Was it Suicide?

Was it Suicide? January 25, 2015

The Catholic Transcript, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford, has started a new feature:  a monthly column on bioethics by Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a priest from Fall River, MA and director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.  Fr. Pacholczyk’s column this month was on physician assisted suicide, a topic of considerable interest here in Connecticut:  it has been raised a couple times in the state assembly, and supporters will probably attempt to bring it up again this year.  (The column appears in several papers; the particular one I am interested in has not been posted on the Transcript website, but can be found here.)

In his column, he commented on a recent article from Time magazine (reprinted here, I believe) that drew a connection between physician assisted suicide and the people who died after they jumped out of the Twin Towers on 9/11.   I want to quote him in full:

In the public discussions that have ensued, some have ventured to argue that suicide under such desperate circumstances [dying of brain cancer] would, in fact, be justifiable. A recent on-line article from Time magazine observed that few fault those who were trapped on the top floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11 when they jumped to their deaths below as the flames surged around them. Similarly, the article suggests that those who face the prospect of a difficult, pain-racked death from a terminal disease should be able to take their own life through physician-assisted suicide without fault or blame.

For those jumping out of the Twin Towers, however, we recognize a horrific situation of desperation, and even the possibility of a kind of mental breakdown in those final panic-stricken moments. Their agonizing choice to hurl themselves out of the building to their deaths below would be, objectively speaking, a suicidal act, and would not represent a morally good choice, but their moral culpability would almost certainly be diminished, if not eliminated, by the harrowing circumstances in which they found themselves, driven by raw terror more than by anything else. Clearly, grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of suffering can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

Until I read this I had never stopped to think about this in any careful way.  Reading this column, however, my gut reaction to his argument was negative, partly because his analysis is so clinical.   But, while moral intuition is important, it can be misleading. So I have had to stop and ask myself:  was this suicide?  And to what extent does this matter?

In a precise legal sense, it was not suicide:  the NY medical examiner ruled that all the deaths in 9/11 were homicides:  according to Wikipedia, they argued

A ‘jumper’ is somebody who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide. These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out.

This designation matters legally: for instance, it affects the payment of insurance benefits, as some life insurance policies will deny claims if the policy holder commits suicide.  (This may have been moot:  after 9/11, no insurance company could have survived the backlash resulting from denying benefits under these circumstances, even if it were conclusively shown to have been suicide.)   But it does not settle the ethical question of whether this was suicide.

This is a tricky question to answer, and while I have some ideas, I am not sure if they really resolve the issue.  So I welcome commentary and corrections to what I write.   On the one hand, it does seem  plausible to describe the act of jumping out of a window on the 80+ story of building as an “objectively suicidal act.”  Anyone doing it would know that his or her death was a certain outcome.  But does this make it a suicidal act?   There are similar actions which do not constitute suicide and I want to try to reason by analogy with them.

In doing so I am going to touch on the principle of double-effect.  As I have said  in the past, I am uncomfortable with the principle of double effect but this might be a case where it is useful.  In this earlier blog post I considered the problem of ectopic pregnancies, but there was a wide-ranging and detailed discussion of the principle of double effect that at one point touched on this very question and suggested that it was not suicide.  I will consider the argument made in this comment  below.

The classical example of a superficially suicidal act that is not (I believe) considered suicide is a soldier who throws himself onto a hand grenade that has landed in his foxhole.  In doing so he is deliberating consigning himself to death, but this is not regarded as suicide.  In the same way, people who throw themselves over others to shield them from a gunman or soldiers who act in ways  leading to their certain death in order to save the lives of their comrades (e.g., PFC Rodger Young in WWII) are not considered to have committed suicide, even though they knowingly brought about their own deaths by their deliberate actions.

The rationale for not calling these suicide lies in discerning the intent of the persons acting:  their intention was not to commit suicide but rather to protect others at the cost of their own lives.  In a word, self-sacrifice.   That they would know that their actions would lead to their death is secondary to the moral analysis.    This would seem to be very much in line with the principle of double effect.  To apply it properly, I would have to examine more carefully the object, intent and circumstances of their actions, but I will admit that I have a hard time parsing the difference between object and intent, and so am going to go with this more informal analysis for now.  (Readers are welcome to fill in the details, for or against, in the comments.)

However, while the distinction between suicide and self-sacrifice is useful, it does not fully explain the morality of their actions: self-sacrifice is not, in and of itself,  a sufficient justification.  For instance, a person may not donate his heart to be transplanted into another person in order to save that person’s life but resulting in his own death.  (Cf. the Catechism 2296.)  And here is where I get hung up in ways that bother me when I try to apply this to the case at hand.  I am not sure how to distinguish between the act of throwing yourself on a grenade from the act of having your heart removed in order to save the life of another.  (To avoid introducing a third party, we can pretend that robot assisted surgery is sophisticated enough that you could program a machine to remove your heart, so in fact you are removing your own heart.  I have no idea if this is possible now, but I suspect it soon will be.)

The only distinction I can see lies in the circumstances and in particular in the temporal constraints surrounding the act.  In the case of a soldier throwing himself on a grenade (or the other actions outlined above), these must be spontaneous, or nearly spontaneous decisions.  The person making them has seconds or at most a few minutes in which to decide.   The decision to sacrifice oneself by removing your own heart seems much more deliberate and drawn out.  One could, I suppose, construct circumstances in which this decision must be made immediately,  but even in these the time scale would be much longer—hours or days rather than minutes.

But that a decision is made under pressure does not seem to me to effect the moral status of the decision:  it bears only on the moral culpability of the person making it.  It might be a morally wrong act, but one’s responsibility is lessened because of the circumstances.  (This is the essence of what Fr. Pacholczyk argues above.) But then I come back to my original problem:  how to distinguish morally between throwing oneself on a grenade and donating one’s heart?

I want to now return to the original moral problem:  the act of jumping out of a window to avoid being burned to death.    Obviously, in one way this is very different from the cases considered above because there is no self-sacrifice involved.    The only person affected is the person jumping.  (One could imagine a hypothetical situation–not one that occurred on 9/11–where a person chooses to jump and take a small child with him/her.  This provides some interesting complexity but here I want to focus on the actual case at hand.)    The two points of similarity are the basic question of intention and the time constraints under which the decision is made.     The question of intention is muddy because it can be read two different ways: is their intention to avoid death by burning, or is their intention to choose the manner of their death, for whatever reason believing that death by impact after jumping is preferable to death by fire.  (We can guess that the latter is an easier death than the former, but it seems hard to draw objective conclusions.)    In the latter case it might be argued that it is a suicidal act; in the former, I could envision an application of the principle of double effect to argue that it is not suicide, death was a foreseeable, indeed certain outcome of their actions, but it was not their intent.   However, harkening back to my post on ectopic pregnancy and the principle of double effect, it seemed to me that the discussion bogged down (and the principle lost its moral utility) in hair-splitting discussions over this kind of distinction.

The issue of time constraints is also important here:  in this situation, after some point the person will have to make an immediate decision:  jump, or be consumed by the flames.  I think this point is very important because it goes back to the original point being made by Fr. Pacholczyk.  The article he was rebutting wanted to draw a moral parallel between jumping and taking barbiturates to die so as to avoid a prolonged and painful death.   While these two actions seem similar, they must be done on very different time scales:  weeks and possibly months in the latter case.  (There are some grey areas here as well, such as a patient, in the final days of life, being given such massive doses of morphine or heroin that death is almost surely hastened.  But again, let’s concentrate on the sharper distinction.)

But, as I noted above, time constraints may lessen moral culpability, but they do not seem to affect the morality of the act itself.  Therefore, if my original intuition is correct, that jumping out of a window is not suicide, then we need some other grounds for distinguishing it from overdosing on barbiturates.  Here is where completing the analysis of self-sacrifice above should be helpful:  drawing the moral distinction between jumping on a grenade and donating ones own heart should help here.

Finally, I want to turn to the related question:  what good will come from deciding that throwing oneself from a burning  building is in fact suicide?  Moral codes should guide our actions in a prior sense; they should not simply be there to past judgement after the fact.   But I cannot envision any time we would counsel another person in this particular situation:  “do not jump out the window, it is an sinful act.”    So what is gained by this stance?  Does it exist simply as a firebreak, as Fr. Pacholczyk uses it in his article, to draw clearer lines around actions we would counsel people against before they do them?   And does this justify the potential pain such an argument would cause:  e.g., the pain felt by the survivors of someone who did indeed die by throwing himself from the Twin Towers?

The short answer to all of these questions is that I am not sure, and I am interested in your thoughts on these questions.

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  • I suspect that, increasingly, with the explosion of the geriatric population in America, the increase of secularist attitudes and also with the further development of enormously expensive medical “technologies” to prolong life, “assisted suicide” will definitely take on the coloration of “self-sacrifice.” Why? Because statistics indicate that, for the average middle-class person who has saved all of his life either for his retirement or for his bequests to his family, the doctors will take it all, in the last six months of his life. There will be many who will choose “assisted suicide” in order to benefit their children. Some of them will even be Catholics, no matter what the Church says about it. Blood is stronger than theology, and American doctors are rapacious.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Very true: I think we really need to rethink all aspects of the “American way of death.” We can do a lot better for all of us.

  • Chris Sullivan

    One may think, in the heat of the moment, that one may be able to smother the grenade and still survive or jump but still survive. The key is the moral object chosen.

    God bless

  • Nanabedôkw’ Môlsem, OFS

    Just a perspective from a veteran. It is extremely likely that jumping on top of a hand grenade in the group setting has prevented some number of people from death or severe injury. The person jumping onto the grenade might have died anyway given proximity, and possibly others also dying if he had not jumped. So it is likely the suicide preceded death or severe injury to a number of other people including the one choosing to die.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Yes, that was my exact point. I am sorry if I did not make this clearer.

  • Tony O’Carroll

    David, thank you for introducing this rather soul-searching topic. I have a question about the ethical/moral stance of welcoming death when alternatives are or may be available. Is a person right to put him or herself into a position where death is inevitable and do it for a higher good? Two instances come to my mind where this conundrum may apply. First, if a person can keep quiet about a vital issue that would lead to a fatal conflict with the authorities in power, should he or she refrain from pursuing this issue at this time? Second, and more practically as in the case of an old Inuit custom, can an old person in a famine situation walk away from their shelter during an Arctic storm knowing the inevitable consequences in order to ensure more food or the younger members of the family or tribe?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The Inuit custom you mention is very close, morally, to the idea of donating your own heart (or other vital organ) to someone else. I guess it might depend on how dire the circumstances are. Also, this example brings up issues of social pressure to die which bedevil physician assisted suicide. As one opponent put it, the right to die soon becomes the duty to die.

      • As one opponent put it, the right to die soon becomes the duty to die. <<<

        Yes, we must draw a distinction between the merely erogatory and the super-erogatory, between justice and mercy, between the moral and the charitable. No one has the duty to optimize practical, much less charitable, outcomes. In our human situation, goodenoughness had better suffice.

    • Jack Hartjes

      “a fatal conflict with the authorities in power.” I was struck by this phrase because it seems that’s exactly Jesus’ situation; and he didn’t keep silent. I’ve sometimes wondered about the morality of that.

  • Due to our radical finitude, wherein, descriptively, our fallibilist epistemology thereby models only a probabilistic ontology, then, normatively, how could our de-ontology reflect anything more than a moral probabilism? Also, beyond the issue of enjoying some leeway due to different defensible moral stances, this suggests a plurality of acceptable moral actions, each, “good enough” in a theory of moral satisficing. In the same way moral probabilism allows one to hold a minority stance or less probable opinion, moral satisficing allows one to take a less optimal course of action, all this prior to analyses of ex/culpability.

    In the specific case at hand, one cannot distinguish between the grenade-falling and organ donation without wading through a semantic morass, such as happens when one tries to differentiate between natural family planning and artificial contraception.
    All we can do is to triangulate, best we can, properly weighing our most deeply felt and widely shared moral intuitions and our most deliberately constructed moral principles, neither which, necessarily, will clearly trump the other, either which might admit of error.

    A proper consideration of human morality will go beyond our descriptive ontologies, evaluative dispositions and normative deontologies to also consider our existential interpretations, i.e. what we actually do, how we actually behave. Sometimes, our facile de-ontological behaviors help us reason backwards to ontological implications in a way that is metaphysically suggestive even if not decisive. That most of us, upon rushing into a burning building, would likely first rescue a crying two year old rather than a cryotank of 200 frozen embryos reveals deeply felt moral sensibilities that might otherwise conflict with certain essentialist conceptions of the human person?

    While articulating that I might well jump on a grenade for a comrade while, at the same time, readily eschewing the thought of donating my heart, in both cases with otherwise laudable aims, I’m perhaps giving more weight to my moral intuitions than my moral philosophies, but guided by the principles of moral probabilism and satisficing, even given my speculative doubts, I have no practical doubt that my choices and actions are good enough.

    Juxtaposing building-jumping and sedative-hastening, while I wouldn’t use the okayness of the former to justify the latter,
    I’d give those who might a serious listening without resorting to tortuous logic and semantic double-talk and that only after a hug.

    • Who are you people? Academia ate you brains and decomposed your hearts. I read this blog on a regular basis and most times I just shake my head and go on with my life. A few times I ‘be commented because I felt that maybe the people not living in the Ivory Towers should be heard. Today, I thought the topic was of great significance but somewhere the train tracks….

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        So what, precisely, is your objection to my post? I meant what I said about my confusion and uncertainty, so your input is welcome on these questions—whether or not you live in the Ivory Tower. (To paraphrase William Shatner in Star Trek IV, I work in the Ivory Tower; I’m from Wisconsin.)

      • Yes, I often find that I struggle with moral and theological questions for which many others have quick and easy answers.

    • @Johnboy, I found the density of theological jargon in your comment very offputting (especially in the very first sentence), but having waded through it, I agree with much of what you are saying (and could even see why you had said it that way).

      My intuition has always been that there are some types of questions for which simply finding yourself posing the question is an indication that your moral reasoning has gone down a false trail. Your remarks suggest something of a paradigm for that intuition. Thanks.

      • In a forum with mixed audiences, the charitable thing to do might be to provide both the technical version (which provides rigor) and a more accessible translation (for clarity).

        More accessibility, then, there are some moral realities that, in their complexity, mirror the wondrously contoured and richly textured fabric of our human experience.

        Some of our most deeply felt moral sensibilities can be very hard to put in words, like trying to effable about the Ineffable. This makes them even harder to put into moral arguments.

        We are faced with choices, sometimes clear when coming from the heart but not so clear when coming from the head. At other times, choices that look straightforward on paper leave us deeply conflicted emotionally.

        When we experience such moral conflicts, rather than drowning in scruples, we can be consoled by trusting in God’s mercy. Sometimes, we’ll follow our head. At other times we can follow our heart, especially if its resonating with deeply felt and widely shared moral sensibilities, allowing the wisdom that accumulates in tradition to be our guide.

        This is not to say that, less often, we may have a prophetic calling to crash the walls of a stubborn tradition. That should be attempted only from a deeply rooted spirituality and with no expectation of escaping the falling stones in a genuine self-sacrifice for others who’ll be walking behind.

        When conflicted, in doubt about a course of action, we can humbly accept our imperfection, be willing to make a mistake and know that we’re within our rights to do what is merely satisfactory (meet the demands of justice) and under no moral obligation to always do what might otherwise be optimal (meet the demands of charity).

        • Ah…your accessible translation is moving and wise. So much so that I am tempted to print out the technical and accessible versions, place them side by side and see if I can create a ‘rosetta stone’ to decipher your future technical remarks.

        • Thank you for making your thoughts much clearer. That shows the humility of a true scholar.

        • Don

          I think the accessible translation is British, and the first fluffy nonsense one is French- in terms of the history of philosophy. It doesn’t add any rigor to the discussion to put it in the first form, and it is that playing with language that has facilitated the rise of Queer theory and other such contemporary offerings. That said, I actually agree with the comment.

      • Ronald King

        Johnboy’s opening line was classic:)

        • I neglected to say that I applaud and appreciate David’s OP and think such questions are meaningful and such discussions are necessary.

          The cases-at-hand have long stumped ethical panelists and posed quandaries to moral theologians. I did not even attempt to answer David’s question. Instead, I hoped to address how such problems arise and how they shed light on human moral responses, all with an aim toward inviting a more compassionate, pastoral sensitivity and fewer practical scruples, all in a philosophically defensible way.

  • I don’t think jumping out the window under those conditions is “an objectively suicidal act” as Fr. Pacholczyk. The only sense of ‘objectively’ here that would matter for ethics at all is the one that would indicate what the object of the volitional act would be; and I very much doubt that people in circumstances like this generally jump out so as to commit suicide. Indeed, I doubt that they have much of a clear idea what they are doing at all. Their own death is certainly a natural consequence; but it is not even clear that they would be thinking that far ahead, for the reasons Fr. Pacholczyk notes. And I think the legal conclusion is exactly right: it’s not fundamentally different from someone getting run over because they jumped into the street when someone tried to knife them.

    I am inclined to think that temporal constraints do have a considerable bearing on the morality of the act itself; morality in human decisions is necessarily linked to deliberation, and deliberation is limited by time, and not having time to deliberate can change what, precisely, is your object in acting. That makes every difference to the morality of the action; the object is not the only aspect of an action’s morality, but it is the foundation for everything else. I agree on other grounds, though, that many of these self-sacrifice cases cannot be handled purely by appeal to the lack of time to deliberate. I think soldiers throwing themselves on a grenade often know quite well what they are doing and what it means, for all that it takes place quickly.

    I don’t think self-sacrifice is the right category to look at here, for this purposes. I think, in general, an action’s being genuinely self-sacrificial usually guarantees that it is not a mortal sin — the very definition of a venial sin is that it is an action with a moral failing that does not make it inconsistent in object with love of God and neighbor, and self-sacrifice by its nature makes it unlikely that it is inconsistent in this way. But this is not strong enough to change the object of the action.

    The distinction that’s needed, I think, is the distinction between a public and a nonpublic act. Public action for common good is morally different from an action for personally chosen good; public actions for common good are evaluated in terms of the common good itself. Soldiers saving the lives of other soldiers at the cost of their own are not exercising a private choice to die; they are exercising their public trust as soldiers, and the standard for assessing that is whether it is consistent with the common good that makes that public trust possible. This distinction is pretty important for Christian theology because the same question arises for martyrs.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The distinction between a public and nonpublic act is an interesting one that I had not considered. However, while it is useful for considering the acts of self-sacrifice of soldiers, does it let you draw a distinction between throwing oneself on a grenade and donating your heart? This is the distinction I am still wrestling with and the one that I think is most applicable to the question of whether this is suicide or not.

      • I think it does, because we have a class of people (soldiers) whose public trust is to defend others against violence even, if need be, at the cost of their own lives. We do not have a class of people whose public trust is to defend others against bodily malfunction even, if need be, at the cost of their own lives.

      • I think gaudetetheology is right. Soldiers exist at all for reasons involved in the common good itself, and this directly requires protecting each other and contributing to the overall aim of the military to protect the common good. Thus any act a soldier does as soldier that is consistent with both of these requirements is a public act. The heart donation, on the other hand, doesn’t involve any of this, despite having some of the same genuinely admirable qualities at a personal level. That means that they are actually different kinds of acts altogether, each judged by a different standard appropriate to it.

        There could be weird situations in which the organ donation could easily become a public act — to take the most extreme example, if the human race were on the verge of extinction without it and we all agreed it needed to be done to save the next generation — but in those cases we’d be under different enough circumstances that it already would be clear that it’s not quite the same act as it would be in more mundane circumstances.

  • Paul Connors

    “I am not sure how to distinguish between the act of throwing yourself on a grenade from the act of having your heart removed in order to save the life of another.”

    In the first case, the good achieved is preventing harm to others by causing the grenade splinters to be directed away from them. The harm to the self-sacrificer is foreseen, but is not a causally necessary part of the sacrificing victim’s plan. It’s not the harm that saves the others, but the redirection of the splinters.

    But in the second case, it’s a causally necessary feature that the sacrificing victim’s heart is removed. The harm isn’t merely foreseen, but actually intended — since if the heart isn’t removed (which is a harm) then the plan is not achieved.

  • I did experience some difficulty with Fr. Pacholcyzk’s column, but not for the same reason as you did. I’ll mention my concern near the end of this comment. I thought his remarks were well reasoned and respectful considering the emotional matter at hand. The ‘analysis’ you speak of is aimed at the rational claimed in Brittany’s Maynard’s (and her supporters’) decision for taking her own life. The one paragraph dedicated to ‘those who jump out of the Twin Towers’ is in fact speculative if it’s read carefully. But it doesn’t gloss over the moral nature of jumping to one’s death. As you rightfully point out there could be numerous other explanations; such as being overwhelmed by fire and smoke, being blown out the building, falling out, etc….all of which are short of forming a coherent decision to jump to death to avoid a more horrendous death.

    But Fr. Pacholcyzk simultaneously takes on the burden of defending those who do make that fateful decision and does so with mercy, compassion and love, while giving no hint of condemnation. If you’ll pardon my own speculative question (mea culpa)…Is it not you who are being ‘clinical’ in your attempt to remove the stain or stigma of suicide that is being projected onto the 9/11 victims? I wouldn’t ask this if it were unnecessary; but the real angst here seems to be our collective inability to look at the total reality of suicide without condemning or excusing the victims (this would include Brittany and perhaps some of the 911 victims). This is where I do find some quibble with Fr. Pacholcyzk column [at the close of his 3rd paragraph], namely in the need for attribution of ‘fault and blame’ or the desire to escape it.

    Nevertheless, let’s be clear; Fr. Pacholcyzk’s column is countering a subtle maneuver by those who are trapped in this euthanasia mentality, to try and associate the rare, most dramatic and uncontrollable outcomes of 9/11, with the more common and slow-paced tragic struggles of dying.

  • Jack Hartjes

    David, there’s a provision of the principle of double effect that you didn’t mention: the good effect must not come about through the bad effect. For all that it sounds like nit-picking, I think it’s useful. In the Twin Towers case the good effect, escaping the pain of burning to death, certainly does not come about through the bad effect, dying on the street below. I also think the two effects can easily be distinguished from the morally neutral act of jumping. In the case of the heart transplant, the good effect does come through the bad effect. It’s harder to apply this provision to the case of the hand grenade although Paul Connors comment above aims to do that.

  • FWIW, I’m no academic but a autodidact with a long time interest in formative spirituality, interreligious dialogue and philosophical theology, the last interest only necessitated by the need to build conceptual bridges between religious cultures and traditions, which not only often process reality differently but SEE it differently. Without the benefit of classrooms, tutors and personal interpersonal feedback, my writing style can get overly jargonistic and idiosyncratic, especially as I try to figure out exactly who are this or that forum’s contributors and participants. So, I apologize for that.

    On an even more personal note (and I’m not anonymous, realize), the topic of suicide caught my eye with more than a casual, academic interest. For the past decade, I’ve been in the throes of the onset and progression of what many call The Suicide Disease. This does not mean that I get suicidal such as when ridiculed or scolded by anonymous cyber-interlocutors. It means I have a disease that the French call the Tic Doloureaux and medical science calls Trigeminal Neuralgia, which is one of – if not the – most painful conditions known to medical science.

    It began on the left side of my face. A few years later, it presented bilaterally (both sides), which is inexplicable and rare. It’s a neuropathic disorder of the trigeminal cranial nerve. In my case, when walking down the sidewalk, symptom free, a slight breeze at the wrong angle can send a pain through my skull as if a sword were piercing my ear, all which literally sends me to the ground on my knees doubled over in indescribable pain.

    I raise this in the context of having been told by the doctor who finally diagnosed me (via cat scans, mri, etc) that, years ago, this was the one malady that the Catholic Church made an exception for, declaring one suffering this disease was morally exculpable in the case of suicide. I once found an authoritative citation in church literature but cannot locate it. If any here have access to such professional journal searches, I’d be obliged. It may not shed light on the narrower question about the objective nature of the evil, because I suspect the church teaching was grounded elsewhere.

    But, who knows? Some ethicists suggest abandoning the morally fraught word, suicide, and replacing it with a morally neutral act, self-killing. Perhaps the solution may entail a distinction like ontic or pre-moral evils, or something like the difference between killing and murder? Above my paygrade.

    But, good God, I’ve been in this whale’s belly and not in an ivory tower.

  • Julia Smucker

    My initial reaction on reading Fr. Pacholcyzk’s analysis was more positive: it looked to me like he had an intuitive sense that there is a moral difference between assisted suicide and jumping to one’s death from a burning building, and I see his “clinical” analysis as him trying to parse the situation rationally in order to understand in his mind what his gut, or his conscience, is already telling him.

    On reflection, I’m not even sure it’s necessary to go to such lengths to morally exonerate the jumpers, because I don’t agree with his premise that jumping from the towers would be an objectively suicidal act – certainly not if suicide is defined as the choice to die, or even more precisely, to take one’s own life. It’s not a choice between life and death in that situation, or even whether to die on one’s own chosen terms and timing, but rather a choice between one form of immediate certain death and another. It can be assumed that everyone in that harrowing situation would choose to go on living if they could, unless by coincidence they were already suicidal. I feel like I’m starting to sound a bit coldly clinical myself now, but that I think is the major difference.

    • I don’t agree with his premise that jumping from the towers would be an objectively suicidal act

      I take your point. No one that I know wants to look at this as a suicidal act. I don’t, Fr. Pacholcyzk doesn’t and I never heard any church official speak of this as suicide. But given the task that Fr. Pacholcyzk was handed, namely to refute those who do characterize this circumstance as analogous to those seeking assisted suicide…how is he to defend this matter? Does he simply dismiss their claims or does he take it on, acknowledging what aspects are similar, while carefully drawing crucial distinctions.

      Many of the missing suicidal characteristics (of the jumpers) that we note (in your comment and those above) are claimed by this death with dignity movement and were included in Brittany Maynard’s rationale. Those wanting to avoid dreadful misery are not seeking death per se…but their actions do lead to death…and objectively speaking so does jumping from a skyscraper.

      This discussion is very unpleasant, primarily because of our compassion for the victims and their families, and also because we must acknowledge that we are in no position to claim the ability to make ‘the better choice’ that Fr. Pacholcyzk referred to. I believe it is important to accept ‘the objective fact’…that some were forced into what amounts to ‘a suicidal act’… in order to present the truth about the matter. How do we avoid this quandary? I guess what I’m asking is…how should Fr. P have responded?…and how do we seriously respond to this challenge if we hold that their is ‘no suicidal aspect at all’ in jumping from a skyscraper with no hope of surviving?

      • When good formal arguments fail us and our moral intuitions resist syllogistic logic, forms of critical thinking that employ strong forms of inference and might be considered robustly truth-conducive, we then must necessarily fallback on informal arguments, weak forms of inference, what might be considered merely truth-indicative. It is the latter that constitutes common sense and most influences our intuitions.

        Most of the compelling arguments against euthanasia are informal and make appeals to such as slippery slope and reductio ad absurdum arguments, appeals one might ignore or even consider fallacious in formal logic but appeals we’d ignore, literally, in the case at hand, to our own peril.
        While the professional ethicists continue to tease out the conceptual distinctions and establish the principles which would articulate and bolster our moral intuitions in a more robustly truth-conducive manner, it seems we are behooved to rely on whatever truth-indicative arguments we can because each informal argument, while alone a mere strand, when bundled together with others (preponderance of the evidence-like) can gain the strength of a resilient epistemic cable, sturdy enough to anchor us (like tradition) until we get to shore (like a new moral theory).

        One critical distinction between building jumping and euthanasia, between grenade-shielding and vital organ-gifting, would lie in both the number and variety of slippery slope arguments that have rather persuasively been advanced against euthanasia, that simply could not be marshalled in the other cases. Those arguments may be imperfect but they’re the best available, so need to suffice, for now?

      • @Johnboy – Again, your remarks are full of wisdom and insight and I thank you for your contribution to this discussion. I’m also praying wholeheartedly that you emerge unscathed from the ‘belly of the whale’.

        I would say that I operate completely in the realm of informal arguments and moral intuition. In fact, this sense would never lead me to contemplate the Twin Tower jumpers as people who committed suicide. Therefore, I don’t want to be guilty of pressing others into calling this tragic event a suicide.

        Lurking in the background of my thinking is my grandfather’s suicide in the 1950’s when I was very young and the familial pain that was deepened by the church’s response. At that time, there was no Mass allowed and a ‘no entrance’ sign to the Catholic cemetery as it was impossible to be buried on consecrated land. In fact, I would say that the church’s response was not ‘graceful’ in any sense. Of course, I was never involved in the discussion between the priests and my family and I picked up this resentment in subtle remarks that lingered for many years. But I am very much heartened in the turnaround that I now witness in the church’s response to suicide. And Fr. Pacholcyzk’s column was some indication of this more compassionate and enlightened thinking.

        This is why I don’t want people to run away from the reality of suicide, both in its complexity and its ambiguity. As I see it, there may have been some element of a suicidal act (at least potentially) in the jumpers actions…and I don’t want to see people cover this up in shame or push it aside. Is it necessary to envision people who have committed suicide in hell…in which case we must find a way to exonerate them or watch them suffer? I think not,

        This is why Brittany Maynard and her family have my prayers and compassion, while at the same time her supporters and enablers can expect a strong pushback to the twisted path they are paving.

        • Thanks, @Tausign.

          I suspect some of our moral theorizing suffers from age old debates that took place between different schools of thought, like 1) aretaic or virtue ethics 2) deontological 3) consequentialist 4) contractarian and such, each with its emphasis, respectively, on the character of the person and her intentions, on the objective nature of the act and its gravity/parvity, on the context and circumstances, etc

          In reality, whatever one’s emphasis, inevitably we end up deliberating acts, intentions and circumstances. And we end up weighing competing values on a case by case basis, values that wouldn’t be in competition in an ideal world scenario but very much will get at cross-purposes in our human situation.

          The “manuals” used in confessionals weren’t systematic moral theology, only pastoral guidance. They necessarily employed shortcuts, both logical and conceptual.

          When we discuss moral objects, carefully parsing our categories and framing our syllogisms, the one thing we most often overlook, I believe, beyond the consistency of our logic (fallacy free) or truth of our premises, is
          whether or not the concepts, terms and definitions successfully describe or refer to reality. Sometimes, the conclusions of our arguments are smuggled into our premises and, at other times, they are already embedded in our definitions! These terms might be too broadly or narrowly conceived, too vaguely or specifically defined, morally neutral or not, emotionally fraught or not. By employing these shortcuts, we can foreclose on the possibility of examining which objects are premoral or moral, intrinsically good or evil or not, equally serious or not and so on.

          So, sometimes we encounter paradox and dilemmas that we suspect are located in faulty logic or untrue premises when, all along, the solution lies in changing our terminology, coining new words, more broadly or narrowly conceiving a concept, more generally or specifically referring to realities.

          My suspicion is that we don’t have a suitable vocabulary to deal with many emerging bioethical realities. For example, the word “suicide” doesn’t capture the nuances of our hypercomplex human realities. It’s a failed attempt to lump too many acts, intentions and circumstances into a single moral object and our moral intuitions properly recoil when it gets employed in facile logic, even though we cannot quite put our finger on the problem. Like the old sorite paradox that results from conflating logical and efficient causation, the word suicide conflates too many logical, formal, efficient, instrumental and final causes and thereby generates paradoxes.

        • trellis smith

          Fr. Lorenzo Albacete’s own famous reflection on the very thing being discussed here, transcend any notion of suicidal despair, that the fall to death is triumphant and a leap of faith as death descends.

          I think they are in the hands of the love that is the ultimate reality about human life, the love of which those two hands held together as they jumped from the window. The love of which those two hands are a revelation, a sign, a brief insight. … I think they are there. It doesn’t matter how one imagines it. Imagine it the way you want. That’s the great thing about it, the way you want, but they’re holding hands. …
          From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, I knew it. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion.
          To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It’s a choice. It’s the choice of Sept. 11. …”

        • “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing of this.
          All our dignity then, consists in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endavour then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

          –Pascal Pensees 347

          Being a Christian doesn’t mean that we imagine bad things won’t happen to us, only that we believe, rather, that they shall not become the worst.
          – my paraphrase of Merton

  • Thales

    I’m late to the party, but here’s my comment;


    Very interesting post. I noticed this same column a few months ago, and my first gut reaction was that Father Tad was extremely silly to think that the 9/11 jumpers were committing suicide…… but I guess that I can now see that he was clinically analyzing their situation in order to attempt to make distinctions between them and the Brittany Maynard situation, etc.

    The reason for my above gut reaction when I first read the column was that, in my opinion, the 9/11 jumpers were not choosing to kill themselves. I think that, perhaps, they were doing the exact opposite: they were choosing to try to save their lives. I tried to put myself in their place: I’m panicking, burning, choking, trying to escape the flames and smoke—and I could see myself going out the window with absolutely no thought that I was going to die because of the fall, but instead, going out the window with the thought “I need to live, I’m desperate to live, I need to escape from where I am because I’m dying, and out the window there is escape from this current death to possible life.” I realize that that thought would be completely mistaken because death from the fall is certain—but in the moment, with the animal survival instinct kicking in, it seems to me that the thought that I would be having is “I want to live, and the only way to escape death and try to save my life is going out the window.” And so, I would have no intention of dying, and thus, there would be no suicide here, in contrast to Brittany Maynard. (I realize that if the scenario is modified to have a jumper who is not acting with animal instinct but who is facing the inferno and who chooses the death from the fall instead of death from the inferno, that is a different situation. I haven’t thought enough about the moral considerations of that scenario.)

    The harder case, I think, is the grenade one you’ve described. But I think one principle that distinguishes it from the heart-donation scenario is this: that the soldier does an act but never intends to die, while the heart-donator does an act and has to intend to die when doing that act. The fact that soldier knows that he might die doesn’t change the fact that he never intends to die—while I don’t think the same can be said of the heart donator.

    A last thought: is our Lord on the Cross a helpful example here? I’m not sure, because our Lord doesn’t do an action causing His death and He simply submits (which distinguishes it from the solider, who does an action). But I was thinking of the fact that our Lord knows with full certainty that he is going to die, but goes along with it anyway. Isn’t it correct to say that despite knowing that death is certain, our Lord doesn’t intend His death? Not sure about that myself – at the very least we can say that He doesn’t do an act intending His death.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No worries coming in late. I have been busy, so I have let comments through but have not really responded to anyone. Thanks for chiming in.

  • Ronald King

    To reflect on this topic. and I think someone above stated this, requires empathy. For those who jumped to their death, I believe, knew they were already dead. The soldier who jumps on a grenade knows he is going to die. The person who donates her/his heart chooses love over saving oneself. The sense of time can distort our reality especially when we are overwhelmed with suffering. Brittany Maynard’s experience with death is about the sense of eternal suffering being endured by self and others which occurs with a prolonged death.

  • A Sinner

    I don’t know how much of this has already been said, but since my comments in the previous discussion were referenced, I’ll make some brief analyses of the various situations mentioned based on my understanding (the “Grisez-Lysaught” understanding):

    1) Jumping out of a burning building is covered by double effect because death is not chosen as an end or as a means. Your death adds nothing to the moral proposal. If you miraculously survive, your intention is not frustrated. Your goal is “to get out,” your object chosen to accomplish that is leaving the smoke and flame via the only exit available. Note that it would be totally different if someone in the building shot themselves to avoid the pain of burning or suffocating to death. Such a person is choosing Death AS the very means of escape. Someone jumping out of the building is merely choosing “leaving the building” as the means of escape…falling to their death after they leave is merely a foreseen side-effect of exiting out the window, but a proportionate one given that their death is imminent anyway.

    2) the fact that shooting yourself in the building would NOT be justified is enough to show why euthanasia is totally different. Euthanasia is choosing death itself as the means of pain-escape. Jumping out a window results in death only as a side-effect of the specific physics and geometry: the people would presumably have made the same choice if it were a first- or second-story window, the fall from which they would surely survive. The subsequent death has nothing to do with the proposal “getting out of the building.”

    3) throwing yourself on a grenade or jumping in front of someone to take a bullet for them, again, have nothing instrumental about your death. Catholics are not consequentialists. The object chosen is something like “blocking one thing with another thing.” The fact that the thing is a bullet and the other thing is your mortal body doesn’t matter for the intent or moral object. They come into play only as consequences. Blocking the bullet or grenade with your body may result in your death, but your death is not instrumental. It is neither an end nor means. If you survive, it subtracts nothing from achieving your intent which is merely “to block.” If you have a sandbag to throw instead of your body, this likewise changes nothing about the moral object, which is merely “to block.” That blocking has two foreseeable side effects: your death, and saving their lives. Saving their lives, as a good consequence, satisfies proportionality vis a vis the bad sacrifice of your death.

    4) This example also helps illuminate your doubts about separating moral object from intent. We might imagine a case where a suicidal soldier (who still wanted his honor, or his family to get life insurance, etc) saw the opportunity to “die a hero” and, already wanting to die, took the opportunity. In this case his intention is at least partially bad. The moral object and consequences are the same as in the truly heroic example, but he has also actively formulated a suicidal intent alongside blocking the grenade. This ruins the act morally, because one of the conditions of double effect is that the bad side effect *not be intended.* If you come to also actively want or intend the bad side effect, the claim of double effect is insincere and invalidated.

    5) the heart transplant example only works if you believe a proposal to “remove my heart permanently” can somehow be seperated from the “subsequent” death. To some this would strain credulity, as they seem equivalent.

    However, I’m not so sure. Consider a proposal where your heart is removed permanently but replaced with an artificial heart. Suddenly “removing the heart” is not equivalent to “killing.” Does the fact that they don’t bother to install an artificial heart because your death is moments away anyway change anything morally? Personally I think maybe not and that organ donation (even of vital organs) isn’t so forbidden as conservative bioethicists sometimes suggest. “Removing my heart” is at least theoretically abstractable from my death (again, the artificial heart example shows this). So once again it seems a question of proportionality of the consequences. Is saving a life proportionate to yours being lost? It seems to become more and more so the more imminent your own death is. A healthy person would not be allowed to say “take my heart” to save another because you must err on the side of bodily integrity (a good in itself) even if otherwise it was a life-for-life swap. But in a body whose integrity is already severely compromised to the point that death is minutes away? Seems to satisfy proportionality a lot more.

    My analysis may seem technical, but it’s the only system I’ve found whose results have always seemed to have corresponded to “common sense moral intuition” about what’s moral and what isnt. It is also, I believe, the Catholic system (though plenty of people bastardize Catholic morality into something either consequentialist or grossly physicalist).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      AS: thanks for this detailed analysis. Relying once again on my moral intuition, I like your conclusions but I am still not comfortable with the reasoning which leads to them. I guess, at the end of the day, my problem comes with trying to tease an act into carefully separated strands (i.e., “blocking grenade fragments” versus “dying from throwing yourself on a grenade”) when every part of me cries out that they form an organic whole and should be analyzed in that way. I realize that this leads to a multitude of problems, but it seems more intellectually honest to say “I am going to die by throwing myself on a grenade to save others” than to say “my intention is to block the grenade fragments with my body; though I may not survive, it is not my intent to die.”

      • Mark

        But it’s NOT your intent to die. If it was, you’d be jumping out the window or on the grenade BECAUSE of death. But that’s not true. Death has nothing to do with why you’re choosing to do that, and you’d still do it even if you weren’t going to die. This isn’t legalism, it’s basic common sense.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          It seems equally commonsensical to say that I am jumping on a grenade to die because my death will save others. Or that I am jumping out a window to die because that is better than burning alive. But again, I need to chew on these things some more.

        • Mark

          But you’re not jumping “to” die. Your *death* doesn’t save anyone. Your blocking it does. But whether you *die* or not adds nothing. If you survive, maimed but alive, they are still JUST as much saved.

          It would be morally perverse for you to say, if you survived and they survive, “Damn! I chose to die! I failed in my intent!” But you didn’t fail. As long as you save them, you’ve succeeded in your intent. Dying has nothing to do with it.

          Surely the jumpers would still jump whether the window was on the second floor or the ninety-second floor. You’d jump *either way* if you were about to get burned or suffocated.

          On the other hand, a true suicide wouldn’t jump UNLESS he was going to die. He wouldn’t bother jumping from the second story window. The euthanasiac wouldn’t take the pill if it wasn’t going to kill her. The soldier with suicidal intent wouldn’t jump on the grenade EXCEPT if he thought it would kill him. The hero, on the other hand doesn’t care if he dies or not (or, more likely, does care and doesn’t prefer it, but cares about the other peoples lives MORE).

          If you don’t think people naturally weigh pros and cons when making a decision, or that people don’t think of consequences that they foresee but which are irrelevant to the *purpose* of the proposal they’re considering…I don’t know what world you’re living in.

          Of course if I start a factory I’m not doing it with the *purpose* of polluting. Yet of course I still weigh it as a consequence. This isn’t technical, it’s the natural way humans reason morally. Our intentions don’t usually encompass all the consequences. Consequences and purpose are often different. This isn’t some loophole, it’s something everyone has experienced.

        • Paul Connors

          David Cruz-Uribe: “It seems equally commonsensical to say that I am jumping on a grenade to die because my death will save others.”

          How can it be “common sense” to use a form of language that hides what your intentions really amount to?

          (a) I jump on a grenade, saving the others, but I am killed.
          (b) I jump on a grenade, saving the others, but I am wounded.

          According your chosen “common sense” language, what you were trying to achieve was (a), and (b) would be a failure.


          Every “common sense” form of language has been used by every totalitarian government in history, and every popular revolution, to twist what their actions really amount, by carefully choosing their own “common sense” form of language — and they all end mysteriously in multiple deaths. What a surprise. Not that this is a specifically political thing. Both Adam and Eve hid behind a subterfuge of language when asked to explain what had happened. It is a favorite evasion of fallen humans.

          So, if people want to see the examination of language (and intentions) as just “nitpicking” or looking for “distinctions without differences”, just go ahead, there’s a nice wide road right in front of you.

    • I enjoyed reading your analysis. It was helpful and well said.

      I suspect that in, some extreme circumstances, any seeming moral equivalency between different responses comes about — not from our intuitive grasps of deontological realities and double effect principles, which we definitely experience, even if sometimes nonreflectively, in our deepest moral sensibilities and intuitions, but — from our
      imputation of other exculpatory factors, like human passions or emotional states, especially as would be aroused in such extreme circumstances.

      Concretely, while jumping and shooting onself are deontologically distinct, we might intuit that they are both morally exculpatory, but in different ways.

      In other cases, though, I still feel that formal reason will fail us for various reasons and that we must fallback on a preponderance of informal reasons, including reductio ad absurdum, slipped slopes and so on.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I want to thank everyone who responded to this thread. I have been chewing this over and some distinctions are becoming clearer to me. However, I want to mull on this some more rather than respond directly to the majority of comments, at least for now.

    • trellis smith

      One thing to mull over would be all the distinctions without a difference.