Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

[CN: Irreverent opinions about death]

With the sudden passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend, the Internet has filled up with sentiments about his death. Some people are cheering it, some are mourning it, and some are chastising the people who are cheering it because they find it inappropriate to be happy that someone is dead, regardless of who that person was or what they did.

Obviously, this is causing a lot of conflict, because the women, queer people, and other marginalized folks who are glad that Scalia’s no longer around to deny them civil rights don’t exactly appreciate being told they shouldn’t feel that way, and people who find it really inappropriate to “celebrate death” feel very uncomfortable.

Just to put this out there: I don’t feel any particular way about Scalia’s death. I think that it’ll have some interesting implications for the upcoming election, and I hope that this means that the Supreme Court will soon have a new justice who is liberal or at least moderate, but I don’t really feel anything. I didn’t celebrate his death. I didn’t mourn his death. I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about things that don’t impact me very very personally, and often I don’t even have any feelings about those things, and generally my writing and my activism is shaped by other processes besides my emotions. So. This is not an article about me and my feelings, and I’m not defending myself or my feelings here. I’m making an argument concerning ethics and I’m defending a broad group of people that I’m seeing get unfairly put down right now.

Death is never an easy subject to talk about no matter whose it is, and I think part of the problem is clashing social norms about responding to death. Some people are in the “never speak ill of the dead” camp; others are in the “you can criticize the actions of someone who has passed away but you shouldn’t be glad they’re gone” camp. The most controversial camp is the “I get to feel however the fuck I want about someone’s death and I get to say so on my Facebook page” camp.

I’m not much for relativism in general, but I think it’s worth noting that these different social norms exist and that they are not inevitable or universal. There is no intrinsic reason why saying mean things about someone who has died is wrong. You can claim that it’s bad because it hurts their surviving loved ones, but what if there’s no chance of them hearing those mean things? You can claim that it’s bad because saying mean things about people is just always bad, but then every single one of us is bad and there’s no point in calling the kettle black. You can claim that it’s bad because death itself is intrinsically bad, but the problem is that not everyone sees it that way either.

Personally, I think that life and death are both morally neutral. I think that human life in general does a lot of good and a lot of bad. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good in the world and a lot of bad, too. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good for the other lives they touch, but they can also cause a lot of bad. For each person whose death is terribly mourned, there’s probably a person whose death brings relief to those they have abused or otherwise hurt.

As uncomfortable as it is for some people to acknowledge that some deaths come as a relief to those who knew the deceased, there is no one better than that person’s victims to judge the moral value of their lives. Even more uncomfortable to acknowledge is the fact that some deaths bring comfort to the dying themselves. Life is morally neutral; some lives are so full of pain and suffering that death feels like a net good and as horrible as that is for me to contemplate, who am I to invalidate that?

No one in the broad “do not rejoice at death” camp has yet given me a good argument for why rejoicing at death is ethically wrong. They say it makes them look down on the rejoicers, but if you look down on people for their feelings about their oppression, that says more about you than about them. They say it “brings out the worst in people,” with no specifics about what “the worst” is. (Really? Being happy that someone is dead is worse than systematically denying civil rights to millions of people?) They say that death is intrinsically bad so it’s intrinsically wrong to be happy about it, but again, these are not universal values. If you view death as intrinsically bad, that’s a good argument for you to do your best to avoid death and celebrate life. It’s not a good argument for other people to have different feelings.

My own ethical orientation makes it difficult for me to view an action that doesn’t do harm to anyone as unethical, and making someone annoyed or uncomfortable or even a little upset isn’t necessarily the same as doing harm to them. (If it were, it would be unethical for gay couples to hold hands in public places.) The “don’t rejoice at death” camp ends up making a circular argument: rejoicing at death is wrong because it upsets people and it upsets people because rejoicing at death is wrong.

Here someone often argues that Scalia’s family is in mourning and would be very upset at the things that some people are saying. That’s quite possible, although it seems highly unlikely that any of Scalia’s family members are spending this time browsing the social media feeds of random unknowns like my friends and me. (Also, many of us keep our feeds private.) The likelihood of Scalia’s loved ones stumbling on my friends’ Facebook pages seems so low that expecting them to tailor their feeds with this possibility in mind is pretty unreasonable.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of sentiments like, “Well, you get to feel however you feel about his death, but remember that he was also a human being who had people who loved him.” That’s certainly a nice thought; I always try to remember that people I strongly dislike or disagree with are human beings, and maybe that’s why I don’t actually feel happy about his death. (Again, I don’t feel sad about it either.) In general, I agree with the idea that it’s good to humanize people.

But it’s just another one of those vaguely positive and obvious statements that nobody seriously disagrees with. Of course it’s nice to remember that people are human beings, just as it’s generally nice to say “please” and “thank you” and to hold doors for people carrying large objects and to learn about the views of people who disagree with you and to stop and let a car out even when you have right of way because otherwise they’d be waiting to make their turn forever and that would suck for them. It’s just that these things are not always the most important thing for you to do in that moment, and they’re not always accessible for everyone to do, and (I would argue) they’re not ethical imperatives, just nice things to try to do as much as you can.

Notably, Scalia belongs to a category of human being that is least in need of humanizing, because people like Scalia are the least dehumanized people. Unlike those most impacted by his jurisprudence, Scalia has never been dehumanized on the basis of his race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or other category of privilege or oppression. So, sure, humanize Scalia, but all these condescending exhortations for others to do so sound a little #AllLivesMatter-y to me, especially when directed at those most directly harmed by Scalia himself.

Whenever I keep seeing something described as “crass,” “in poor taste,” “inappropriate,” and so on, I always get curious about what’s really going on, because these phrases actually say very little except “a critical mass of people disapproves of this; it’s not just me.” But what do they actually disapprove of, and why?

Most of the types of people who would appear in my social media feeds don’t actually believe that it’s wrong to have certain emotions, but many of them think it’s wrong to express those emotions at certain times (or ever). In this case, a private glee at Scalia’s death might seem petty to them, but it’s expressing the glee publicly (or semi-publicly, as Facebook often is) that’s really “crass” and “in poor taste.”

Unable to produce an argument for why being glad that someone who did terrible, terrible harm has died is actually harmful, they resort to phrases like “celebrating death” that are intended to make the targets of their ire look either like callous, spiteful children or else some sort of Satanic cult. But one person’s “celebrating death” is another person’s “feeling relieved or ecstatic that someone who has done them terrible harm can no longer do so.” And sure, if I got to choose, I’d have chosen for Scalia to retire rather than die, but nobody asked me.

I’m sure there’s a lot of personal satisfaction in taking the perceived high road and deciding that, even though you belong to a group of people harmed by Antonin Scalia, you personally will not celebrate his death and will mourn it (or be neutral towards it) instead. But I’m uncomfortable with any ethical system that’s based on having or not having–or expressing or not expressing–certain emotions. The only place I see that leading is lots of shaming yourself and policing others for automatic brain things that are mostly outside of our immediate control (and for wanting to share some of those automatic brain things with other people).

I also wish that rather than rushing to condemn perceived “crassness” or “poor taste,” folks would cultivate some curiosity about where these strong emotions are coming from.


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Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It's Like To Consider Suicide

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I wrote this post for it a year ago, and I decided to repost it today because I still think people should read it and I doubt I could write another one that’s better.

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here’s how it was.


I don’t think I ever wanted to be dead.

I have, however, wanted not to be alive.

Why? Because living sucked, because I hated myself, because everyone else must surely hate me too, because I was a burden, because I was going to be alone forever, because I was like an alien that was accidentally born on the wrong planet, to the wrong species, in the wrong society. Killing myself would be like correcting a cosmic error.

There were many ways I dreamed about it happening. Pills of some sort would’ve been my first choice, although I was absolutely terrified of what would happen to my body if they failed to kill me. (Go figure, I was terrified not of dying, but of failing to die.)

But I wanted to be able to take the pills and lie down somewhere and just curl up until I stopped feeling forever.

Sometimes I also thought about bleeding to death by slashing my wrists or something. But I despise pain above all else, and also, poetic as it would be, the thought of someone I love finding me that way made my guts churn. Also, could I actually do it? Could I actually take a knife and slice open my own skin?

I doubted it.

Jumping off of a building occurred to me a lot, especially at the very beginning of my love affair with suicidal ideation. That was back when I was studying journalism, panicking constantly, and feeling just about ready to do anything to escape. Was the journalism building high enough? If not, what would be?

And then there were the trains. Living in Chicago, you take them a lot. Every time I stood on the El or Metra platform as a train rolled in, I thought about it. Not seriously, as I’d made no plans and written no note, but the thought did occur. The rails screeched, and gust swept into my coat and rattled my bones. How I hated standing on the platform, forced to imagine my own death graphically every time a train rolled in.

Recently, when I was already better, I was waiting on the platform for the Metra. A train was coming. It turned out to be an express train that barreled through the station without stopping. The blur, the clamor, the sudden slap of wind–I was left shaken for several minutes after it passed, imagining what that could’ve done to my body.

Strangely, I never even considered guns, although that is what a character in my abandoned novel chose to use.

I composed many different suicide notes in my mind. Some were lengthy and elaborate, with separate sections for each person I wanted to reckon with before I died. I used to keep secrets and grudges for years, and I wanted everyone to know the truth in the end. (These days, I try to make sure that if I suddenly die today, little will have been left unsaid.)

Other notes were simple. They contained nothing more than a quote or a song lyric. Often they included an apology to my family. I thought about writing it in Russian, not English, as though that would make it any better for them.

I also thought about not leaving a note, but something about that made me very sad. What if they never knew? But might that not be better?

And I could not stop listening to that OK Go song, “Return“:

You were supposed to grow old.

You were supposed to grow old.  

Reckless, unfrightened, and old,

You were supposed to grow old.

I never made a firm plan to kill myself, I never attempted to kill myself, and, obviously, I never did kill myself. The only reason, I think, was because I cared more about my family’s wants and needs than I did about my own. As much as I thought I needed to stop living, they needed me to continue living, and so I did.

Is this “normal”? Do others talk themselves out of suicide this way? I have no idea. This isn’t really something I talk about over beers with friends.

I was lucky, when it comes down to it. Lucky to have a family I love so fiercely that that love overpowered my hatred for life.

Death and I, we have an awkward but strangely comfortable relationship now. If I don’t bother with her, she doesn’t bother with me. I don’t fear death itself very much, although the idea of just not existing terrifies and baffles me, just like the idea of time travel or parallel universes or the butterfly effect.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve traveled to the edge of the known world, teetered on that edge, and then shrugged my shoulders and returned. I can’t really tell you exactly what I saw there, but I will say that there is a thick glass wall now between me and those who haven’t made that journey.

I say to a dear friend as I write this, “I’m thoroughly desensitized to the thought of myself dying.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You should stay here and grow crotchety and gray. Perhaps even collect spiderwebs.”

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too.”

For better or worse, I will live with what I saw at the edge of the known world until I die what I hope will be a natural death.

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It's Like To Consider Suicide

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.


*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death