The Problem With the Trolley Problem

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell.
“The Trolley Song”, from Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

 

THE PHILOSOPHER Albert Camus famously said there is one philosophical question.

According to Camus, the one philosophical question is whether one should commit suicide.
I don’t know what Camus did to occupy his spare time, but I doubt that many philosophers think of things so drastically.

 

albert-camus-6

 

Certainly, there has to be one question that isn’t… that question.

For most philosophers, philosophical questions are mostly hypothetical.
So you’d only hypothetically be committing suicide.

Wait – was Camus speaking hypothetically?

Philosophers call their hypothetical questions thought experiments.
However, unlike real professions, philosophers don’t “experiment” in laboratories in white coats with test tubes and Bunsen burners. Philosophers experiment in their minds.
Philosophical thought experiments don’t require any specialized training or talent, other than the capacity to make up stuff.

"I'm not either goofing off! - I'm doing a thought experiment!"
So, what is a thought experiment?

“Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. They are used for diverse reasons in a variety of areas, including economics, history, mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences, especially physics (SEP)

In Camus’ world, the ultimate philosophical question may be whether to commit suicide, but in the realm of thought experiments, there is only one philosophical problem: the trolley problem.

Credited to the British philosopher, Philippa Foot (1920 – 2010), the trolley problem is an ethical thought experiment.

 

obit-foot-popup

PHILIPPA FOOT, INENTOR OF THE TROLLEY PROBLEM.

 

Specifically, a utilitarian thought experiment.

The “experiment” goes as follows:

“The general aim is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person

Which one is the ethical choice?

At least this is the experiment according to Wikipedia.

The intention of the experiment is to test how and why we make ethical choices and how our method of choice can present us with additional moral dilemmas.

Although I suspect that a Randian ethical egoist would never consider the trolley problem moral dilemma inducing.

dealwithit

Unless you’ve been living under the only rock on the internet, even if you don’t know diddly poop about philosophy, you’ve undoubtedly seen the trolley problem.

It’s quite popular.
There are entire websites, Facebook pages, and memes devoted to the trolley problem.

Devoted.

 

trolley_problem_new3d

THIS IS A REAL BOOK, BY A REAL PHILOSOPHER, ABOUT THE TROLLEY PROBLEM.

 

Now, if you do live under a rock and you don’t do memes and you’re still convinced that you’ve never seen the trolley problem before, I’ll inform you that trolley problems are everywhere. You may have talked about or mulled over a trolley problem-like scenario without knowing it.

The list of trolley problem-like scenarios includes (but is certainly not limited to):

The Lifeboat
The Drowning Man (for some inexplicable reason, the drowning man is almost always Hitler)
The Fat Man
The Organ Transplant/Donor

…and the trolley problem’s considerably less attractive cousin, the “Sophie’s Choice”.

 

giphy

I CAN’T RECOMMEND WATCHING “SOPHIE’S CHOICE” ENOUGH, BUT WATCH THE MOVIE ONLY IF YOU HAVE SOMEONE AROUND TO CHEER YOU UP AFTERWARD.

 

If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ve undoubtedly seen shades of the trolley problem in Starfleet’s Kobayashi Maru test.
One famous variation of the classic trolley problem presents us with the choice sending the trolley down one track, where (at least) five people, presumably strangers, will be killed by the train or to divert the oncoming trolley down another track, where our own child has chosen (God knows why) to hang out.

Waiting for trolleys, I guess.

 

s-aee6e6dd8a35987686d8550b346ca88497ab1376

SERIOUSLY, WHY IS THAT KID EVEN ON THE TRACKS?????

 
The situation forces us to make the choice between quantity (saving five people) and quality (valuing the life of our child over the lives of others). Is our child worth more than five lives?

Yes, you say?

What if our child is Hitler?

hqdefault

No matter the situational variation, there is one question at the heart of the trolley problem’s moral dilemma: given two shitty choices, which one would you choose?

The trolley problem requires us to decide who lives and who dies (that’s the ethics part).

AAANNNDD since the trolley problem is a test of utilitarian ethics, our decision to pull the lever (or to not pull the lever) usually has something to do with the principle of utility – that is to say, who is the most valuable?

Or rather, who is the most expendable?

Wait – do I gotta write something about utility, now?

The principle of Utility is…well, the “founder” of utilitarianism (technically hedonism), the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), says:

“By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves if every action whatsoever according to the tendency it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of a party whose interest is in question…”

In short, according to the Principle of Utility, an action is right if the action produces happiness (for the greatest number of people) and an action is wrong if it causes people pain or unhappiness.

 

jeremybentham

I WONDER IF BENTHAM WOULD SAY IF THE CONSEQUENCE OF HAVING HIS CORPSE ON DISPLAY BRINGS  HAPPINESS… OR UNHAPPINES?

 

Ok… so you might be saying at this point that the trolley problem seems a little bit boring and dumb. How could this “problem” be THE philosophical problem. How is it that philosophers have devote so much time (decades, man. DECADES) to coming up with variations on such an uninteresting and easily answerable supposed moral dilemma.
And honestly, if you said that you wouldn’t be entirely wrong.

But there’s a reason why the trolley problem is so popular. There’s a reason, even if you’ve never set foot in a philosophy class, why the trolley problem has invaded internet memes and our favorite TV shows.

It’s because the trolley problem, at its heart, is pretty f’ed up.
Contemplating the various scenarios, deciding who and how many people we place on the tracks, drowning in the lake, or in the lifeboat, allows even the meekest moral philosopher to go full-on Jigsaw, placing (hypothetical) people in increasingly elaborate and horrific ethical games where most of them will end up dead.

 

saw-saw-26145720-500-271

OBVIOUSLY A UTILITARIAN

 

The trolley problem allows us to evaluate the way we make decisions that will affect other people. By deciding who lives and who dies in a thought experiment, we can speculate on the long-range consequences of our actions. We must weigh the consequences of ho we choose to save very carefully. Making the same choice of who to save under different circumstances may yield different consequences. Choosing to save the child might save the child who eventually grows up to cure cancer.

…or we might have saved the child who invented World War II.

In the real world, our choices may not be so extreme, but we do make choices that may bring happiness to many and unhappiness to one, or may save one at the expense of many others.
Whether it’s Congress deciding which social program to fund or Shane deciding to shoot Otis in the knee to save Carl

You didn’t think I wouldn’t sneak a The Walking Dead reference in here, did you?

 

shane_otis1

SERIOUSLY, DID OTIS THINK IT WASN’T GOING TO END UP LIKE THIS?

 

 

 

We all, in some way, at some time, decide to pull the lever.

Or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

 

On the Intentional Ending of Life

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night”.
I wouldn’t call the thought a consolation, but I think it’s safe to assume that I’m not the only person out there who has thought about suicide once…

Or twice.

Suicide is defined as the intentional (but sometimes accidental) ending of one’s own life.

Of course, that would exclude self-sacrifice or giving up one’s life to save others.

Those acts are considered heroic.

 

Sometimes encouraged.

 

 INTENTIONALLY TAKING ONE’S OWN LIFE IS ENCOURAGED HERE

INTENTIONALLY TAKING ONE’S OWN LIFE IS ENCOURAGED HERE

 

 

BUT NOT HERE

BUT NOT HERE

 

The reasons people commit suicide (acts of heroism excluded) are as varied as the individuals who (decide to) end their lives. The reasons vary from accidents to the want to end suffering or to depression.

This list of notable people who have committed suicide is long: Ernest Hemmingway, Meriwether Lewis*, Aaron Swartz, Hunter S. Thompson, Marilyn Monroe*, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Cato the Younger, Kurt Cobain, George Eastman, Peg Entwistle, Sam Gillespie, Abbie Hoffman, William Inge, Vincent van Gogh, David Foster Wallace, Richard Jeni, Elliot Smith, Ian Curtis, Virginia Woolf….

Socrates took his own life.

 

Of course his suicide wasn’t completely voluntary.

 

THE SUICIDE OF THE ANCIENT GREEK PHILOSOPHER WAS IMMORTALIZED IN THIS PAINTING BY JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID

THE SUICIDE OF THE ANCIENT GREEK PHILOSOPHER WAS IMMORTALIZED IN THIS PAINTING BY JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID

Many of my fellow Gen-Xers still vividly remember the news of the suicide of Nirvana front man, Kurt Cobain.

 

 

 

Many people were shocked by the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams in August, 2014. The news media was quick to report on Williams’ struggle with substance abuse and depression. In the days that followed Williams’ suicide, cable news and the internet featured stories on suicide prevention and suicide prevention hotline numbers.

 

williams

 

There were a few who openly claimed that Robin Williams was selfish in his actions. Fox News anchor Shepard Smith called Williams a “coward” (Smith later retracted his statements) and actor Todd Bridges got himself into hot water for saying that Williams’ act was “selfish”.

 

Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS said of those who commit suicide:

Drug addicts and alcoholics are always, ‘The world is a harsh place’. My mother was in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. I don’t want to hear fuck about “the world is a harsh place.” She gets up every day, smells the roses and loves life…. And for a putz, 20 year-old kid to say, ‘I’m depressed, I live in Seattle.’ Fuck you, then kill yourself.

 

Simmons continued:

I never understood, because I always call them on their bluff. I’m the guy who says “Jump!” when there’s a guy on top of a building who says, “That’s it, I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to jump”… Are you kidding? Why are you announcing it? Shut the fuck up, have some dignity and jump! You’ve got the crowd.

 

 

GENE SIMMONS: A LEGENDARY ROCK MUSICIAN WITH THE WISDOM OF JIGSAW

GENE SIMMONS: A LEGENDARY ROCK MUSICIAN WITH THE WISDOM OF JIGSAW

 

 

jigsaw

 

 

In the days and weeks that followed Williams’ suicide there was no shortage of professional and non-professional opinions on the issue.

 

Robin Williams’ death reignited the public debate over the ethics of suicide.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the days of the late Jack Kevorkian and his assisted suicide machine know that suicide is one of those issues that is approached with caution, at best.

 

 

JACK KEVORKIAN (1928-2011), EUTHANASIA ACTIVIST, CLAIMED TO HAVE ASSISTED IN THE SUICIDES OF AT LEAST 130 CHRONICALLY AND TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS

JACK KEVORKIAN (1928-2011), EUTHANASIA ACTIVIST, CLAIMED TO HAVE ASSISTED IN THE SUICIDES OF AT LEAST 130 CHRONICALLY AND TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS

 

The debate over suicide is often moral.

 

Ethical theories both permit and forbid the intentional taking of one’s life.

 

IF ONLY MAKING MORAL DECISIONS WERE THIS EASY

IF ONLY MAKING MORAL DECISIONS WERE THIS EASY

 

The French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) wrote that suicide is the only truly serious philosophical problem.

 

Albert-Camus

 

Camus writes:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.

Camus uses the myth of Sisyphus to demonstrate our struggle against the urge to commit suicide.

 

… Or rather, to demonstrate the struggle against wanting to commit suicide in the face of absurdity.

 

 

IN THE ANCIENT GREEK MYTH SISYPHUS IS CONDEMNED TO ROLL A LARGE ROCK UP A HILL FOR AN ETERNITY. WHEN SISYPHUS REACHES THE TOP OF THE PEAK THE ROCK ROLLS DOWN THE HILL AND SISYPHUS MUST ROLL THE ROCK BACK UP THE HILL AGAIN

IN THE ANCIENT GREEK MYTH SISYPHUS IS CONDEMNED TO ROLL A LARGE ROCK UP A HILL FOR AN ETERNITY. WHEN SISYPHUS REACHES THE TOP OF THE PEAK THE ROCK ROLLS DOWN THE HILL AND SISYPHUS MUST ROLL THE ROCK BACK UP THE HILL AGAIN

 

 

No matter how many times he rolls the boulder up the hill he knows the rock will roll back down and he will have to roll the it back up the hill again. The act of rolling the rock seems futile. There is no point in doing it. Sisyphus is overwhelmed by the futility of his task. In the mind of Sisyphus, his life is absurd.

 

A word about the word absurd:

 

LISTEN UP, FOLKS. A PHILOSOPHER IS ABOUT TO LEARN YOU A NEW WORD

LISTEN UP, FOLKS. A PHILOSOPHER IS ABOUT TO LEARN YOU A NEW WORD

 

 

mindy kaling GIF

 

 

When we usually say something is “absurd” we mean something is silly.

 

Something like this:

 

 

 

 

 

Although that’s silly, that’s not what philosophers mean when they use the word “Absurd’.

 

On the absurd, the great philosophical index (otherwise known as Wikipedia) says this:

In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between (1) the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and (2) the human inability to find any. … the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously. … the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd)…

Sisyphus can find no meaning in a task that he can never complete. And we, like Sisyphus, find that we are often tasked with duties and obligations in our lives that we cannot complete. Our lives often seem to lack meaning and have no purpose. And so we, like Sisyphus, are overwhelmed by the despair of the absurd. Overwhelmed by absurdity, we may conclude that the only way to escape absurdity is by ending our own lives.

 

 

WE MIGHT IMAGINE SISYPHUS PUSHING THE ROCK TO THE SIDE AND JUMPING OFF THE CLIFF

WE MIGHT IMAGINE SISYPHUS PUSHING THE ROCK TO THE SIDE AND JUMPING OFF THE CLIFF

 

However, Sartre (and existentialists in general) say that we must accept that despair and overcome it. We must build meaning into our lives in the face of meaninglessness.

Even Sisyphus, Sartre says, learns to be happy.

 

imagine sisyphus happy

 

 

We must also learn to be happy.

Sartre isn’t the only philosopher that says that suicide is not the solution for life’s problems.

 

Yep. Kant did, too.

 

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that suicide wasn’t just the result of bad decision making. Killing oneself is downright wrong.

Kant declares that suicide is a violation of the Categorical Imperative.

What’s Kant’s Categorical Imperative, you say?

 

Kant’s Categorical Imperative is as follows:

First Formulation: Formulation from Universal Law
* act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law

Second Formulation: Formulation for Ends In Themselves
*  man, and in general every rational being exists as an end in himself not merely as a means for arbitrary use by this or that will: he must in all his actions, whether they are directed to himself or to other rational beings, always be viewed at the same time as an end

 

 

categorical imperative arguments

 

What this all means is that when we perform any act we must ask ourselves a couple of questions:
1) would we want everyone else to do it, and
2) do we use or exploit anyone to get what we want?

 

Kant’s argument against suicide states:

A man who is reduced to despair by a series of evils feels a weariness with life but is still in possession of his reason sufficiently to ask whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life. Now he asks whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. His maxim, however is: For love of myself, I make it my principle to shorten my life when by a longer duration it threatens more evil than satisfaction. But it is questionable whether this principle of self-love could become a universal law of nature. One immediately sees a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would be to destroy life by the feeling whose special office is to impel the improvement of life. In this case it would not exist as nature hence that maxim cannot obtain as a law of nature, and thus it wholly contradicts the supreme principle of all duty.

 

Kant argues we can’t universalize suicide because the act of killing oneself is contradictory to our own self-love. Ok, wait a minute. What does Kant mean by “self love”?

Not that, you dirty bird.

You see, according to Kant, we all possess a sense of self-love.

I guess you can call it a sense of self-preservation.

Kant says we (should) love ourselves too much to intentionally take our own lives.

 

THE UPSHOT OF NARCISSISM IS THAT YOU PROBABLY WON’T VIOLATE THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE

THE UPSHOT OF NARCISSISM IS THAT YOU PROBABLY WON’T VIOLATE THE CATEGORICAL IMPERATIVE

 

 

Kant also argues that it is wrong to use another as a mere means to our ends.

Ok, bear with me, here.

To use a person as a mere means to our ends is to deny a person the respect of their personhood that every human being is entitled to; to treat a person as a thing. Treating a person as a thing devalues the respect that every (rational) human being is entitled to. And so, by killing ourselves we treat ourselves as a thing, we are denying the respect that we are entitled to as rational beings. We become a mere means to an end.

 

means to an end

 

Although Kant’s philosophical mission is to get away from a religion-based ethics, we can’t help from observing that Kant’s argument parallels religious edicts in the form of divine universal law (in Kant’s case his is the inviolable universal law of nature). Like Kant’s ethics, God-based arguments against suicide are rooted in the belief that every life is sacred and that we have no (moral) authority to end any human being’s life. To do so, according to the religious view, is, in essence, playing God.

We are forbidden to usurp God’s plan for us.

We are forbidden to destroy what God has created.

In doing so we risk condemnation.
In an article that appeared on Catholic Online, Chaplain Adele M. Gill says to end one‘s life prematurely is not a courageous act. Gill says:

Because it is not. Rather it is anything but. In fact, in my mind, it is a self-destructive act of selfish cowardice to end your own life before God’s perfect timing.

 

GOD DEFINITELY IS NOT DOWN WITH FRANCINE FISHPAW’S END-OF-SUFFERING PLAN

GOD DEFINITELY IS NOT DOWN WITH FRANCINE FISHPAW’S END-OF-SUFFERING PLAN

 

Although religious-based arguments are probably the most convincing anti suicide arguments (if not just for the fact that we must weigh the utility of the cessation of pain and suffering against eternal damnation), God arguments cut both ways.

 

Especially when philosophers make them.
This is probably due, in part to the fact that an estimated 62% of philosophers are atheist.

 

TYPICAL PHILOSOPHER LISTENING TO ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

TYPICAL PHILOSOPHER LISTENING TO ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD

 

In “On Suicide” the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) considers the existence of God. If there is a God, Hume asks, and everything happens according to his will, how can suicide go against the will of God?

Hume argues: if a person fights the urge to commit suicide he is fighting against the will of God.

 

… And defying the will of God gets you a one-way ticket to hellfire and eternal torment.

 

IT’S NOT ENTIRELY INCORRECT TO ASSUME THAT, DESPITE HIS PHILOSOPHICALLY PERSUASIVE ARGUMENTS, IT IS HIGHLY LIKELY THAT AT THIS MOMENT DAVID HUME IS ROASTING IN HELL

IT’S NOT ENTIRELY INCORRECT TO ASSUME THAT, DESPITE HIS PHILOSOPHICALLY PERSUASIVE ARGUMENTS, IT IS HIGHLY LIKELY THAT AT THIS MOMENT DAVID HUME IS ROASTING IN HELL

 

Now, some people may ask why would a philosopher find it necessary to weigh in on a subject like suicide? After all, dealing with life, death, and the hereafter is best handled by one’s personal spiritual adviser, priests, imams, and rabbis.

That might be true.

 

However, Not every suicide is the result of depression or a feeling of hopelessness.

Some people commit suicide for what they believe are completely legitimate reasons.

When we ponder the outcomes our actions have in this world and (possibly) in the next, we realize that to have an outcome we have to do something. We have to make a choice; a decision.

Decisions inevitably have ethical implications.

 

Philosophers deal in ethics.

 

I WEAR THIS SHIRT EVERYWHERE I GO. ... BECAUSE IT'S TRUE

I WEAR THIS SHIRT EVERYWHERE I GO.
… BECAUSE IT’S TRUE

 

Philosophical arguments on suicide (especially arguments in support of physician-assisted suicide) often focus on a person’s mental state (i.e. level of cognition) when we act.

Kant tells us that the use of reason separates humans from mere beasts.

 

 

kant reason

 

 

Our capacity for reason allows us to make deliberate and rational choices.

… You see, philosophers have this idea that in order to be a fully functional, autonomous human being, one must possess the capacity to make rational choices.

The recent news story of Brittany Maynard, the 29 year-old newlywed diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who opted to commit suicide rather than to go through suffering of her disease, Maynard articulated the rational argument in favor of what Dr. Jack Kevorkian called “patholysis” (literally translated, “destruction of suffering”).

 

 

brittany maynard

 

 

 

 

 

Most arguments about suicide, pro and against, tend to center on physician-assisted suicide.

Or as some supporters call it, death with dignity.

 

Although even the most ardent assisted-suicide proponent would have a difficult time defending suicide of those who are not chronically or terminally ill, there are many people who support physically healthy people who opt to commit suicide for psychological and/or philosophical reasons. Some argue that it is perfectly rational to make choose to commit suicide to prevent suffering and to have control ones life. Death, they argue, is inevitable. The terminal diagnosis has been made. The point isn’t to die, it’s to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering.

Several U.S. states and a handful of nations in Europe allow euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. The Swiss group Dignitas (based in Zurich, Switzerland) is a notable example of an organization providing terminally ill with death with dignity services.

 

 

THIS IS THE DIGNITAS FACILITY IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND

THIS IS THE DIGNITAS FACILITY IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND

 

Dignitas’ assisted-suicide services has been accused of promoting “suicide tourism”.

 

 

 

 

The philosophical arguments for physician-assisted suicide are compelling. Certainly a philosopher would agree that we should respect the decisions made by someone who is mentally competent and able to make full use of their capacity to think rationally. But there’s the problem we have as philosophers – we must weigh an ethic that tells us to preserve life against an ethic that tells us to respect autonomy.

Philosophers like Immanuel Kant tell us that we have a duty to help others but we also have a duty not to interfere with the actions of morally autonomous beings.

 

autonomy
However, we can still argue that suicide, despite our moral autonomy and our justifications, can’t be a rational choice.

Namely:

  • A rational choice, by necessity, has to be made when one is fully aware and knowledgeable of what they’re doing. Since no person possesses the ability to know how their death will affect others, we can‘t reasonably argue that we can calculate (all of) the consequences of a suicide.
  • If a person commits suicide they are hurting more than themselves. A person who commits suicide deprives people not only of their presence, but also of what they could have done. Especially if we end our lives before we reach our full potential.
  • Death, no matter the circumstance, is bad. Death causes us harm. Why would someone willingly do something that is harmful?
  • Someone who is mentally depressed, mentally ill or mentally impaired (by illness or medication) can not, by definition, be entirely rational and therefore is incapable of making rational choices.
  • Young people lack the mental/psychological/philosophical maturity required to make rational choices and should be strongly discouraged from committing suicide, even if the reason for doing so seems rational.
  • Given the possibility that one would burn in hell, why would someone risk an eternal punishment, even to avoid pain or to end suffering?

 

WE WOULDN’T WANT TO DISCOVER THAT THE CONSEQUENCE OF A SEEMINGLY RATIONAL ACT IS ETERNAL

WE WOULDN’T WANT TO DISCOVER THAT THE CONSEQUENCE OF A SEEMINGLY RATIONAL ACT IS ETERNAL

 

Suicide is always a tragic event. We can be certain that there will be arguments on both sides of the issue. No matter what or justification for ending our own lives may be, there will be questions that will remain unanswered: Is it always wrong to commit suicide? Are mental or chronic or terminal physical illness enough reason to commit suicide? Should doctors assist the terminally ill to end their own lives? Should we continue to struggle to against the absurdity of life and how should we escape it?

 

 

Unfortunately, neither philosophers nor the clergy have given us answers we all can agree on.

 

 

 

 

 
* if you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (in the U.S.) 1-800-273-8255
Or go to the website: suicidepreventionlifeline.org

 

 

NOTE:
* It is still debated whether Meriwether Lewis and Marilyn Monroe actually committed suicide.
* For more reading on reasons why people commit suicide:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/happiness-in-world/201004/the-six-reasons-people-attempt-suicide
SOURCES:
Immanuel Kant. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. 1997 [1785]. Trans. Lewis White Beck. 2nd Edition (Revised). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 38-39.

Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus. 1975 [1942]. Trans. Justin O’ Brien. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 11.

Fred Feldman. Confrontations With the Reaper: A Philosophical Study of the Nature and Value of Death. 1992. NY: Oxford University Press.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/

http://philosophynow.org/issues/61/Kant_On_Suicide

http://www.etonline.com/news/149905_gene_simmons_tells_depressed_people_to_kill_themselves/index.html

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201405/why-do-people-kill-themselves-new-warning-signs

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism

http://www.salon.com/2014/10/19/brittany_maynards_brave_choice_why_religious_arguments_against_physician_assisted_suicide_fall_flat/

Ash Williams and the Meaning of Life

“life is a tale, told by an idiot,  full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
— William Shakespeare

IT SEEMS STRANGE to say that I like my horror movies with a coherent plot. I seems even stranger to say that I appreciate a horror movie that has philosophical significance. And now, I intend to write about not one, but three films that possess both plot and philosophy: Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.

SAM RAIMI'S "THE EVIL DEAD" TRILOGY: MORE PHILOSOPHICAL THAN KIERKEGAARD.

SAM RAIMI’S “THE EVIL DEAD” TRILOGY: MORE PHILOSOPHICAL THAN KIERKEGAARD.

The Evil Dead, subtitled “the ultimate experience in grueling horror”, released in 1982, and it’s sequel (?) Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992), follows the adventures in terror of Ash Williams, who, along with an assortment of companions, unknowingly (through the recitation of passages from the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead), conjure up evil spirits that, over the course of the film, knock off each of the unfortunate unintentional conjurers “one by one”.

The first film of the trilogy The Evil Dead, starts off with nothing spectacular: five college kids (including Ash, his sister Cheryl, his girlfriend Linda, his buddy Scott, and his girlfriend Shelly) head up to an isolated cabin in the woods (not The Cabin in the Woods — That’s a different movie. And an entirely different moral situation) where they drink moonshine, smoke weed, and generally do what young folks in a typical horror flick set in an isolated cabin in the woods do.

A GROUP OF COLLEGE KIDS GO OFF TO AN ISOLATED CABIN IN THE WOODS AND WHAT HAPPENS?  YEP. THEY HAVE DINNER.

A GROUP OF COLLEGE KIDS GO OFF TO AN ISOLATED CABIN IN THE WOODS AND WHAT HAPPENS?
YEP. THEY HAVE DINNER.

While snooping around the cabin, Ash and his male companion, Scotty, stumble upon an ancient reel to reel, which just so happens to be the property of an archaeologist who just so happened to be translating passages from an ancient Sumerian text containing incantations and rituals for demonic resurrection.

Playing a mysterious reel-to-reel tape containing ancient Sumerian demonic incantations….what could possibly go wrong?

ASK CHERYL WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PLAY INCANTATIONS FROM THE NECRONOMICON AND THEN GO WALKING IN THE WOODS

ASK CHERYL WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU PLAY INCANTATIONS FROM THE NECRONOMICON AND THEN GO WALKING IN THE WOODS

Well, as expected, reawakened evil immediately sets to systematically possessing and killing (most horrifically) each of the young, nubile campers.

As dawn breaks, Ash, the lone survivor, emerges covered in blood from the cabin. But as Ash breathes a sigh of relief, having survived an encounter with the evil dead, we follow a remaining evil spirit through the woods, through the cabin, eventually running headlong into Ash himself as the camera fades to black.

We assume that Ash has not escaped the evil dead, but is the last of its victims. That is, until 1987, when Evil Dead 2:Dead By Dawn was released.

It’s been rumored that Sam Raimi, having taken so much heat for the excessive violence of the first Evil Dead film, wanted to make a movie that was more appeasing to the censors.

video-nasty-newspaper1

This may explain why Evil Dead 2 is less of a sequel than it is a remake of the original film.

The film opens as Ash and his girlfriend Linda are heading up to the totally deserted, so far away from civilization that, if you were attacked by an onslaught of demonic forces, no one would hear you screaming cabin in the woods.

Once again, Ash, while rifling through someone else’s stuff, stumbles upon an old reel to reel containing a recordings read from the Necronomicon.

THIS IS THE NECRONOMICON. DO NOT READ FROM THIS BOOK

THIS IS THE NECRONOMICON. DO NOT READ FROM THIS BOOK

And, as expected, Ash and his girlfriend are besieged by the spirits of the evil undead. After beheading and dismembering his girlfriend, Ash is (eventually) joined by a different group of Red Shirts, including the archaeologist’s daughter, Annie, her assistant Ed, a hillbilly with a serious case of hyperhidrosis named Jake, and his too cute for this guy in real life girlfriend named Bobby Joe.

evil dead 2

NO, YOU ARE NOT WATCHING “THE EVIL DEAD” ALL OVER AGAIN. THIS IS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT MOVIE.

As this film ends, Ash and Annie must read from the Necronomicon to send the evil back to its own time. During the film’s climax, Annie is killed (she’s stabbed in the back with the Kandarian dagger), but the beleaguered Ash is sent back in time with the demon.

Luckily for Ash, this time he is not unarmed, and he slays the evil creature with a blast from his shotgun (his “boomstick”).  Evil Dead 2:Dead By Dawn ends as Ash is being hailed as a hero.

The last of the trilogy, Army of Darkness, opens where Evil Dead 2 leaves off. Ash finds himself held captive by a medieval army, being led off to his death. During Ash’s trip, he guides us, by way of voice-over, through a flashback. We once again see Ash and his girlfriend Linda (this time played by Bridget Fonda) heading up to that God-forsaken cabin in the woods.

most interesting cabin in the woods

We’ve seen it all before: Ash and Linda head up to the cabin, Ash finds reel to reel, Ash plays reel to reel, Linda is caried off by demonic forces, Ash battles the evil dead, Ash goes back in time, Ash ends up a slave on his way to death. However, the adventure (this time) does not take place in the cabin. Ash must retrieve the Necronomicon and banish the evil dead by reciting the words: klaatu barada nikto.

Of course, Ash fails to say the words correctly.

And this, my friends, is where the philosophy begins.

The original The Evil Dead seems simple enough — it follows the formulaic plot employed by dozens of genre films: stick a group of twenty-somethings in a remote place and kill them off one by one. Throw in a few obligatory boob shots and some pot smoking before someone gets sliced in half or shot through the head with an arrow.

The plot of The Evil Dead (and similar films) is pretty repetitive, except I do believe that The Evil Dead is the only horror film that I know of that contains a scene where a character is violated by a tree. Not with a tree, by a tree.

FOR REASONS CONCERNING THE LETTERS NSFW, I WILL NOT INCLUDE A GIF OR FILM CLIP OF THIS SCENE

FOR REASONS CONCERNING THE LETTERS NSFW, I WILL NOT INCLUDE A GIF OR FILM CLIP OF THIS SCENE

But there is something else at work here.

It is the character Ash himself.

As The Evil Dead closes, we are left to assume that Ash has suffered the fate of his companions. Yet, Ash returns in Evil Dead 2. Not only does Ash come back, he comes back with his girlfriend Linda , and we know that Linda died in the previous film.

NOT THE SAME LINDA

NOT THE SAME LINDA

Ash, however, seems completely unaware that any event that is happening in this film already happened in the first film. Now, we could take the films at face value assuming that Sam Raimi liked the plot of the original film so much, and enjoyed torturing star Bruce Campbell so thoroughly, that he felt the need to remake his first film.

That might very well be true.

However, we are given a clue that there is something else going on on a deeper level.

While searching through the Necronomicon for the incantation that will send back the evil spirit to its own time, Annie and Ash happen upon a page bearing a picture of a man standing, arm raised up holding a chainsaw.

THESE AREN'T THE PAGES WITH ASH ON THEM BUT HE WAS TOTALLY IN THE NECRONOMICON

THESE AREN’T THE PAGES WITH ASH ON THEM BUT HE WAS TOTALLY IN THE NECRONOMICON

When Annie flips to the page, Ash gasps. He tells Annie that he feels as if someone has just walked over his grave. The picture in the Necronomicon looks, with an exception of the image wearing a pair of white pants, like Ash. Annie tells Ash that the traveler was predicted to come to vanquish the evil. Ash remarks that the traveler “didn’t do a very good job”.

THE NECRONOMICON PREDICTED THAT THE TRAVELER WILL SENT THROUGH THIS VORTEX

THE NECRONOMICON PREDICTED THAT THE TRAVELER WILL SENT THROUGH THIS VORTEX

Finally, in Army of Darkness, Ash is thrust back in time where, with chainsaw on hand, he leads Richard and his army in a battle against the deadites. The priests tell Ash that he is the traveler that was predicted to save the people from the forces of evil. And, as Ash observed in Evil Dead 2 , the traveler didn’t do a very good job.

Ready for the philosophy?

When I first noticed that there was something odd about the continuity of the Evil Dead films, I had assumed that the underlying plot was time travel. It was easy enough to assume this because in Evil Dead 2 destroying the evil required opening up a portal in time.

IF IT WORKS FOR STAR TREK, WHY NOT FOR AN EVIL DEAD FLICK?

IF IT WORKS FOR STAR TREK, WHY NOT FOR AN EVIL DEAD FLICK?

That was before I had heard of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche posited that we can judge the overall value (or meaningfulness) of our live by asking ourselves this basic question: would you want to live your life over again? Nietzsche, being the excellent humorist that he was, added one small catch — the life that we live eternally would be the exact same life that we had already lived. We cannot change a thing about our lives, we must live each day, month, hour, and second as we had lived the first time around — for an eternity.

eternal

Ash, at first glance, seems to be stuck in some sort of loop. He seems to be repeating his life over and over (at least three times). However, not only does Ash seem unaware that he is repeating his life, each Evil Dead film is slightly different from the one the preceded it.

NOT THE SAME LINDA

NOT THE SAME LINDA

In each film, the group at the cabin is different. In each movie, the actress playing Ash’s girlfriend Linda is different. And each ends differently. So, in a strictly Nietzschean sense, Ash’s life is not the same. Also, Nietzsche’s question is one about life’s meaning. There seems to be no such meaningful scheme for Ash. Ash just goes through the motions and learns absolutely nothing in the process. The fact that Ash seems unaware of the fact that he repeats the same routine suggests that Ash could not make the decision to live the same life repeatedly as Nietzsche requires for eternal return. So, by my estimate, Ash’s cabin in the woods-based adventure, is not Nietzschean.

So what is it then?

As I was eliminating Nietzsche, I started to think of another doomed to repeat himself kind of guy: Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, having been condemned by the gods, is doomed to push a large rock uphill, only to have the rock slide back down the mountain when he reaches the top. For Sisyphus, he is condemned to repeat the same futile act for an eternity. No matter what Sisyphus does, the rock will roll back down the hill.

Sisyphus’ punishment sounds more like Ash’s predicament than Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.

The first clue to this interpretation of the Evil Dead trilogy came in Evil Dead 2, where Annie and Ash are looking through the Book of the Dead. To the viewer, the picture of the traveler clearly is Ash, and Ash’s reaction suggests that the man depicted in the book is him. Annie tells Ash that a prophesy tells us the the traveler was sent to the past to destroy the evil, which suggests that there are higher forces at work in the scheme of things.

Prophesy tends to deal with matters that are assigned by the gods (or God) that humans must abide by or fulfill. So, we can (somewhat safely) assume that Ash’s predicament may have been arranged by the gods, like Sisyphus.

So, like Sisyphus, perhaps Ash has been condemned to repeat the same futile act — namely having a succession of girlfriends named Linda killed by evil demons, being sent back in time to rid civilization of evil demons, and ultimately screwing up, which will require him to repeat the task all over again.

But, unlike Camus’ Sisyphus, who ultimately finds happiness in his condemnation (he comes to gain happiness through the attempt to roll the rock uphill. The rock staying there is no longer a goal that Sisyphus seeks), Ash remains unaware that he is condemned to repeat his life over and over again.

On the DVD commentaries for the Evil Dead films, both star Bruce Campbell and director Sam Raimi express a disdain for the character Ash. It seems that, from their point of view, Ash may be too stupid to figure out that he has been to that cabin before. For example, Sam Raimi calls Ash an “idiot, coward and a braggart”.

In the end, Sisyphus is able to derive some meaning out of his futile existence. However, Ash Williams, it seems, is condemned to live a life best expressed by Shakespeare.

Ash Williams’ life is full of sound and fury, but ultimately it signifies nothing.