Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ethicist suicide

Maybe I was the only one that missed this a few weeks ago, but I just saw it and wanted to share. No matter what your opinion of the Iraq war, this is a sad and disturbing story.

excerpt:
WASHINGTON — One hot, dusty day in June, Col. Ted Westhusing was found dead in a trailer at a military base near the Baghdad airport, a single gunshot wound to the head.

The Army would conclude that he committed suicide with his service pistol. At the time, he was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.

The Army closed its case. But the questions surrounding Westhusing's death continue.

Westhusing, 44, was no ordinary officer. He was one of the Army's leading scholars of military ethics, a full professor at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq to be able to better teach his students. He had a doctorate in philosophy; his dissertation was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor.

full story here

5 comments:

  1. I see no tragedy here. The man did what he decided to be a virtuous thing. The real tragedy is how little coverage the story recieved, and the state of our culture that deems this action a tragedy and not a lesson.

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  2. I had heard rumors about some nefarious actions on the part of government contractors in this case, but I don't know that they were substantiated.

    Who was it that said that all philosophy is trying to answer the question "Why is it bad to kill yourself?"

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  3. Probably it is seen as a tragedy as most suicide is the result of clinical depression and mental illness.

    Not much lesson in a death from mental illness, other than that people will exploit anything.

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  4. I suppose you're right, Stephen. Still, the background story of this guy makes me think that the "he was suffering from mental illness" story doesn't quite fit in this case.

    Although you don't make this mistake (you say "most suicide" not "all suicide" so it looks like you think there are cases where suicide isn't a consequence of mental illness), I think it would be a mistake to always link up suicides with mental illness. I've seen this done lots of times, and sometimes people say that mental illness is a necessary condition for suicide (so that if we have a case of suicide we, ipso facto, have a case of mental illness).

    I don't think so. I think there are plenty of "rational" suicides, or cases where people coolly calculate that they don't want to carry on given the burdens they think they'll have to carry and be unable to shoulder. They may or may not be right about that (I at least think it's possible that they might be right in their calculation, even if people are totally healthy and are not suffering from some terminal or terrible illness).

    One interesting bit of speculation to engage in is to enquire as to the reason why people tend to make a quick association between suicide and mental illness. Some friends of mine just can't conceive of it ever being the case that self-termination is preferable, all things considered, to carrying on. I wonder whether this denial of the possibility of rational suicide gets at something core or fundamental about how the rest of us view life? Does the possibility of rational suicide somehow change the way we conceive of our own life?

    Just floating some questions that I think are worth speculating about.

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  5. One interesting bit of speculation to engage in is to enquire as to the reason why people tend to make a quick association between suicide and mental illness. Some friends of mine just can't conceive of it ever being the case that self-termination is preferable, all things considered, to carrying on. I wonder whether this denial of the possibility of rational suicide gets at something core or fundamental about how the rest of us view life? Does the possibility of rational suicide somehow change the way we conceive of our own life?

    I would agree that these are excellent questions.

    I think that the link between depression and suicide used to be denied. All suicides were treated as damned felons. Then a better understanding of depression and mental illness started to grow, and a number of religious leaders began to preach sermons in line with modern science assuring people that in many cases suicide was not a willful act but was instead a disease symptom.

    In the case at hand, I obviously do not have all of the details, but the reports reflect a very driven person, very isolated, and very rigid in his thought processes. That can be both good and bad. But it does make suicide as the result of mental illness issues more likely.

    But we do not have Roman style suicides (where people killed themselves to avoid torture, public humiliation and execution -- taking their own lives on their own terms) in our culture and from a third world perspective, many suicides occur in people whose lives don't look so bad (consider the number of young men who kill themselves when their girlfriends are pregnant and their cars break down, scarcely hopeless from the point of view of someone living in Tanzania).

    But, we need not to sweep every suicide under the rug with the comment that it is only mental illness.

    My bottom line is that look with a great deal of distaste at the exploitation of the mentally ill and of those suffering from situational depression (such as a parent whose child has just died). There is a lot of it, much of it a lesson in the inability of people to distance themselves from what they want to read into situations.

    Anyway, I think you are on to a good chain of thought, worth a post in itself.

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