I just saw the movie Gran Torino (which was very impressive). I don't want to spoil the ending, so if anybody wishes to see the movie and doesn't want to know what happens, they should probably stop reading here.
Now, in the ending of the movie, Walt Kowalski provokes a brutal, violent death in front of many witnesses at the hands of gangbangers who have been terrorizing his neighborhood, and specifically his immigrant neighbor family. From a Christian/altruist perspective, it would be tempting to laud him for a heroic sacrifice, liberating his neighborhood from an oppressive gang, giving up his life for the sake of others (and this may well be the intended meaning of the film; Kowalksi even lands in a Christ-like position on the ground.)
When altruists praise, one might expect egoists to condemn - but would they here? First of all, is this morally wrong? If life is the standard of ethics, and one's own life and happiness the purpose, does it follow that provoking certain death is wrong? Or is such an interpretation too deontological ("It is your duty to survive") and concrete-bound, and could one make a case that choosing a death that helps those one loves may well be included in "life" interpreted as an entire lifetime, including its ending? (Remember that in the context of the film, Kowalksi is already an old man suffering from terminal lung cancer, not someone who is throwing very much away by choosing death. On the contrary, he is doing what he judges to be the only way to uphold his values - his neighbors whom he has come to love.)
And, going perhaps even deeper into the theory of ethics, since the choice to live is pre-ethical, has morality anything to say at all about choosing not to live any longer at a certain point? Is choosing one's death (including its time and manner) always immoral, outside the scope of morality, or moral in certain contexts?
When we say that the choice to live is pre-ethical, "live" means a very specific thing: to live as a man, with all the inherent spiritual implications. The pre-ethicalness of the decision doesn't imply the choice to live is arbitrary or value-free. On the contrary: it means choosing to live is choosing the fundamental value which makes a code of values objective and relevant.
Morality is about how to live as a man. That's what it means when we say that man's life is the standard of value.
Mere physical survival as the standard of value is not sufficient to guide man in all his actions once he has already achieved physical survival. And it is also true that to live as a man does not imply a duty to further one's physical survival when important spiritual aspects of man's life are at stake.
Man's life, or to live as a man, requires one pursue and defend one's values, even if the cost might be physical survival. Properly understood, a heroic death in defense of one's greatest values is not a sacrifice, especially if by saving one's skin, one would allow one's highest values to be destroyed.
The value of one's life is not merely physical. Far from it.
answered Feb 11 '12 at 12:58
John Paquette ♦
I haven't seen the movie and can't comment on its metaphysical meaning, but the question appears to be asking about the Objectivist view of suicide in relation to the Objectivist view of life as the standard of value. Suicide can take many forms:
 Actively taking one's own life by shooting oneself in the head or jumping off a cliff or deliberately ingesting poison, etc.
 Gradually dying by slow self-torture for as long as possible.
 Non-violently refusing to comply with the commands of an oppressor, and being killed by the oppressor.
 Violently resisting the commands of an oppressor and being killed by the oppressor.
 Actively attempting to escape from the oppressor and being killed by the oppressor.
As far as I know, Christianity generally upholds  and  as the greatest forms of martyrdom. It sounds as if the hero in the movie may have been pursuing , which is also martyrdom, especially in the Islamic form of ancient, pre-Renaissance Christian existence (although the alleged "oppressor" in the Islamic view, "the Great Satan," is actually an illusion in reality).
In the ending, Ayn Rand's novel, We the Living, concretizes  as a highly dramatic way of emphasizing the futiliy of any rational pursuit of live-serving values under totalitarian tyranny. Atlas Shrugged concretizes such a case, also, in the character of Cherryl, except that Cherryl never comprehends how her own sanction serves her oppressors; instead, she is psychologically overwhelmed by the magnitude of the evil that she faces. In Atlas Shrugged, Part III, Chapter IV, a social worker says to an already distraught Cherryl:
It's a disgrace to come to such a state… if you society girls had something to do besides indulging your desires and chasing pleasures, you wouldn't be wandering, drunk as a tramp, at this hour of the night… if you stopped living for your own enjoyment, stopped thinking of yourself and found some higher—"
She ran as hard and fast as she could in revolt -- ending in her dramatic death.
OPAR describes suicide as follows near the end of Chapter 7 (pp. 247-248):
...suicide is sometimes justified, according to Objectivism. Suicide is justified when man's life, owing to circumstances outside of a person's control, is no longer possible; an example might be a person with a painful terminal illness, or a prisoner in a concentration camp who sees no chance of escape. In cases such as these, suicide is not necessarily a philosophic rejection of life or of reality. On the contrary, it may very well be their tragic reaffirmation. Self-destruction in such contexts may amount to the tortured cry: "Man's life means so much to me that I will not settle for anything less. I will not accept a living death as a substitute."
answered Feb 12 '12 at 11:26
Ideas for Life ♦