This is an interesting case. A woman gets vetted for “Extreme Makeover”. They interview her family, and encourage them to say mean things about the way she looks. Not so shocking. Then they cancel the girl’s appearance on the show because the jaw operation would take too long to heal. The girl goes home, and her sister, distraught about the mean things she said, kills herself.

This all ends the American way, with the makeover girl suing the show.

I actually don’t know how to feel about this one. I have a harsh prejudice against those who take their own lives. I view it as a form of natural selection. And I think that assigning blame for someone’s own actions to someone else seems just plain wrong. On the other hand, our laws are full of examples where we punish those that encourage an activity we find reprehensible (like cheering a rape), or those who verbally or psychologically abuse others. Those laws exist to punish behaviors we find harmful and to provide an incentive against abusing our fellow people.

Still, the question remains, if I commit an act of my own free will that causes me harm, can others be blamed?

Should the Florida real estate speculators who caused the Great Depression have been sued by the families of those who jumped out their office windows? Should the makers of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons be responsible for the teenager who throws himself off a building believing his level twelve enchanted feather will make him fly? If I cheat on a test, then later feel so bad about it I kill myself, should the kid who let me copy his answers go to jail?

Here’s a real example: the start-up company I used to work for, Xlibris, was courted by Barnes and Noble, given all sorts of views on the rosy future, and then dropped at the last minute when B&N invested in our competitor, a move which potentially could have put us out of business. If Xlibris had folded, and the founders had gone home and blown their brains out, would B&N have been legally responsible? I don’t think so.

Suicide is, by definition, an act of free will. Can others be made responsible for it?

Interestingly, it is also a crime in many states. Does that change the situation? Is it abetting a crime to say something that makes someone feel so bad they kill themselves? What if what you said was, “I liked your haircut before better.”

Can you escape responsibility if you promise someone a brand new life and then take it away from them? I’m sure that legally, there were no laws broken in this case. There was probably never any contract signed, or if there was, the show was almost certainly within their rights to cancel at any time. But is there a greater responsibility in this case?

Whatever the outcome, Extreme Makeover should realize that while they may not have a legal one, they do have a moral responsibility when they initiate proceedings to put someone on their show. Naturally, the show should be allowed to exercise its right to terminate a contract in accordance with its terms, but maybe they should think about making that decision before they send the cameras and the nasty producer down to interview the family and hunt for the juicy “So HOW ugly is your sister?” soundbites.

Categories: Entertainment


ian mulvany · September 21, 2005 at 11:36 am

two comments,

one, there are cases where a body should be held legally responsible for the self harm of an individual, and that is where the individual is acting in a state of dimisnished responsability, and either they were caused to be in that state by the body, or the body was charged with their care while they were in that state. The onus of psychiatric hospitals to monitor their patients is an example of the latter, but an interesting example of the former is when the CIA covertly fed LAD to some of its employees to “see what would happen”, resulting in the suicide of at least one American.

My second point is that the issue of legislation versus ethical responsability is a tricky one. So I’m not going to make any great point, or reveal some unifying truth here, I only want to say that though we can give simple examples where the distinction seems clear, the difficult examples indicate that there is to some extent a moral dimension to all legislation, rather than just a jurisprudence dimension.

Brian · September 21, 2005 at 12:08 pm

Now THAT’s what I call a comment!

I agree with the fact that there is a moral as well as a legal dimension to all of these types of cases, and that there can be legal responsibility on the part of someone who influenced the actions of someone else.

So I guess the question comes down to a matter of degree. To what degree did the party influence the other party, to what degree was the acting party in diminished capacity as a result of the influence, etc.

In this case it’s tough. The TV producer didn’t threaten the sister with bodily harm or other direct intimidation, but the implicit intimidation is “hey, if you DON’T say mean nasty things about your sister, then we won’t put her on the show.”

So to what degree should this indirect intimidation responsible for the sister’s suicide?

ian mulvany · September 22, 2005 at 11:15 am

The moral status of ‘reality-TV’ shows is clear, it is one of the few areas where the punishment is self-evided; hanging.

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