This question follows on (sort off): Can my attitude kill you?

Taking attitude to mean: The unique medley of ideas that makes the person.

Suppose I'm a doubly depressed neurotic pessimist. Who can only function by the grace of Time that allowed me to, as years experience piled on the woe, build the necessary mental defenses that keep the frequent thoughts flirting with suicide at bay. Now suppose I share my worldview with someone unaccustomed to such heavy thoughts, someone whose own worldview is less complete and fallacy ridden, who may adopt my worldview for its rational coherence but without my experience with its derivative ideations. I can conceive, while it is improbable, it is possible for such a situation to result in the other person committing suicide.

Note here we are not talking about bullying, where ideas are forced onto a victim, and for which there exist manslaughter convictions. Rather we are talking about a conversation devoid of malice, such as one may have with a friend or mental health practitioner.

I am interested in legal implications of such a proximate cause. And I am especially interested in the prior moral obligation I may have.


Based on your invitation, christo183, to "now expand the hypothetical 'truth' to something that you know everybody on the planet would want to know. But being privy to that Truth, you realize that nobody would welcome it once known"…

I can’t help but be reminded of 3 scenarios (in descending orders of magnitude):

(1) Movies concerning the discovery of a life-ending comet/asteroid headed for Earth;

(2) The atrocities of seemingly countless regimes throughout human history;

(3) The 1929 stock market crash and subsequent suicides of brokers, etc.

In all 3 scenarios, my thoughts are:

(a) I am morally compelled to inform, not to withhold.

(b) The people I need to tell are those within the chain of authority to act.

(c) If those people refuse to act or further inform, then I need to escalate (e.g., tell the press).

(d) Yes, some people may (or foreseeably will) kill themselves when they find out, but given the significance of the event, my primary responsibility is to society as a whole.

(e) If those who don’t want to know the truth decide to take it out on me, then bummer; but, again, given the event’s significance, and the fact that I am privy to it, I can’t let that fear stop me from carrying out my moral obligations.

As for your titular question, "Can my attitude kill you?":

In context, I infer a 2nd question, "Can my sharing a highly intense truth kill you?"

I believe the answer to both questions is "potentially, yes". Essentially, you have 2 responsibilities to consider: the truth in question, and the well-being of the other person.

As I see it, the prioritization of these 2 responsibilities depends upon the scope of that truth.

When the truth is personal, your moral responsibility toward the other person’s well-being has a higher priority than whether you share that truth. In other words, your attitude in sharing that truth — sensitivity, metacommunication, etc. — is more important than the truth itself, morally speaking.

However, when the truth has global significance, your moral responsibility to share that truth has a higher priority than the other person’s well-being. And even though your attitude in sharing that truth remains an important responsibility, it is subordinate to your moral obligation to share the truth.

Lastly, regarding the gap between the personal and the planetary, I am terminally terrible with gray areas, and this one spans the seven seas. I must defer to those who are far more adept at navigating such murky waters.

  • Useful insights, I wonder if there are literary sources with similar views. Of course one may find scenarios where the facts cannot be changed and the (global) distress would essentially be without purpose. (See the linked question at the top for examples) But now I begin to wonder, maybe the same moral principals reemerge on the macro level as used on the interpersonal level. Maybe all cases can be evaluated simply with the utility value of the knowledge against it's damaging potential. – christo183 Aug 30 '18 at 18:47

I have had an unusual series of experiences and consequent realizations which may be helpful. It’s a long story, so please bear with me:

I was hit by a car when I was 8, and almost died. By age 11 I had what would be obvious today as PTSD; but there was no such diagnosis in 1967, and I was unfortunately misdiagnosed as "schizophrenic". Over the next 7 years, I had heavy-dosage phenothiazines, 26 hospitalizations (including state hospitals, and including 1 rape by an orderly), and a total of 118 shock treatments (ECT and ICT).

By the time I turned 18, I was a zombie out of options, and was no longer covered by my parent’s medical insurance. I went under the care of a social worker who claimed to be able to cure schizophrenia over a period of years if I gave her complete control over my life, and if I discussed it with no one outside of her "group". I stayed with her for the next 31 years, all the while believing her that I was "getting better but still needed" her care. Then I left during a midlife crisis, thinking I certainly must have improved enough and learned enough by then to make a life for myself as an independent adult.

But I soon found out that what the social worker had taught me during all those years of "reparenting therapy" didn’t work outside of her closed environment. Within 3 years, I had to enter the county’s mentally ill homeless program. They re-tested me and discovered that, instead of having schizophrenia, I’d had PTSD which had since festered over the decades into what was now "severe major situational double depression, with pseudodementia, without psychotic features". (The "double" depression came from the fact that my parents had both recently died.)

I now live in an apartment complex that caters to mentally ill seniors. I rarely leave my apartment, since I clearly don’t fit in with normal adults. But I have 2 "no-how knacks" that let me contribute to society: one is composing music (I can’t read or play anything, but I make up music in my head without even trying, so I use a computer program that lets me enter individual notes sound-for-sound, instrument-by-instrument, for months or years until I have a complete composition that I can play back for other people, so they can hear what I hear between-the-ears); and the other knack is writing social commentaries and related posts to sites such as this one.

Thanks to these 2 abilities, I find meaning in life. Thanks to the maximum-allowed dosage of Wellbutrin, I maintain an ample will to live. And thanks to having realized that I could choose my own beliefs and values, I live life according to my own moral code.

So I consider my life to be a genuine success in the face of unusual adversity — by no means the worst of circumstances, but unusual to the point where some people who inquire about my past actually refuse to believe me when I tell them the ugly truth. (In one case, a supposed friend adamantly claimed that my history "couldn’t be possible" because I hadn’t killed myself.)

Which finally brings me to your question.

In the "independent living" complex where I live, there are some residents who have histories that seem to me far more tragic than mine, but who are stable enough that we can openly and safely share our pasts. And there are other residents whose grip on reality is so tenuous that I would never share my history with them, for fear that it could quite foreseeably harm them or incite them to harm themselves.

Of course, I discuss my past with my psychiatrist, and with my one close friend; and my few surviving relatives already know the truth about my past, so there’s no risk of harm in talking about it with them.

But, to me, when it comes to disclosing a personal truth which could seriously affect another person, there is a clear moral imperative to seriously consider the particular person; the particular situation; the particular truth; the particular points, benefits, and costs of sharing that truth; and the particular ways you might go about sharing that truth — before you decide whether even to intimate the existence of such a truth.

Obviously, if you have access to a mental health practitioner, ask for advice about sharing that truth. Otherwise, if you have any doubts about sharing it, then don’t.

  • You have the right idea about the moral dilemma aspect of the question, but now expand the hypothetical "truth" to something that you know everybody on the planet would want to know. But being privy to that Truth, you realize that nobody would welcome it once known. - Thank you for sharing. Hearing stories of people overcoming adversity, that at least will always be welcome . – christo183 Aug 30 '18 at 13:39
  • @christo183, I appreciate your invitation to "expand the hypothetical 'truth' ", and have submitted a 2nd answer for that purpose. And to emphasize the fundamental difference between my 2 answers, I edited the above (1st) answer's penultimate paragraph by inserting the word "personal" so that it now reads "...when it comes to disclosing a personal truth which could seriously affect another person...". – user34765 Aug 30 '18 at 14:48

Two worldviews - which one ?

Is your worldview (in the hypothetical example) the dark one : (1) that life is meaningless, we'd be better off dead, or whatever the exact details ? Or is it not this but (2) the reflexive worldview that such a worldview is to be guarded against and deflected from influencing your thoughts and actions by 'the mental defences' you have built against it ? If the first were your worldview, why would you need or want to build self-protective defences against it ? Or show any concern if someone else acts on it ?

It seems plain from the wording of your example that your actual worldview is (2), not (1).

Which worldview do you share ?

The worldview you share with someone unaccustomed to such heavy thoughts &c. is (it seems obvious) not reflexive view but the dark view. That is, the worldview you are influenced by but plainly reject by the very fact of having built mental defences against it.

Moral responsibility

Suppose, then, that the person, X, with whom you have shared the dark view, φ, goes off and commits suicide as a result of the worldview of which he has learned from you. What, if any, is your moral responsibiity for this event ?

I assume the following conditions applied :

  1. You acquainted X with a worldview φ.

  2. You did not know and had no sufficient reason to believe that X would adopt φ as a result.

  3. A fortiori you did not know and had no sufficient reason to believe that X would commit suicide as a result of adoption of φ.

On the principle that morally you are responsible only for what you did or could or should reasonably have foreseen as a result of what you did, you are not morally responsible for X's suicide. You were a causal factor in X's suicide since, all else equal, X would not have committed suicide if you have not acquainted X with φ but since, broadly speaking, you acted in reasonable ignorance of the results of acquainting X with φ, you lack moral responsibility for X's suicide.

The principle of moral principle stated above needs to be qualified - or amplified - to cover cases of moral responsibility that arise when one omits or fails to act. I left out this side of things since your example turns on what you did, not on what you omitted or failed to do.

  • Didn't foresee that distinction for worldview. I was thinking: A child growing naturally into, and developing, worldview (1) would likely also develop and acquire elements, or all, of (2). Being reactive only to the worst of ideas that (1) entail, (2) may not be visible as part of the subject's Worldview since thoughts emanating from (2) would only ever feature in the subject's own mind and briefly at that. So when sharing Worldview it would chiefly be worldview (1) that gets articulated. And thus it is that the poor listener receives a shot of poison without the Resistance to its Impulses. – christo183 Aug 31 '18 at 9:56
  • Sorry, this wasn't clear to me from your question. Do you want me to delete my answer ? – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 31 '18 at 11:21
  • I think if this was what you meant, you might consider rephrasing the question because it just isn't apparent from the current wording. – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 31 '18 at 11:50
  • 1
    As I am struggling to the rephrase concisely, so I implore you don't delete your answer. It exposes a depth of understanding that I took for granted or simply did not anticipate. I do value every perspective and interpretation, it makes for a learning opportunity for me as well as any other readers. – christo183 Aug 31 '18 at 15:25
  • That's fine, Christo, I won't delete the answer and am sorry not to have responded sooner. All the best for the redrafting. Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Aug 31 '18 at 16:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.