Adam, alerts me to Bryan Caplan full-throated embrace of the suicide fallacy. That is the notion that life must be better than never having been born because people could kill themselves but choose not to.
Why would a minor gift of cash be a clear-cut gain, but a massive gift of human capital be a question mark? In both cases, the recipient seems to have what economists call “free disposal” – a cheap, painless away of getting rid of the unwanted gift. Don’t want $100? Drop it on the sidewalk. Don’t want to be alive? Drop yourself on the sidewalk.
First, dropping one’s self on the sidewalk is neither cheap nor painless. I don’t want to dwell to much on the pain of either plummeting to your death or hitting the sidewalk, but there is some chance that these are non-trivial.
More importantly, however, throwing yourself out of the window has consequences not only for yourself but for everyone you leave behind. It will likely cause sadness among your loved ones. It will cause the world to view you and your family differently, likely with either pity or disdain. Neither of these are desirable for most people and both of them are likely important.
Bryan waves these concerns away but there is evidence that they do indeed weigh heavily in the minds of the suicidal. Suicide watchers say that you should be on high alert when someone starts to say things like
No one would even notice if I am gone
My family would be better off without me
I am just a burden to my family and friends
This tells us that our concern for others is likely a major block to our committing suicide.
Second, and to my mind more importantly, one of the largest downsides of being born is that you have to die. Your death will be painful for your loved ones as discussed above but it’s typically a distinctly unpleasant experience for you as well.
Most people are afraid of death in a way that they are not afraid of non-existence. Thinking about the world just after your death tends to be at minimum unnerving. Thinking about the world billions of years after your death or years before you were born tends not to be so bad.
This indicates that people are concerned about the world in which they have died, not simply about the world in which they don’t exist. Indeed, most people are not troubled that they weren’t born 20 years earlier but would be saddened to know they were going to die 20 years sooner.
Life and death are not smooth inverses of one another because the process of becoming alive creates in most animals a lifelong fear of becoming dead. This is a sunk cost for everyone who is already born but is not for people who are not yet here.
If the reason that people don’t kill themselves is because they are concerned about what will happen to the people they leave behind and because they are afraid of death then these are not arguments for the value of life. Indeed, they are arguments against the value of life.
Because as soon as someone is born there are condemned to die and almost certainly leave in their wake the pain of loss. The very things they desperately want to avoid have now been made inevitable.
Addendum: I should note that optimism bias is also a likely mitigating factor for suicide. Feelings of hopelessness are another strong warning sign for suicide.
However, evidence suggests that mentally healthy individuals consistently overestimate how hopeful they should be.
In any case we shouldn’t take the low prevalence of suicide as strong evidence for the irrationality of suicide. If suicide were the rational choice then we would expect that humanity would evolve very quickly towards being irrational.
UPDATE: I am not making an argument here that life is on the whole worth having or not. I think that’s an important question and I think a lot about it. However, I lean towards thinking that (a) Its not a slam-dunk either way, life contains an unpredictable mix of joy and misery and (b) historically some sets of lives have probably had a positive expected value and others not.