Don Cornelius, Suicide…and Ethics Hero?

“Soul Train” creator and pop culture icon Don Cornelius took his own life at 75 yesterday, using a gunshot to the head to do it. Suicide always conjures up feelings of special sadness for the deceased, sometimes mixed with anger. The act can be cruel and devastating to family members and friends; often it leaves behind crushing problems, financial and otherwise, that the living have to deal with. Suicide is stigmatized in our culture as a coward’s way out of earthly problems; many religions consider it a sin, and many legal systems consider suicide a crime. Yet it may be that American culture will have to undergo a major cultural transformation in the matter of taking one’s own life. While morality tends to ossify, ethics is fluid and adaptable. Changing conditions and new realities can, in rare circumstances, cause societies to conclude that what was once considered right is really wrong, and what was once condemned as wrong is in society’s best interests. I think we may reach that point with suicide.

I don’t say this casually. Three of my cousins committed suicide due to mental illness; I have seen, and felt, the harm suicide can cause. I detest suicide, and my visceral reaction to anyone who commits suicide without being afflicted with depression, schizophrenia or bi-polar symptoms is harshly negative.

America, however, seems unable or unwilling to address current policies that relentlessly transfer its financial resources from the young and productive to the old and sick. A disproportionate share of health care expenses are incurred in an individual’s final years of life. Once, fathers and mothers saved to be able to pass on an estate to their children and give them a financial boost up the next rung of life’s ladder. Now, more often than not, estates are consumed or decimated by hospital bills, assisted living, and other expenses associated with aging. Together with an irresponsible debt that our feckless elected leaders lack the wit and the will to cure, Social Security and Medicare, both programs for the elderly, loom like ticking time bombs, ready to plunge the nation into economic disaster.

My late father, a wise and creative man who worked in the retirement planning field, found this situation infuriating. He spent much of his own retirement trying to solve the problem with various proposals he sent to Congressmen and policy makers. “We are building a system that constrains the ability of America to advance and protect itself, as well as reducing the quality of life for the entire population is order to finance years of loneliness, helplessness, sickness and pain in the final years of life,” he once said. “It is stupid, and it is wrong, and it is selfish of the elderly–like me—to encourage it.” On a micro-level, he felt the same way about the effect of his health care needs on his own family. He and my mother were devoted to the idea of passing on a substantial estate to their children and grandchildren, yet, as my father well knew, my mother wanted to live forever, even if it meant being preserved as a talking head in a jar, like the 20th Century celebrities on “Futurama.” As for my sister and I, we told my father that his oft-expressed anxiety about using up an estate saved over a lifetime in a few declining years was pointless. It was their money, we assured him. We wanted them, not their money. Dad would shake his head. “It makes no sense,” he would say. “It’s a waste. There’s got to be a better way”

For my father, the better way was to die quietly mid-nap, without incurring any extraordinary medical costs at the end of his life at all. Only after his death did the family learn that he was terribly sick with a list of maladies and facing an imminent health crisis; his doctor told me that if there ever was a case of someone willing death, it was Dad. That was my father’s answer, the only one he could come up with, for the national and family ethical dilemma he had thought about for so long.

We don’t know why Don Cornelius shot himself, but he was ill, and clearly heading into the period of maximum burden on his family and nation for minimal payoff. His suicide may not have been designed to avoid personal pain, but to do the right thing for his heirs and a nation drowning in debt. In coming decades, American could be forced to consider whether it is better to have a weak, poor and declining  country where an absurd share of resources are devoted to the old and sick, or to build a culture in which the old and sick regard it as their duty to the young and the future not to let that happen.

Let me be clear: if that does occur, it will only be because of the cowardice and incompetence of our leaders, along with the selfishness of interest groups that do not have the best interests of the nation as their priority. A culture that embraces suicide has started down a slippery slope that devalues life, and one that is going to look favorably on involuntary and well as voluntary termination. Regarding suicide for the right reasons as heroic will also convey the societal message that suicide for the wrong reasons can’t be so objectionable either, and of course there will be the inevitable Jack Kevorkians, using persuasion to ease the weak and vulnerable into premature death for their own purposes.

If, however, the current trend does not change, then the choice of an older American to end his or her life before it becomes a societal burden will be both rational and heroic, and our attitudes about the ethics of suicide will have to evolve accordingly.

13 thoughts on “Don Cornelius, Suicide…and Ethics Hero?

  1. My grandfather deals with this every single day. My grandmother has alzheimers and is in a home. He sees her every single day and has watched her deteriorate for over sixty years. He wishes every day that there was a way for him to end her pain and suffering because he knows she is not enjoying life.

    I can’t really go see her anymore except on rare occasions.

    I think you are right. Suicide can be allowed in only the most extreme cases. With that said, I think watching reality television every day like a religion should be a sign of the need to suicide. I’m sort of joking… maybe?

  2. Jack,
    It seems like a stretch to make a man’s suicide into a talking point for dumping universal medicaid and socialized medicine. He didn’t say those were his reasons, nor does this particular case seem to even remotely apply except that he was old and, presumably, not long for this Earth. I think you’re assuming far too much logical thinking on behalf of the deceased. We have no way of knowing whether this was a rational decision made through careful consideration and weighing all the options, or whether it was a gut decision made in the heat of the moment.

    Thus, I’m not sure how fixing either of the underlying problems you mentioned would have changed anything for the late Mr. Cornelius, as we have no idea what particular demon tempted his fate. Hence the dilemma, how did this become a health care issue?


    • 1. “We don’t know why Don Cornelius shot himself.” Seemed pretty clear to me. But his friends speculate that it may have been because he was sick. Note the question mark.
      2. I really tire of people grafting political motives on non-political posts. I described conditions accurately as they are, and explained why suicide by the elderly was possible and even ethical solution. Nobody questions that rising health care costs and programs for the elderly are a serious problem. Nor do I advocate dumping any of the programs mentioned, and never have. I don’t know what you were reading. That’s not in the post.
      3. Peter Shaeffer used a three line news item from a newspaper to write “Equus.” I have thought about this issue for a long time, and the suicide of any old,sick celebrity presented a reasonable departure point for the discussion. This is not a rare or derided journalistic technique.
      4. Most astute readers can probably figure out that the post is not about Don Cornelius, and that his actual motivations are as irrelevant as they are unknowable.

  3. “Changing conditions and new realities can, in rare circumstances, cause societies to conclude that…what was once condemned as wrong is in society’s best interests.”

    Your post first caused me to recall the controversy many years ago, over former Colorado Governor Lamm’s remarks about a “duty to die.” Next, I recalled how laws on matters like miscegenation and abortion have evolved. Next, I remembered this morning’s news that Washington state seems to be on a fast track to legalize same-sex marriage.

    Then, I pondered anew the twilights-of-life of many in my greater family, some already “set” (or “gone”) with a good number “yet.” Finally, I paused a moment to reflect on my own scant time left to live, and recent years when I have frequently been what I call “passively” suicidal – being “ready to go,” and grateful, if death was to arrive in the next 5 seconds, but half-jokingly reassuring myself that I’m too selfish and mean to do acutely fatal violence to myself. (There are too many roller coaster rides I have not taken yet!) I chuckled, recalling how just last night I actually was ENTERTAINED by the show on Spike TV called 1000 Ways to Die – while feeding myself with, uhm, well, I’ll just say stuff the Dr. would not recommend. (Way #1001: Proam’s self-electrocution by a hearing aid battery, while straining to hear his wife scold him about “eating that junk.”)

    Jack, I think you are fair to speculate that the ethics of suicide in our society may be changing very significantly and very soon. You probably won’t like this term, but I have been using it for many years: Abortionism. It’s about a rise in a utilitarianistic value on human life – and control of its existence.

  4. The medical community owns a large share of the blame for this. They have not come up with sane guidelines for how to treat terminal illness. How many people undergo aggressive treatment with serious side effects even though there is almost no change of the treatment curing the disease? How many people watch their loved ones ravaged by a disease that progresses well past the normally fatal point, disfigured and in agony, because of the treatment? Should the medical community be allowed to make any guidelines or suggestions in these cases at all? After all, if anyone has a conflict of interest here, it is the hospitals and doctors. How much of their income comes from treating such cases?

    Now, I’m not suggesting a “you have cancer, so we will let you die” mentality. I am not suggesting that we stop investigating treatments. However, physicians have a good idea who is is or has a good chance of recovering from a disease and who won’t in many cases.

    As a teenager, my grandfather and my neighbor died of lung cancer at about the same time. My grandfather insisted that the doctor give him something to fix it. When my father explained to him that it couldn’t be done despite what the doctors said and all they would do was prolong his illness, he said “forget it”. He lived about another month, spent it with his kids, and really was in pain for less than a week. When he died, he still pretty much looked like himself. My neighbor insisted they do everything possible to treat her. For a months, she was confined to a hospital bed in her home. She looked like a skeleton and was curled up in the fetal position from the pain. She was not able to communicate. Her husband wanted to end the treatment, but she had told him that she wanted to fight the cancer and she couldn’t tell him if she had changed her mind. The experience really devastated him, while the effect on my grandmother was not nearly as severe. I still remember my grandfather the way he was before cancer, but I can only remember my neighbor of 8 years as the curled up skeleton.

  5. Jack:

    I was sorry to hear about your cousins. What a tragedy for any family to endure! Suicide is also a ravager of young people these days. I’ve seen young people online- usually commenting on pop culture sites- who have threatened to take their own lives, citing despondency over a sense of purposelessness and lack of family ties.

    I think that puts a mark on the central cause of much of this. The pop culture of today- shallow, decadent and without higher inspiration- is a morass that engulfs youthful aspirations. Families that- increasingly- are NOT are another central issue. The necessary foundation of ethics, morals and belonging are being denied to those who need it the most. This is where hopelessness, mental illness and self-destructive behavior (to include suicide) find their early roots. This is also where God’s message is so vitally needed.

    It must be noted that Cornelius was right in the center of the pop culture for the bulk of his life. He knew it virtually from its modern conception. He saw it from its lighter-hearted earlier days to the monster it has become. I can’t, of course, analyze this man from afar, as I never knew him except by reputation. But I have conversed with others who have, in their own way, been prominent in forwarding some of the worst aspects of modern culture. Self-rationalization is the means by which they live with themselves. But, eventually, such personal deceptions must break down. Then it becomes a matter of “My God, what have I done?”.

    Was this Cornelius’ story? Others today have participated in outrages that defy the imaginations of many of us. He was hardly the worst. Maybe he saw what others had done with his legacy and found himself- in a private, introspective moment- unable to deal with it. Whatever. Suicide is no cure or adequate apology for perceived misdeeds in life. Sorrow and/or repentance must be followed by the question, “What can I do now to set things right?” One has to live to take up that challenge. It’s what life is all about.

  6. Regarding medical care owning a large share of the blame, I would suggest that it is a problem that isn’t isolated to the medical community. Individuals have the right to refuse care or have their designated surrogate decision maker do it. Unfortunately, only 10-20 % of people complete an “advanced directive” such as a durable power of attorney for health care or living will. So many times physicians are faced with no knowledge of what the patient would want done and in such cases family members may disagree with each other or the caregiver. The focus needs to switch from curative care where that is not possible to comfort care. And this is where disagreements can occur when the patients can’t speak for themselves. Bottomline complete an advanced directive and make sure your representative and doctor have copies.

  7. Didn’t you disapprove of Hunter Thompson’s suicide because he flippantly said, “Football season is over” or something, even though he was terminally ill? I can’t really remember.

  8. About 15 years ago I was young and was diagnosed with cancer, and my family and parents were told I was most certainly going to die. But I recovered and am cancer free today. The difference though is I was young – I would not have survived the chemo regimen I went through at age 75.

    I think there are several issues here that are moving the focus from where it should be.

    First of all Cornelius shot himself with a gun. I think it is foolish to assume that a violent suicide is the result of careful planning and thoughtful decisionmaking. Directions on how to committ a peaceful suicide are readily available, a violent suicide is a result of mental illness and it is unfair to the family who must deal with the aftermath. Cornelius’s action has no place in a thoughtful discussion of suicide.

    Secondly, illness by itself does not convey a valid reason for suicide. Just because your very sick and doctors think your going to die does not by itself give you moral authority to kill yourself.

    Third, the issue that people need to face squarely with suicide is that the only moral reasoning in support of it that can be justified is directly related to age. Human lifespan is finite, no human has lived longer than around 120 years but most live until their 80’s. The aging process is irreversible and affects everything. And an older person, certainly one older than age 70,
    who is disagnosed with a severe disease, is absolutely in an entirely different place than a 25 year old with the same diagnosis,

    From nature’s point of view, once you have propagated and raised children, your purpose in life is over. Any time you get after that is a bonus. Nature does not need you then, your genetic material is safe. I therefore feel that an older person, who is close to the end of their life, has the moral authority to determine the date of their death. If they are in pain due to an incurable illness, or they feel their mental facilities drifting away, they have done their bit for Nature and propagated their genes, it is their life now and they have the authority to do what they want.

    • If they are in pain due to an incurable illness, or they feel their mental facilities drifting away, they have done their bit for Nature and propagated their genes, it is their life now and they have the authority to do what they want.

      I wonder if humanity has evolved to lose the will to live once they reach a certain age. It would make sense from an evolutionary standpoint.

  9. It has been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

    The fallacy of this statement assumes that all problems are temporary. This is clearly not true. Quadriplegia, for example, is an apparently permanent problem, as neurologists in 2012 are no more able to treat spinal cord injuries than witch doctors were in 2012 B.C.. This is because no one knows what nerve signals are, nor knows how to grow new nerve cells. It is not even known if the growth of nerve cells, or the generation of nerve signals are natural processes. For if either was a natural process, they could in theory be duplicated given sufficient resources and energy, and I doubt growing a single nerve cell requires more energy than breaking apart a proton into its constituent quarks and gluons. But if both were supernatural processes, then nerve injuries and diseases would be completely untreatable by natural means.

    To be blunt, the Six Million Dollar Man may be complete fantasy on par with Harry Potter, while the Million Dollar Baby is all too real.

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