The Robin Williams Suicide: Do We Really Want to Avoid All Moral Questions?

This post is not so much about the Robin Williams suicide as it is about how we are posting about it online. I wouldn’t say I was a fan of Robin Williams, but rather that he was an institution for me growing up—starting with my viewing Mork and Mindy as a child.

Since this is a conservative blog I will mention that I vaguely knew that Robin Williams was a Leftist, but had never thought about how much. I guess that is just as well. It is a lot easier to be entertained by someone when you don’t realize they would like to make jokes at your expense. Because I sometimes follow Sarah Michelle Gellar’s career, I had run across news that Williams was pressured to do TV due to financial burdens related to his divorces. So I wasn’t surprised by the current news stories that mention the financial pressure. Actually, it was more the disappointment that comes from having a wildly successful career and yet not seeming to have the results that should come with it.

But simply by virtue of my past in entertainment, even though I know this is an irrational basis for them, I have always had positive feelings for Robin Williams—even though I thought the Dead Poets’ Society was a string of boring clichés. So I didn’t want him to die. And the fact that he killed himself elicited grief and sympathy.

But it also elicited worry. I have people in my life who are far less successful than Robin Williams—or who have stresses and pressures that seem far greater than his.

I don’t want anyone to commit suicide, especially those whom I love or even know casually.

So Robin Williams kills himself and we get, understandably, a gusher of sympathy and praise. I get it. I don’t blame anyone for reacting this way.

But it worries me.

It worries me more because I’ve caught wind of reactions to a couple of posts that assigned some level of blame to Robin Williams for killing himself (Rush Limbaugh for example; but read Rush’s response). I have stayed away from such stories because they seem mostly in bad taste, but the vociferous response to them worries me more.

[See also, “Liberal Says Conservative Policies Driving People to Suicide.”]

If someone had broken into Robin Williams’ home and killed him, that person would be universally condemned. I suspect he would be condemned even if he had committed suicide after murdering Robin Williams.

So Robin Williams killed Robin Williams. Can we not be upset at him for that? I don’t want to trash the man. I want to sympathize with his loved ones who speak highly of him. But is there no room for a simple affirmation of some moral responsibility?

One assumption seems to be that no one who commits suicide is ever responsible for their actions. Let’s assume that is true just for the sake of argument. Would emphasizing and constantly affirming that truth lead to fewer suicides in society or more of them? I’m not saying that I want to have a utilitarian ethic about what messages should be prevalent in a society. I’m just questioning whether the people who are so confident that suicides are beyond moral considerations have given any thought to what they might be unleashing on society.

If you knew a friend who was depressed and dealing with suicidal thoughts would you want them to think the temptation was beyond moral accountability?

I love Robin Williams (apparently more than he did, amazingly, even though I never knew him personally), but I want people to believe that they have a duty to live—a duty to fight depression, a duty to themselves, their family, and their friends. I want that attitude firmly implanted in everyone who is not actually on death row (at least!). Whether or not a person aggressively fights a biological disease like cancer can make a difference in the outcome. Shouldn’t fighting suicidal temptations be encouraged—maybe even in moral terms if that will help?

Here’s my final questions: In all the tributes to Robin Williams have you heard one word about why human beings should all live, embrace life, and continue living? Is our society even capable of articulating a universal rationale for enduring pain and persevering in life?

That issue is more worthy of your time than raging against a few people who aren’t displaying decorum after Robin Williams’ death.