Is the unexamined life worth living?

… no, emphatically states Socrates [through Plato] in his Apology. You might think this is a metaphorical statement. And thus the surprise when Socrates chooses to drive this most important point home by proceeding to drink the poison that literally ends his life.

From the psychiatrist corner this looks a bit like suicide by cop. Socrates has the ability but not the willingness to save his life; one may argue that he effectively leads the jury to condemn him to death and then carries out his own sentence.

Is this a reasonable decision and course of action? Or, alternatively, did Socrates have capacity?

For starters, Socrates’ view of life as being worth living under a certain set of circumstances (but not others) is at odds with the view of modern [read Western] psychiatry which emphasizes the absolute value of life regardless of its circumstances.

Arguably, the majority view nowadays is that the ideal mental health is a state where the drive to live prevails no matter what. As a consequence, those who are ideally “mentally fit” would have the potential to overcome and survive whatever circumstances and challenges life would throw in their way. Which pretty much means they will make the choice to live regardless or they would prize life above anything else.

This view of life as having an absolute value is at odds with moral systems that consider life’s value as contingent on the fulfillment of other norms and values. In middle age Europe chivalry valued bravery above living, in Japan the samurai Bushido code recommends suicide by seppuku as preferable to living without honor. And of course Socrates argues that is better to die than to life an un-examined life.

Along this line of thinking, choosing an honorable death over a shameful life can be understood as the logical consequence of subscribing to a clear moral code – as such can be accepted as proof of competency in making life/death decisions.

However Socrates reaches his final decision following a moral code that is dictated by (surprise, surprise) his daemon, in essence an auditory hallucination.

There is ample evidence that Socrates experienced auditory hallucinations in addition to what might be considered as a very specific set of compulsions. In his De Genio Socratis Plutarch states that…

Socrates’ sign was a sneeze, his own and others; thus, when another sneezed at his right, whether behind or in front, he proceeded to act, but if at his left, desisted; while of his own sneezes the one that occurred when he was on the point of acting confirmed him in how he had set out to do, whereas the one occurring after he had already begun checked and prevented his movement”.

Now,  in the context of concurrent psychiatric symptomatology, when one’s life/death decision follows the promps of an auditory hallucination – even if in accordance with a pre-specified moral code – does it meet criteria for capacity?

Or would the consulting psychiatrist recommend starting a neuroleptic and holding off on proceeding with the execution until the medication will take effect?

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