On the Value of Life

I have this theory that a person’s life has an intrinsic value, that cannot be erased by any doing.

But why is it so?

After all, with ~7.6 billion people around the world, one could think that life is not rare, and we tend to think that valuable things are those that are hard to come by. Like diamonds.

We also have this need to rank everything around us, including people, what leads us into thinking that not everyone has a value, not really, just a handful of people.

But this notions are wrong. And very dangerous. They don’t work for life, in my opinion. The moment you start thinking that life is disposable, you’ve lost what’s called the human side of the equation.

Well, when you see someone, you can’t see it just for what it is now or what it has done. Much less see it by how much it earns, by it’s job or it’s car.

You have to see someone for it’s dreams, for the potential for literature, music, science. You need too see it by the way it might contribute to society given the proper chance. You have to see if for the way it raises his kids. See it by the way it carries the torch of humans forward though time.

You need to remember the heritage of every living man: the unbroken line of ancestrals, the rich culture embedded within everyone, centuries of history, traditions, beliefs.

You have to acknowledge the struggle it endured, even though this can only be imagined.

The odds of conception alone, of two random strangers meeting, combining their DNA in a particular way, surviving all sorts of birth diseases, and producing this life are staggering to comprehend. Then it has to pass though all kinds of ackward situations, not to mention puberty, fighting everyday just to keep fed and breathing, only to arrive at your judgemental table.

This theory leads to a certain code of behaviour, that you can’t ignore the intrinsic value of person by action or thought. I find that whenever I’m strong enough to follow it, I’m closer to being more considerative of others.

This is, in my opinion, why you should always treat other people with as much respect as you can, as you expect to be treated, fairly. Not because you fear some divine karma if you don’t, but by conscient action that society is better this way.

Every action of violence, lie, sabotage, of exploitation of others, means violating this intrinsic value. It doesn’t mean it’s easy to know what to do in every situation, but can be a guide.

So does that mean that a mass murderer is inocent?

Not exactly, but it does mean that this value needs to be taken in consideration, even for a mass murderer. First, it means that you should refrain from pre-judging him. Let the evidence speak for itself, if you are in such a position to judge. You’d be suprised how often it’s not up to us to judge and we end up doing so.

I find very hard to support capital punishment if you believe in this value of human life, but I’d say that every case is a case.

It means that he should be given an unbiased trial (the best that can be made possible) and if convicted, that every effort should be made to find him a productive way of returning to society.

There is money around for beach houses, luxury cars, to reward stockholders, but there isn’t for taking care of someone that needs help, for a time, just to get his bearings. Not everyone agrees with this, most people consider a waste of resources to rehabilitate prisioners. But I ask again, what is the value of a human life?

I do believe that if you actually take the time to teach a child proper values, by being present, securing an adequete environment, expose him to good role models (say, in books and movies) then I believe you have a pretty good chance of ending up with an honest, decent human being.

It’s easy to forget the value of life.

When you fence refugees out of countries, when you discriminate, when you fail to provide education and proper medical care, when you ignore the homeless, when you strip people of their dreams, all of this fundamentally ignore the real measure of a human life.

And the end result of this: missed opportunities.

[IMAGE: Famous 1936 photography of a migrant woman, Florence Owens Thompson, and children, by Dorothea Lange]



On Ethics

We are often plagued by that “Is it wrong?” question. It’s the human nature to be inquisitive about the ethics of things. It’s uncertain if that is something that we were born with or if it was acquired along the way, enforced, for example, by religion.

Rarely we find a definite answer to a moral dilemmas, however. We tend to think that there is a ‘yes or no’ solution to everything, when problems can be so complex that can only be tackled in very specific conditions.

Just as an example: should you save person A or B from drowning? What if A was you son, and B a complete stranger? See how the problem changes shape, just by adding more information. For some people, it falls under a completely different algorithm while for others, nothing changes.

This is applied ethics, asking specific questions to the purpose of determining a policy or a decision in real life. If this was an easy task the world would not be so troubled. In fact, in the heart of every major conflict lies an ethical ambiguity, a problem that at least on the surface seems to have more than one acceptable solution.

But don’t be tempted to think that the answer to all ethical dillemmas is to ensure conformity. Many practical disasters have come from attempting this, including the Second Great War. There are two separate movements in society, one leading to conformity and other to dissidence of opinions. Somehow, the balance of these opposing forces reaches an end result that is society itself.

This affects ethical decisions because our own decisions are based by the mainstream views of the society, its values and beliefs. If my entire family bans abortion, for example, it is lot more unlikely for me to support it.

It’s important to know that although there are little definite answers, much work has been done in thinking about the most common ethical dilemmas. This material should be used to guide the most difficult decisions.

There are many schools of ethics, some that favor the balance such as the Stoicism, other more pragmatic as the Utilitarism. Simply knowing what they are about is a enough to allow you to use them in a rudimentary way, and leads to a better justified position. One needs to draw the line about using them and embracing them as life styles, though.

In very simple terms: Stoicism is inside the moral absolutism (ie murder is always wrong) and anything outside can’t be judged; In Hedonism, right is what gives pleasure (bound to have a fan or two); To Epicureans, enduring pain makes it right; Consequentialist states that one must compute the pros/cons of a moral action; Utilitarism chooses something to maximize, say welfare, and defines right accordingly; Deontological ethics look beyond consequences, and find right in the actions taken.

I’ve found with years that one should navigate between these views, none of them alone is enough to face every decision. One needs to see how arbitrary a solution to a problem is, if only to be more willing to listen to another opinion. If the purpose is not debating, but to reach a consensus, one will find Consequentialism an useful tool.

On top of that, one has to process these ethical considerations with his religious belief system. For some people religion takes precedence, and for other is the logical approach. It’s a wonder we can reach any decision at all.

[IMAGE: Plato and Aristotle in ‘The School of Athens’, by Raphael Sanzio. image source]