends must have a value that trumps the value of any means we might adopt. To treat that capacity merely as a means is therefore to desecrate its true value.

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