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On the Public Martin Manley Suicide
R. J. Crayton   Sep 17, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Former Kansas City Star reporter Martin Manley committed a very public suicide in August. The story captured my attention for two reasons: (1) I used to work in the newsroom of the Kansas City Star and (2) I started thinking about Manley’s death in relation to transhumanism.

While I never met Manley, I was naturally curious about his suicide, because like me, he ended up at the newspaper I once worked. He walked the same newsroom floor, spoke the same slang like JOCO (for the Johnson, Kansas, County Office), and probably chatted with some of the same reporters I used to hang with. That connection made his Aug. 15 suicide something I immediately wanted to find out more about.

The second reason Manley’s death interested me is because of its transhumanist connections. First and foremost, Manley’s suicide received such extensive news coverage not because he was a particularly famous journalist, but because of how he executed his death. Manley, for all intents and purposes, uploaded his life to a website prior to killing himself. As transhumanists often look at ways of technological preservation of the human mind, I found it interesting that Manley attempted this with the only technology he had: the world wide web. He pre-paid his site for five years and urged his relatives to keep it up indefinitely. The site chronicles his life, marriages, favorite trips, musical tastes, attempts at organ donation, and reasons for committing suicide.

Manley’s site hints at transhumanist leanings for longevity. He declared, “I didn't want to die. If I could have waved a magic wand and lived for 200 years, I would have.” His site, which he spent the year prior to his suicide making, says Manley did not kill himself because he was tired of living, but because he felt he could not live well for much longer. Manley said he was suffering early signs of dementia and didn’t want to become completely witless and have to rely on others for his care.

Finally, Manley’s suicide brought transhumanism to my mind because I read Dan Brown’s novel Inferno earlier this year. In it, Brown’s villain is a transhumanist who believes that goals of human life extension are prevailing, but that humans won’t be able to take advantage of extended lifespans due to overpopulation depleting the planet’s resources. Brown’s villain proposes a radical idea to deal with overpopulation (I’ll let you read the book to find out what it is). If you take at face value Brown’s contention that transhumanists are concerned with overpopulation, then Manley’s solution -- suicide -- would be one way to deal with that problem.

To be fair, the idea of suicide as a population control measure, has been around for a long time. In certain cultures, it was accepted that the old should simply fade away and die to make room for the young and thriving. In Japan, the “Suicide Forest” is littered with the bodies of those who've chosen it as their place to die.

Suicide is an issue that draws strong opinions. There are mental health advocates who contend that suicide is always a sign of mental health problems. There are right-to-die advocates who will argue that people can be perfectly rational and decide to end their lives.

For his part, Manley said he was not depressed. In news coverage following his death, Manley’s friends and family also said he did not appear depressed. Let’s assume that Manley was accurate in his mental health self assessment: he suffered no depression or mental health problems. Let’s also assume that Manley’s approach is a good one in a society where the normal population controls of disease and old age don’t adequately winnow the population. Is it ethical to simply let people choose to die? And if it is, how does society ensure that only people who are mentally healthy are choosing to do this? Would people who actually are depressed die, and society just not care because society needs more room? Would people who deserve the benefit of mental health expertise just be cast aside? The people who, arguably, are most in need of help because their own mental distress is stopping them from helping themselves, would be most vulnerable in this situation.

Going beyond the mentally ill, would those who are sick and dying also be encouraged to commit suicide? There are people now who wish to end their life prematurely when facing debilitating illnesses or conditions. In a society where suicide is population management, would those people be encouraged to thrown in the towel early?

Lastly, in a transhumanist society, where the ultimate goal is extended life, a post-human body, would suicide fly? Or would it just go too much against the grain of achieving post-human endeavors?

Certainly I don’t have all the answers, but certainly Martin Manley’s death has led me to pose the questions.


R.J. Crayton is a novelist living in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. More information is available on her website.


I would contend that Transhumanists are far less worried about overpopulation than the Dan Brown Inferno novel may assert (I admit I still need to finish reading it myself). Seeing as how projections have shown that a likely balancing of population growth/depletion will occur sometime around 2050. The fertility rate is still on its usual prodigious decrease, as can be seen here:

So I wouldn’t assume that Manley’s choice for suicide had any inkling of compatibility with that of fear of overpopulation.

As for choice of suicide among Transhumanists, speaking on my own as a Transhumanist, I’d argue that Transhumanism is merely an extension from that of Dr. Kevorkian’s ideals of patients having the right to choose when they’d wish to die, rather than have it dictated by their biological clock (alongside anti-morality lobbyists). Instead, Transhumanists recognize the individual desire to have life and death become a question for each to answer - How long do I wish to live? How would I like to die? When would I like to die? Do I want to die? Do I want to live?

In this sense, Manley made that choice to die when considering every other route he could take. His desire to catalog a large chunk of his life online, and then die by his own preference, is honestly how any Transhumanist, I would argue, would like to go if they knew they’d die before indefinite life extension is achieved.

Wouldn’t the truly transhumanist course of action be to sign up for cryonics? This course of action is especially obvious when one wants to continue living but can see that time is not on their side. It can’t be that hard to engage in some strategic pre-emptive suicide, even with the attendant legal complications.

While the author, R. J. Crayton, may be a Transhumanist, I don’t believe Martin Manley was. This analysis is from a Transhumanist perspective, yes, but that then doesn’t mean Manley adhered to that exact ideal. In fact, throughout his webpage that was established on the day of his suicide, he notes his viewpoint that death is inevitable.

So while most Transhumanists, I’m sure, would rely on cyronics in case they were to die before indefinite life extension is achieved, Manley was not a Transhumanist, believed that death was inevitable, and thus saw no reason in trying to ensure the expansion of a life he no longer thought should continue.

I don’t think believing that death is inevitable precludes one from being a transhumanist. I also think death is inevitable, excepting some wild future spacetime engineering advances.

@SHaGGz, you’re probably right in that a self-proclaimed transumanist would have tried to do something to preserve his body in tact. I was attempting to look at his death from a transhumanist perspective, particularly one framed via the lense of Brown’s recent novel—one of an overpopulated world. I do think that Manley had some transhumanist inclinations, without necessarily being familiar with transhumanism. He wanted a piece of himself to survive. And the piece he was most interested in preserving—his minds and thoughts—was the piece he was most afraid wouldn’t survive on his current trajectory. He feared Alzheimer’s or a similar type of cognitive degeneration that would rob him of the ability to think, converse and interact with the world in the way he loved most.

@BJ Murphy, you make a good point about Manley and the extension of Kevorkian’s ideal. I think you’re right that transhumanists are not particularly concerned about overpopulation. I’ve seen little, aside from Brown’s book, to suggest that. However, Brown’s premise that this is a concern, in light of Manley’s suicide, led me to wonder what kind of issues would arise if suicide were considered a more accepted/condoned form of death.

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