Responsibility & Suicide

Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers, committed suicide after his roommate Dharun Ravi and another student,  Molly Wei, allegedly posted a video of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another male.

Ravi and Lei have been charged with invasion of privacy and not with Clementi’s death. From a legal standpoint, this is to be expected. After all, establishing a legal causal link between the release of the video and his death would be rather difficult.

My main interest in the matter is not the legal aspect of the case, but rather the moral aspect. That is, the degree to which Ravi and Lei might be morally responsible for Clementi’s death. I am qualifying this because Ravi and Lei have not been convicted and hence they are merely accused of the crime at this point. This is an example of the broader matter of the responsibility a person has for actions that others take based on his own actions. In the specific case at hand, the problem is determining to what degree those involved in the distribution of the video are responsible for Clementi’s death.

While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.

Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X.  This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be an intuitive plausible reason that I am responsible for the person’s death.

If Wei and Ravi did, in fact, post the video in question and Clementi did, in fact, kill himself because of the video being posted, then it seems likely that Cleminiti would be alive today but for the posting. As such, Wei and Ravi would thus seem to be (potentially) responsible for his death and thus morally culpable.

However, there are clearly degrees of culpability. While the video being posted might have been a causal factor in the suicide, the causal link is far weaker than it would have been if, say, the accused had pushed Clementi off the bridge. Also, merely playing a causal role is not enough to ground moral (or legal) accountability. To use an obvious example, the video could not have been made without cameras. However, to hold the maker of the cameras responsible would be absurd. What is needed is, obviously enough, a degree and kind of causal role that grounds moral responsibility

One obvious reason as to why the accused have only a degree of culpability is that suicide is a matter of choice. While this choice was probably influenced by the release of the video, Clementi would not be dead if he had not decided to kill himself(assuming he did so).  This would certainly seem to reduce the moral responsibility of the the two people who allegedly posted the video. In contrast, if the two people had pushed him from the bridge against his will, then he would have no morally significant causal role in his own death and the moral responsibility would be fully upon them.

It might be argued that the two people who allegedly posted the video should have known what was going to happen and hence this makes them more responsible for the death. However, this seems implausible. It is reasonable to expect that a person would be outraged by such a posting or perhaps even horribly embarrassed. As such, they can be accused of invading his privacy and even with acting with an intent to create emotional harm.  However, since suicide is not a likely reaction to such an action, those who posted it cannot be reasonably expected to have believed that Clementi would kill himself.

To use an analogy, while people should not throw snowballs at other people, a person who throws one generally cannot be taken as throwing the snowball with an intent to kill. After all, snowballs generally do not do that. Naturally, the snowball analogy is not a perfect fit-if someone is killed by a thrown snowball, then the causal connection in the death is much stronger than in the case of a video that allegedly contributed to a suicide.

Of course, if the accused did know that Clementi was likely to respond by committing suicide, then the matter changes. To use the snowball analogy, if someone throws a snowball at someone who is likely to die from being hit by one, then they can be reasonably regarded as intending to cause the person’s death-or at least not being overly concerned with that possibility. Of course, this analogy breaks at a certain point-after all, suicide is a chosen behavior and dying when hit with a snowball is not. As such, even if the accused did know that Clementi was likely to kill himself, his death would still be ultimately a matter of his own choice. This factor of choice seems to be rather morally significant in the matter at hand.

Overall, it seems clear that creating and posting such a video was wrong. However, it also seems clear that the moral culpability of the accused is very limited in regards to the suicide. At most, the actions of the accused could be seen as a contributory cause in regards to the motivation to commit suicide.

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  1. If this video was posted in a culture where homosexuality was forbidden and punishable with imprisonment and perhaps death it could be argued that socially they had committed a socially approved act that brought a criminal to justice. Tyler obviously found the disclosure a matter of great shame and morally carried for him a weight of believed social and personal disapprobation he could not carry. His room mate and by association Lei were surely aware of this and seems at least morally culpable. And as you say if they knew this the situation changes. Had it been someone who was not known to Tyler then it would be an invasion of privacy as they would not have knowledge of the likely effect. Alternatively the perpetrators could have posted this video if Tyler was overtly anti gay as a front, hence the video was a means of highlighting his hypocrisy.
    His room mate seems to have some responsibility to Tyler but not for his actions, though in some cases constant bullying, taunting and attempted humiliations would contribute to responsibility for.It would not then be a simple invasion of privacy.
    I suppose there is a general point in that we seem to be more responsible for our actions the more we know about a person/situation. Had the perpetrator been a doctor Tyler had known and was treating him for his guilt over his homosexuality then he would be responsible if the suicide was his intent and totally irresponsible evenif it wasn’t.
    The press often invade privacy under the justification that the knowledge gained and laid open for public inspection is in the public interest , as if without that knowledge the public would not simply now know what they didn’t know before, but that without that knowledge some wrong would be committed against the public interest (well being). Dubious as that often is in the case of the press, it cannot claimed here.

  2. What a horrible situation.

    It seems like the sticky wicket here is that this probably wasn’t the first time someone’s tried to humiliate him because of his differences. And it might not have even been the worst case, just the straw that broke the camel’s back. But how could that ever be decided? What the accused did is deplorable, for sure, but maybe coming out to his parents, or things that were said/done to him in high school had already led him to decide, “One more time and I’m ending it,” or something like that. The people who perpetrated this last act are of course morally responsible, and every one else who tried to make him feel like a person of lesser value are morally responsible, and all (maybe) to the same extent.

  3. Hayek makes an interesting point relevant to this:

    “If we say that a person is responsible for the consequences of an action, this is not a statement of fact or an assertion about causation. The statement would, of course, not be justifiable if nothing he ‘might’ have done or omitted could have altered the result. … Rather, the statement that a person is responsible for what he does aims at making his actions different from what they would be if he did not believe it to be true. We assign responsibility to a main, not in order to say that as he was he might have acted differently, but in order to make him different. If I have caused harm to somebody by negligence or forgetfulness, “which I could not help” in the circumstances, this does not exempt me from responsibility but should impress upon me more strongly than before the necessity of keeping the possibility of such consequences in mind.

    … The justification for assigning responsibility is thus the presumed effect of this practice on future action; it aims at teaching people what they ought to consider in future comparable situations. If we allow men freedom because we presume them to be reasonable beings, we also must make it worth their while to act as reasonable beings by letting them bear the consequences of their decisions.”

    Probably very similar videos have been posted many times before with no consequences beyond extreme embarrassment. In some sense those people got away with causing the risk of serious harm, whereas Ravi and Lei have hit the jackpot.

    It is somewhat like the case of one person who causes a fatality being punished, while the 99 others who drove objectively equally carelessly are punished less so or not at all.

  4. A vile loathsome and despicable thing to do to any body. In this case a shy retiring homosexual young man who was apparently a gifted musician, exacerbates the horror of this supreme act of bullying committed against him. A determined effort to make him ridiculous and for the whole world to see it, by way of the Internet. There might have been a modicum of excuse for the perpetrators, had it been done on the spur of the moment, but it was not; it took some planning to set up the video camera, and all that went with it.
    I do not think the intention to kill was uppermost in the minds of the perpetrators so it is not a case of ‘if and only if X then Y’ and it may well have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back; he obviously preferred death to living as a laughing stock and all that it entailed. This being the case the perpetrators surely must bear some responsibility for the death. Had they not done the prank the man and may well still have been living. I think the University should, to use a euphemism, ‘let the two people go’, forthwith. Hopefully they may learn in due course, how to live like normal decent human beings.

  5. I obviously cannot be certain, but I suspect that the accused had no intention that Clementi kill himself. However, the act of recording Clementi and putting it on the internet was a wrongful action, violating his privacy and also an act of cruelty. While there was probably no intent to kill, it seems clear there was an intent to do harm.

  6. Martin, re responsibility and causation, I am reminded of a view of causation given by the philosopher Mackie, it was to the effect that causation is contextual. He called causation an INUS condition and if I remember correctly it was an Insufficient , but non redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition. To say exactly what in this complex of circumstances was the cause cannot be simply stated. Obviously jumping off the bridge was the cause or more precisely the injuries sustained from the impact. But clearly the perpetrators were not redundant in this. To say they were sufficient brings them closer in the nexus to being causally responsible, but to be sufficient would presume a great deal of knowledge about Clementi and his state of mind which would include the beliefs he held. To humiliate someone is in a sense to disrupt their role in a social context, to make it impossible to proceed with certain course of action and to make their situation untenable. The next step depends on what alternatives are open to that person and what degree of weight he assigns to those alternatives. A political or religious prisoner for example may take sustenance from their beliefs which allow him to take a view of his tormentors. , which he may already have. However he cannot so “easily” escape his tormentors here which are in part his own beliefs – that it is shameful to be gay. A question is did his tormentors know that – I guess they did (and it is only a guess) and relished contemplating his state of mind and what he might do.

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    “…the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore. Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X. This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility.”

    There is a difficulty with Hart and Honore’s “but for” interpretation for causality. This is a consequential theory. Conditional cause can often be reduced to superstition. Hart and Honore give the following example (Causation in Law, 1959):

    “It would obviously be necessary to settle the appropriate description of the wrongful act before embarking on such causal inquires as whether a workman who caught a chill in consequence of the draught from the fan could truly say that his chill was caused by the defendant’s wrongful act,” [Causation in Law, pg. 112, from a negligence case (1951)].

    This loosely translates, “the workman caught viral influenza (common cold) from an electric fan”; but the current theory is that viral influenza is transferable from physical human contact such as shaking hands, and not from chills or physical coolness. Viral influenza may also found to be false someday. The important point is that conditional cause borders on the edge of superstition.

    The search for moral causes need not go as far as stating the absence of a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover was the cause of an accident. However, there is still the question of what is “a reasonable place to begin” to do or not do an action. The answer can be independent of causality, consequentiality, judgment by others, or legality.

    To answer the difficulties of unpredictability, a theory being proposed here is called “the ethical principle of permission.” It has mostly been ignored by jurists, and only occasionally considered recently by studies in professional ethics. The question is not “Is there some causal connection that might allow one to predict the consequences of a similar action?” The question is instead, “Should Wei and Ravi publish information about another person without permission?” The morally responsible answer does not have to consider causality, or consequences to others.

  8. The law is not a complete ass. It allows a range of sentencing to cover all grades of culpability which common sense recognises but which are not strictly amenable to causal explanation in a material sense. The perps will do the perp walk modelling the orange overalls and probably get the upper end of the tariff for aggravated invasion of privacy or whatever it’s called.

  9. Re: Posted by Michael Reidy | October 10, 2010, 3:29 am

    “…which common sense recognises but which are not strictly amenable to causal explanation in a material sense. ”

    What do you mean by common sense? Could you be more specific in you definition.

  10. Dennis S.:
    If you have to define common sense then it is no longer an intuitively realised commonality of judgement for a community. Do you think that it is something elusive that has to be nailed down?

  11. … what a loathesome duo …

  12. Dennis Sceviour

    Michael Reidy,

    It appears you are referring to the Common-Sense philosophical movement of the 18th century (founded by Thomas Reid). That definition is fine.

  13. it was not a prank-the two set out to cause harm.they knew he would not be able to face people at work-school or his family with out shame.with the laws the way they are now. they will get a couple years in jail-but what should be done-strip them down -forced to have sex with a member of their on gender -film it -post it -an let them live with it.

  14. I think we are entitled to a direct ‘Common sense definition’, of Common sense here, whether one agrees with it or not. The best definition I know, was expressed by Mary Wollstonecraft in her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Men, Works ed. J Todd and M Butler, V, p 30.

    “A kind of mysterious instinct is supposed to reside in the soul, that instantaneously discerns truth, without the tedious labour of ratiocination. This instinct, for I know not what other name to give it, has been termed common sense, and more frequently sensibility; and, by a kind of indefeasible right, it has been supposed, for rights of this kind are not easily proved, to reign paramount over the other faculties of the mind, and to be an authority from which there is no appeal. … It is to this instinct, without doubt, that you [Burke] allude, when you talk of the ‘moral constitution of the heart.’ . . . “

    I am unable to understand how defining common sense is in conflict with its being ‘an intuitively realised commonality of judgement for a community’, which seems in itself to be one acceptable definition.

  15. Re:- DON Oct 12th.
    Yes I agree Prank is not an apposite word here. However concerning the punishment you suggest for the two miscreants I must ask who is to administer or countenance it? For whoever does, is no better than those who have already offended against all that is considered decent wholesome human behaviour.

  16. Don,

    They should have known it would cause harm, but whether their purpose was to cause harm is another matter. After all, people do cruel things without really reflecting on the consequences. This does not excuse them, of course.

    As far as forcing them to have sex and filming it, doing something wrong does not seem to be a proper response to wrongdoing. They do deserve to be punished, but that would go beyond what should be done to them. After all, this suggestion seems to be advocating that they be raped.

  17. Mike LaBossiere Makes a good point,

    “After all, people do cruel things without really reflecting on the consequences”

    I suggest most people can look back on their lives and realise that inadvertently they caused unnecessary harm. This occurs in childhood especially I think, to other children and animals. With the onset of greater maturity we normally see the error of our younger immature ways and often regret what we did. Abnormally this correcting period is either late in coming, or worse still comes scarcely at all. We can but hope that the two tormentors in this case are late developers in what constitutes a decent and caring person.

  18. Dennis Sceviour

    Don Bird,
    The definition given by Mary Wollstonecraft is agreeable. It is difficult to disagree with any definition of common sense, since it requires no reasoning as a foundation. As an interest, here is a frequently quoted original definition of the Common-Sense movement of Thomas Reid:

    “If there are certain principles, as I think there are, which the constitution of our nature leads us to believe, and which we are under a necessity to take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them—these are what we call the principles of common sense; and what is manifestly contrary to them, is what we call absurd (pg. 33, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, 1764).”

  19. Re:- Dennis Sceviour Oct. 12th

    Common sense I think is mostly applicable to the dull routines of daily life. For instance if we fool around with a loaded weapon or ignore a red traffic red light we may be accused of not using our common sense. Perhaps it is confined to such behaviour which is obvious to ensure the survival of the organism. I know of no scientific work which has a direct bearing on common sense and philosophically it seems a slippery subject. That said, I was concerned by the what seemed to me to be the suggestion that concept was indefinable. It is certainly a vague concept that is to say there exist borderline cases so that it cannot be determined whether or not the term should be applied to them. However some definitions have a precising nature in that that they are an attempt (not necessarily conscious) to reduce the vagueness. This I think is the case in the Wollstonecraft and Reid examples.

  20. In the London Review of Books latest issue I read of a professor of Communication who tired of the usual questions sprung on her class without prior warning – “what’s a bad break-up?”. Universally and without conferring they all wrote in their reply – getting dumped by text or e-mail. Of course she’s written a book about it The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media by Ilana Gershon.

    My point: this group had a common sense of what was like cold and indeed what was like like i.e.common, sharing the same characteristics, being ‘kind of’ which though it gives the impression of tmumbledom has a commonality of intuition.he vast imprecision of

  21. Sorry paste awry: Try this one instead –

    In the London Review of Books latest issue I read of a professor of Communication who tired of the usual questions sprung on her class without prior warning – “what’s a bad break-up?”. Universally and without conferring they all wrote in their reply – getting dumped by text or e-mail. Of course she’s written a book about it The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media by Ilana Gershon.

    My point: this group had a common sense of what was like cold and indeed what was like like i.e.common, sharing the same characteristics, being ‘kind of’ which though it gives the impression of the vast imprecision of mumbledom has a commonality of intuition.

  22. Dennis Sceviour

    Common-Sense belongs to the class of intuitive philosophy, and is sometimes called deontological reasoning. A deontological ethical decision is monistic; that is, a decision is not unique and there is only one answer — the right answer. When possible, I prefer to use a teleological decision; that is, to arrive at an independent solution based on comparative consequences — a good answer.

  23. That is a sad situation which I am sure happens more than we want to know. All actions have consequences. It is just a question on when one is caught in a bad situation involving responsibility or lack thereof. Even being ultra careful over one’s actions by behaving responsibly, accidents (plus accidental and unintended consequences) can occur.

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