Life has value, right? But how much, and what exactly makes it valuable?
For a long time, America defaulted to assumptions of universal human worth. You might get the “made in the image of God” from a Christian or you might get there from arguments of Natural Law from someone who likes philosophy. Either way you come up with the idea that life is precious in its own right.
But if we make the mistake of assuming this is a universal value, we only show that really don’t know much about the world we live in.
When I spent time in India, I was shocked to learn about the practise of immolation. It turns out that immolation was used by some as legitimate political protest. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Instead of throwing bricks through windows or smashing police cars, they set themselves alight. I remember one story about a municipal politician accused of corruption (later convicted), yet a supporter doused themselves in gasoline, and lit a match in protest.
To such a person, lives are cheap, even their own lives.
Elsewhere, there is an us-and-them dynamic. Whether sorting by politics, religion, race, tribal rivalries, or some other reason, the life of the outsider mean little or nothing. I don’t just mean the massive wars that churn out dead by the thousands or millions.
Like other moral issues, academia has made this more confused, not less.
Removing God from the equation took us to various -isms that root our worth in something external. Guys like Nietzsche provided the driving ethic for at least three of the major villains of the 20th Century. The little Austrian with the bad mustache gave copies of Nietzsche to his Russian and Italian counterparts. I mean sustained racial conflict costing many lives. Political conflicts. Religious zealots. The whole range of human experience.
More recent academics and philosophers had a different view of human worth. What did Nietzsche believe? He rejected the notion of good or evil at all. Seeking power for its own sake would therefore not be evil. The little Austrian with the funny mustache was so taken with Nietzsche’s writings that he sent copies to other world leaders.
There are some utterly convinced of the meaninglessness of life. They would grapple with Camus’ statement “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” We have lost our sense of whether life has value. Is that a big deal? Yes. Yes it is.
When you don’t value all life, you have nothing that will prevent you from shooting up a nightclub or the Family Research Council. You have nothing to prevent you passing legislation refusing medical treatment to born-alive survivors of abortion.
Just last week, Canada passed “right-to-die” legislation. The issue is sure to be pushed in the States, too.
Are you ready for this next push? Do you have a solid understanding about what makes human life valuable? Because you can expect to hear the other side argue — with a sense of moral superiority no less — the reasons that dying is a personal right, like the right to free speech or a fair trial.