Type of Document Thesis Author Miller, Michael Benjamin Author's Email Address firstname.lastname@example.org URN etd-04092008-150520 Title Suicide and Evolution Degree Master of Arts Department Philosophy, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title Michael Ruse Committee Chair David McNaughton Committee Member Thomas Joiner Committee Member Keywords
- Egotistical Suicide
- Altruisitc Suicide
- Intending To X
- Intentionally X-Ing
- Group Selection
Date of Defense 2008-02-29 Availability unrestricted AbstractI intend to examine a particular human behavior, suicide, from an evolutionary perspective. It has been nearly 150 years since Darwinism has captivated the minds of mankind and I consider this thesis to be a continuation of Darwin’s work, a naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon of suicide. It is commonly thought that evolution is concerned primarily with survival and reproduction and that any behavior that works against these ends ‘goes against nature’. The main argument which I posit in Chapter 1 is an attempt to demonstrate how it is that suicide ‘is in accordance with nature’ and to explain the evolutionary origins of the commonplace intuition that suicide is wrong. I am claiming that suicide is a natural phenomenon, that it can be explained by an analysis of the evolutionary forces that sculpted the behaviors that Homo sapiens inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. This requires an analysis of the evolution of concepts within evolutionary theory that support such a claim. I begin this analysis with a discussion of Biology and Death, illuminating the common intuitions concerning suicide and evolution. I examine the behavior of various organisms to find instances of non-human suicide, what appears to be natural self destruction. Thus, I examine the historical progression of key evolutionary concepts and ideas beginning with Darwin himself. Central to my understanding of suicide and evolution is memetics, or cultural evolution. As human beings attempting to understand our evolutionary function, we must look to culture as the engine for evolutionary development if we are to understand our current biological dispositions as well as the selective forces acting upon individuals. From there, I discuss what little has been said on suicide and evolution. The arguments, concepts, and beliefs presented in this chapter are all aimed at providing a reasonable explanation for the claim that suicide is in accordance with nature, as well as explaining the source of our contrary intuition.
In Chapter 2 I intend to provide the reader with a philosophical conceptual landscape of suicide and also to introduce my own operating definition of suicide. I have divided the chapter into five sections; Plato and Suicide, Hume and Suicide, Kant and Suicide, Contemporary Debates Concerning Suicide, and My Operating Definition of Suicide. In the first four sections I will present what each philosopher has to say concerning suicide. Since most of what philosopher’s have to say concerning suicide is pertinent to moral philosophy I will accordingly be presenting their arguments for or against the immorality of suicide. Couched within these arguments are their definitions of suicide, though sometimes they give us a definition explicitly. Thus, I will also be presenting what each philosopher would consider as suicide- that is, I will explain what class of actions count as suicidal for Plato, Hume, and Kant. In the fourth section I will demonstrate the current philosophical importance of the definition of suicide in relation to the fields of ethics and action theory. In the final section of this chapter, I will present my own proposed operational definition of suicide- which is somewhat modeled upon what these philosophers argued- but I will not justify or defend my definition until the final chapter.
Since this chapter takes up the issue of morality, given that the previous chapter concerned suicide there is a need to clarify the contact points between these two important philosophical realms. I want to limit the analysis of morality in this section to simply demonstrating what influential thinkers in philosophy have had to say about its moral status as well as their definition of suicide. What does evolution have to say about morality? In this thesis I assume the following relationship: evolution is silent when it concerns moral truths. Evolution provides us with an understanding of our emotive capacities and this understanding seems to be at odds with various forms of moral realism, but this is mistaken. The best evolutionary tale one can tell does not entail that moral realism is false. I take it to be the case that when we explain why we have the emotive capacities that we do- for the sake of increasing fitness- then we may then have some reason to question our moral intuitions. However this is not an argument that I can pursue in this thesis. I am claiming that evolutionary theory can help explain why there has been so much moral revulsion against suicide historically, but that is not to deny that there is in fact an independent moral truth that holds suicide to be immoral. A full explication of the relationship between evolution and ethics is a massive undertaking that I am not going to embark upon. Here I am concerned with the facts of our evolutionary history that impact historical conceptions of suicide- thereby attempting to demonstrate a commonplace ambiguity in the concept.
Chapter 3 is where I provide justification for my definition and extension of suicide. This justification comes from a contemporary debate concerning the nature of intentionality. Under a rejection of the Simple View of Intentionality my definition of suicide as intentionally killing oneself entails an extension of the concept that rallies against common intuitions by including altruistic suicides as well as the commonplace egotistical suicides. That is, under a rejection of the Simple View, if suicide is intentionally killing oneself then the extension of the concept includes individual intentionally kill themselves yet do not intend to kill themselves (they intend to save, for instance). This swells the class of actions that count as suicidal well beyond what the folk definition admits, thus introducing the class deemed altruistic suicide. There is a nice philosophical point to be made concerning the definition or extension of suicide- either the intuition concerning the definition and extension of suicide is correct and the definition is imprecise or the definition is correct and the intuition imprecise. I also present Joshua Knobe’s research from Ameliorative Psychology, thereby reinforcing my argument that suicide has historically been conceptually misunderstood due to emotive responses. Knobe’s research demonstrates that people are more likely to ascribe intentionality to cases in which the side effect of the agent’s action is negative/bad. I suggest that there is something similar going on with the folk conception of suicide. Finally, I conclude the thesis with a discussion of what has been learned and why it is important.
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