Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teenager who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the widely-covered texting-suicide case, was sentenced earlier this week to two and a half years in prison for her involvement in the death of her boyfriend. I submit that Michelle Carter is guilty of no crime and that her conviction rests on a faulty understanding of the concept of individual responsibility and the medico-criminalization of suicide.
American democracy is founded on the ethic of personal responsibility—that individuals are moral agents, the arbiters of their own lives, and the cause of their own actions. For their actions, individuals themselves are to be held accountable. This is why it is the speeding driver and not the passenger who is ticketed, even if the passenger is encouraging the driver to speed, or why it is the bank robber and not the gun manufacturer who is charged when a person robs a bank with a firearm. Just as I am rewarded for my good behavior, I am also accountable for my bad behavior. Much has been written about individual responsibility as the central tenet of the American political ideology.
Let us be clear: The only person who is responsible for suicide is the person who commits the act himself. Minus coercion, suicide is always an act initiated by the individual person. Encouraging someone to commit suicide, recommending suicide as an option, or telling a person to carry through with his suicidal plans may be of questionable morality, but it is no crime. What Michelle Carter is guilty of is not the death of her boyfriend but rather engaging in behavior that others consider morally incomprehensible.
Why might someone like Michelle Carter tell her boyfriend that he should end his life? Why not ask Michelle Carter? From what I have read about this case, it seems likely that Carter was fed up with her boyfriend's repeated suicidal threats, his manipulation, and his game-playing. But Michelle Carter's motives become inconsequential when considering this case from a broader social-philosophical perspective. What is of chief importance here is responsibility in the individual sense and the medicalization and criminalization of the act of suicide.
I have written elsewhere about the psychiatrization of suicide (see Ruffalo, 2014), but suffice it to say that suicide is an act that has existed for thousands of years, is not necessarily related to the concept of mental illness, and has been medicalized and criminalized mainly for moral reasons, not medical ones. The great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer proclaimed, "There is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person." Even if Michelle Carter did influence her boyfriend to commit suicide, wasn't it ultimately his life to take?
I am disappointed—but not surprised—by the number of psychiatrists and psychotherapists who have advocated for Michelle Carter's harsh punishment. The aim of any ethical psychotherapy is individual responsibility—working with suicidal patients requires them to recognize that they alone are accountable for their suicidal behavior and that neither the therapist nor others will assume any responsibility for their self-injury. Indeed, this is an explicitly central point in work with patients diagnosed with borderline conditions. Why therapists would rush to hold someone else accountable for a person's suicide is curious to say the least.
An enlightened legal system would have taken into consideration these factors when charging and sentencing Michelle Carter. But instead she has become a scapegoat for her boyfriend's death. The consequences are not only Carter's loss of freedom but also the broader erosion of the ethic of personal responsibility for one's own actions.
Ruffalo, M. L. (2014). The medicalization of suicide. Journal of Psychiatry, 17(6). doi:10.4172/1994-8220.1000e104