“Genie, you’re free.” In Disney’s Aladdin, those are the words in which the Genie learns that after thousands of years of being forced to grant the wishes of whoever rubbed his lamp, he will finally get the one thing he’s always wished for: his freedom.
Monday night, on Twitter, those words—over an image of Aladdin hugging the Genie—became the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ farewell to Robin Williams, who voiced the role of the Genie and who killed himself Monday: “Genie, you’re free.”
That night, I responded simply as a man whose worst memories are of being prevented from killing himself as a teenager: I wept from the pain, and from the beauty, and most of all from the sense that a major cultural institution had reached out to the teenager I once was, to everyone who has felt what I felt then, and—it felt like for the first time—said: It’s OK. You’re free.
Today I want to respond as a philosopher.
As Ayn Rand taught, the foundation of all valuing—for a person who chooses to live—is the value of one’s own life. But one’s own life can only be a value if one chooses it. Since all other values, including moral values, depend on the value of one’s life, there is no basis for any moral requirement to value one’s life. The value of life—and with it all values and all morality—rest on the choice to live.
And that’s part of what’s great about the Objectivist ethics. It’s not an unchosen burden, as ethical systems based on duty or altruism are. It’s the means to an end you have to choose—your life, your flourishing, your happiness.
But if life is a choice, death is an option. And because the choice to live is the foundation of morality, moral arguments do not apply to a person who has opted to die. There is, therefore, no basis to condemn a person who has chosen to die.
Accepting that you have the option to die does not have to mean rejecting the value of life.
We can, of course, express sorrow—sorrow at our loss. And the Academy’s tweet, by showing Aladdin hugging the Genie, expresses that sorrow. It says: We still valued you, we valued your life, even if you didn’t.
But by addressing Williams (through the Genie), and by using the words “you’re free,” the tweet puts his concerns in the foreground. Or, more precisely, it attempts to understand his action on the respectful assumption that he did what he did for a reason, and it focuses on that attempt. It says: Whatever it was that made your life no longer a value to you, you no longer have to suffer it.
It says more by its loving tone: We accept your choice. We aren’t condemning you—as much as we’ll miss you, we are not going to say that you should have kept living for your fans, or for your friends, or for your family. If you were really so miserable that you did not want to go on, we are saddened by our loss, but we are glad that you are no longer suffering.
Accepting that death is an option, and that people who see no reason to live for themselves don’t owe it to others to live for them, rules out the possibility of a life worse than death. If you are not willing to live for the sake of others, and if others will not force you to live for their sake, then you can never be trapped in a life so miserable that you would rather not exist at all. And if you know that those who matter to you would not want you to live in such misery for their sakes, then you can never be held to such a life by your feelings for them.
A culture where we all respond to the chosen deaths of people we value with the benevolent acceptance the Academy extended to Robin Williams would thus be a culture that, at least in the extreme case, accepted our control of our own lives.
The prospect offers comfort to those who are considering dying—and to anyone who recognizes that a time might come when he would consider it. It means you can free yourself from misery. But it means much more, too.
If you accept that you are free to die, then you can seriously consider the choice to live. You’re free to choose your life based on the values you see in it—and so long as values are open to you, you can focus your life on the things that make it valuable to you. Accepting that you have the option to die does not have to mean rejecting the value of life. Quite the contrary. When you accept the option to die, but make the choice to live, as I have for years now, it is a step toward embracing a life of values and making your life truly your own. It puts a limit to pain—and it opens the door to joy.
I’ve been there, Genie. But now you’re free. And so am I.
Author's Note: If you're looking for a way to help friends who may be contemplating suicide -- a way to be there for them and encourage them to choose life without taking the choice away from them -- please consider taking my Your Life Is Worth an Hour pledge by liking the Facebook page and sharing the pledge graphic.