We are a scientific network, comprising two clinical psychologists and nine philosophers, researching the role of amibivalence for suicidal agency.
One of the most important characteristic properties of suicidal agents is the mental state of ambivalence: Suicidal agents seem to act simultaneously on opposing mental states. Broadly speaking, suicidal agents have the intention to kill themselves, while they look for rescue and hope not to succeed. While ambivalence in suicides is a well-known phenomenon in clinical psychology, its structural features and its role for action is not well understood. There is no clear conceptualization of the phenomenon, neither in psychology nor in philosophy. The aim of the scientific network is to interdisciplinarily analyze and evaluate the role of ambivalence in suicidal agency. First, we want to understand ambivalence by analyzing its structural features and the types of mental states that are involved. Second, we will reflect on the role of ambivalence for the transition from thinking about taking one’s life (suicidal ideation) to the actual act. Third, we will evaluate whether ambivalence indicates a decreased sense of agency, autonomy or rationality, which could justify interventions on new grounds.
„I believe that people who are actually committing suicide are ambivalent about life and death at the very moment they are committing it. They wish to die and they simultaneously wish to be rescued. […] To feel that one has to do it, and, simultaneously, to yearn for intervention” (Shneidman 1998, p. 133).
Ambivalence is associated with
According to Frankfurt, ambivalence makes rational action impossible because the person as such cannot act; the agent’s will is self-defeating, as such an inner conflict precludes behavioral effectiveness - the agent acts simultaneously in contrary directions. Thereby, the agent’s will becomes fragmented and incoherent.
Shneidman highlights, it is not uncommon that individuals who survive their suicide attempts expressed phantasies of rescue and intervention for the time when the suicidal action was unfolding. But, if one does not want to succeed but hopes to fail, why engage in intentional action in the first place?
Loss of Autonomy
Agents act autonomously if they act in self-governed ways. Frankfurt thinks that ambivalence undermines the agent’s autonomy. In case suicidal agents are ambivalent in a Frankfurt-sense, this would imply that ambivalence undermines their self-governance.
"I have never known anyone who was 100 percent for wanting to commit suicide without any fantasies of possible rescure. Individuals would be happy not to do it, if they didn't 'have to.' It is this omnipresent ambivalence that gives us the moral imperative for clinical intervention"
(Sheidman 1998, p. 133)
But does it? This depends how ambivalence is understood, and whether it actually indicates a lack of autonomy or pratical irrationality.