Withering of Critique: Vulnerable Victims

The most recent and most comprehensive study of suicide by right to die associations in Switzerland was conducted by a team of statisticians and epidemiologists based at the Institute of Social and Preventative Medicine in Bern. The team linked suicides facilitated by three organizations (EXIT Deutsche Schweiz; EXIT ADMD; DIGNITAS) in the period 2003-2008 to a census based longitudinal study of the Swiss population. 1301assisted suicides were analyzed in relation to census data for 5 million Swiss residents.

They showed that:
“Assisted suicide was more likely in women than in men, those living alone compared with those living with others and in those with no religious affiliation compared with Protestants or Catholics. The rate was also higher in more educated people, in urban compared with rural areas and in neighborhoods of higher socioeconomic position. In older people, assisted suicide was more likely in the divorced compared with the married; in younger people, having children was associated with a lower rate.

The team’s conclusion:
“Assisted suicide in Switzerland was associated with female gender and situations that may indicate greater vulnerability such as living alone or being divorced, but also with higher education and higher socio-economic position.”

The team clearly wanted to find a moral and political anchor point for their result hence they pushed their conclusion toward the vague idea that as a social fact we see a current of suicide associated with a social morphology of people who “may be” “vulnerable,” which is to say living alone, being divorced or being a woman. What is just as telling is the strikingly orthodox sociological picture that is painted: egoistic suicide as outcome of social isolation and anomie. As a social fact this may be true. However, it seems that anthropologically we learn little about the significance of the form of suicide other than it is socially pathological and explainable with respect to social morphology.

Furthermore, in addition to social pathology in the strict Durkheimian sense, there is also an undercurrent of a moral discourse, and a moral pathology, continued in one of the article’s “key messages”:
“Malignancies and nervous system conditions were common underlying causes on death certificates, but in 16% of cases no underlying cause was recorded. In 20 cases a mental disorder was the only underlying cause.”

Implicit in this message ("only") is an evaluation about appropriate and inappropriate underlying causes as reasons for assisted suicide. If the authors wish to go into such ethical anthropological terrain, the manner of procedure must be different than their epidemiological apparatus allows.

The epidemiologists take a position in terms of a police function, monitoring trends on behalf of the state, which is their job, but also making judgments about legitimacy and illegitimacy of cases. Their presentation of the data on mental disorder implies that mental illness is insufficient as a reason for being assisted with suicide, and is problematic because of the unique legal conditions in which the practice currently operates, a statement which at a minimum is scientifically unearned even if justifiable in other terms, about which the authors are silent.

The withering of critical functions of social science seems to be strongly indexed to the demand to name and work on behalf of a victim. Such a point was forcefully made this week by Pierre-Andre Taguieff in a polemic in the Huffington Post against social scientific explanations of why young French people are going to Syria and Iraq, namely, French Islamophobia. What struck me as of interest is that in both epidemiological accounts of social causality in assisted suicide and of victimization as causal vector for French youths joining Daesh, there is a total indifference to the significance and thought attributed by people themselves to what they do, what Weber called “action,” prior to any socio-political position taking.