Saturday, July 14, 2007

What Value Human Life ?

While having a discussion about how human life is valued, and whether the U.S. ought to be keeping the peace in Iraq, and whether it means anything that many people in America are outraged over the ~3,000 military deaths due to hostile action in Iraq over four-and-a-half years*, while accepting without protest the annual kill-rate of ~43,000 traffic deaths, my brother Siddhartha wrote this essay:

I think most people will agree, or at least profess,
that life is of primary importance; that is, that life
is more important than temporal possessions or
personal comfort. You cannot kill a person for
stealing property, for example. In such a world it is
wrong for me to refuse to give aid to a person in need
for the sake of my own convenience or comfort. We do
what we can to preserve life.

Most people soon realize that there are more
struggling and dying people in the world than they
have resources. The struggle then becomes an economic
one. How much of my own welfare am I willing to forgo
so that others might live? The answer is usually
proportional to our emotional attachment to the
suffering person. If they are a close family member
we are likely to give all that we have and all that we
can negotiate for, to secure their life. The more
detached we are from them the less of our resources we
are willing to part with. Immediate family, distant
relative, countryman, ethnic kin. The connection
becomes weaker and weaker.

Additionally, it is not merely our comfort that we are
giving up, in some ways it is our own survival. The
less money we have the less likely we will be able to
save for our own illness or accident in the future.
We buy cheaper product that are more dangerous
(smaller, lighter cars for example or cut rate food
products that are more likely to be unsafe), and we
subject ourselves to less healthy lifestyles. Stress
is implicated in many life-threatening illnesses. If
we agree with such a finding, every time we forego a
stress-releasing activity we are increasing our
chances of dying. Viewed in this light, the vacation
to Disney Land is not a luxury but an investment in
our future health.

Of course there are degrees, and no one would argue
that going to Disney Land is more important than
feeding a starving child, but when you factor in that
the child is a black child thousands of miles away, a
child whom you will never see or even know existed
except as a theoretical example, a child who is
unlikely to receive the food that she needs even if
you gave up your vacation due to corrupt governments
and other criminals who will intercept the aid, a
child who even if she did survive to adulthood (which
is not guaranteed even with adequate food) would most
likely be raped as a teenager and contract AIDS, a
child whose life even under the most optimistic
circumstances will be unpleasant, unproductive and
short. When you factor all that in, the trip to
Disney Land starts to look like it might just be best
for the world.

So in a world of economic tradeoffs we have to weigh
the possible good our money can do for others with the
good that it can do for ourselves. Additionally, if
we are going to give up some of our resources, we
would probably start with those closest to us

We also, as a culture, value self-determination and
believe that we are not subject to fate but are the
masters of our own destiny, suffering for bad
decisions as well as prospering with the good ones.
With such a paradigm we must also consider how we
spend our money as an intervention into the microcosm
of another person’s life. Remember the Prime
Directive is to not interfere with the internal
affairs of other civilizations. When we use our
resources to disrupt the natural consequences of
another person’s actions we are changing the outcome
of their personal evolution. Not to say that it
shouldn’t be done, but it must be done with caution
and consideration.

That paradigm forces us to question ourselves before
we get involved in someone else’s mess; what did they
do to put themselves into this situation? What are
they doing to help themselves? What will they do if I
use my resources to get them out of the situation?
The answers to these questions will guide whether or
not we get involved and, if we do, the extent to which
we get involved.

But let me get back to my original assertion: life is
more important than temporal possessions or personal
comfort. Let me challenge this assertion by stating;
life is merely an extension of comfort. In fact, life
in a constant state of extreme discomfort is torture.
There must be at least some hope of the discomfort
easing or a person’s will to live will not long
endure. Many people have been so miserable that they
would rather be dead than alive. Certainly this is
true of emotional pain as well as physical pain. We
can see that this is true in our own lives.

So, all life is not the same. We do not need to
compare our lives with others to see that is true, we
simply need to admit to ourselves that when we talk
about life we are really talking about the pleasure
that is derived from life. Where there is even a
small bit of pleasure derived from life we will say
that life is worth preserving. There are many people
in the world who live lives so miserable that I
wouldn’t wish to trade places with them who yet take
some infinitesimal amount of pleasure in there
existence and I say, there is value in that. But we
can make comparisons, and value judgments, and
allocate our resources based on the relative value
that we perceive both with regard to our own life as
well as the lives of others.

* While there have been ~3,600 military deaths to date, not all of them have been due to hostile action. People still drop dead of heart attacks, and have fatal traffic accidents, when deployed to a combat zone.


Blogger erp said...

Interesting post. Life is most precious IMO because death is final. There are no do-overs, remedies or cures. Once dead -- always dead, so even the faintest spark of life must be allowed to flourish.

Lives not worth living? How can we judge the desperately poor we see on television who after devastating disasters are able to recover and go on loving life?

I learned my lesson not compare my expectations with those not as lucky.

When a relative emigrated from a backwater of Eastern Europe and hadn't had a chance to see any of the country but a small part of a working class section of Brooklyn, I remarked that I wish he could visit some more attractive places, he said, to us, this is a palace.

July 14, 2007 10:42 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

There are lives not worth living, but in most cases, the individuals living those lives are the only ones capable of making that determination.

If I were stranded on a deserted isle, a la Cast Away, I too would eventually be driven to do something desperate, an all-or-nothing gamble, since a life spent doing nothing other than turning oxygen into carbon dioxide seem to me to be not worth living, at least not for long.

July 14, 2007 11:50 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'If they are a close family member
we are likely to give all that we have and all that we can negotiate for, to secure their life.'

Well, unless euthanasia frees up the loved one's assets sooner, in which case it goes the other way.

And what is this Prime Directive? Who is the Prime Director?

July 14, 2007 12:31 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

It's a Star Trek reference.

July 14, 2007 12:43 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Desperate castaway?.

July 15, 2007 5:54 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thoughtful post. I agree that we need to get the idea out of our head that we help people in places like Africa by giving them aid. That's done more to make their lives miserable than colonialism has. It fuels corruption in government, and undercuts investments in entrepreneurialism. It fuels wars and criminal gang activity as well. As long as there is booty to fight over, there will be fighting.

I will disagree with the contention that life is about pleasure. The one key ingredient that sparks the will to live is meaning, not pleasure. Pleasure without meaning weakens the will to live. Read Victor Frankl on meaning. I'd say he is the most underrated wise man of the past century.

As ERP mentioned, we can't apply our yardstick of material happiness to others. The anecdotal evidence that I've heard suggests that many Africans, when not subjected to war and outright famine, are happier than we are.

July 15, 2007 6:56 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Happiness is such a relative term, to have any meaning it must defined. In primitive societies a definition of happiness must be that their most basic needs are being met. Satisfying basic needs is simple even if it may be difficult to achieve in harsh circumstances, a lot harder is defining happiness once these basic needs have long been met and never, or hardly ever, are given a thought.

Introspection, self-actualization (I hate that term), etc. open so many avenues of adventure, the simple happiness of those at the lower levels of societal evolution seem so idyllic and impossible to achieve.

July 15, 2007 7:44 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Muslims, by and large, give every sign of being entirely content with the way their lives are arranged, but it is not clear that they are simultaneously capable of leaving us infidels alone in our misery.

So the question of happiness depends on the earlier question: Whose?

I would say that for us to maintain ever our current levels of angst, without sinking deeper, we are going to have to make many, many Muslims very, very unhappy.

It is not so clear, either, that the replacement of czarism by communism increased the overall unhappiness in Russia.

July 15, 2007 10:58 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Very funny, erp. And inadvertently insightful - too often, as we leap the fence for the greener grass, we find that we've left the frying pan for the fire.


I will disagree with the contention that life is about pleasure. The one key ingredient that sparks the will to live is meaning, not pleasure.

Would saying that life is about "satisfaction" split the difference between "pleasure" and "meaning" ?

While I agree that meaning makes life worth living, if I thought that this was the only plane of existence I'd also seek to maximize pleasure.


I would say that for us to maintain ever our current levels of angst, without sinking deeper, we are going to have to make many, many Muslims very, very unhappy.

While I agree in principle, it need not mean that we whip up on 'em.

Given that the gulf between advanced and primitive cultures is widening at an accelerating rate, by the end of the century, if they don't change, the gap between us will be as great as it currently is between modern America and the cave-painting stone-age Gauls of 30,000 BC.

That'll certainly make the more radical among them severely unhappy.

July 15, 2007 12:51 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That was included in my point. It appears that Islam is incompatible with modernity, even if were to drop its universalist aims in practice. (Nothing says it couldn't maintain them in theory but put off the practice.)

My ancestors went through that wrenching choice, too. They were violently unhappy about having to give up slavery, but I'd say in the long run it worked out OK for most of them.

In the run-up, my great-grandmother starved to death.

July 15, 2007 4:06 PM  
Blogger erp said...

inadvertently insightful?

July 15, 2007 4:09 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


Do you feel that Wiley Miller meant to convey something more profound than just the gag ?

July 15, 2007 5:22 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Of course not. I thought you meant that my posting the cartoon was
inadvertently insightful. I rarely read the funnies anymore, but that one caught my eye.

July 16, 2007 7:21 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home