Life’s real value

The ever-interesting Eric McDonald has been writing a series of blog posts (one, two, three so far) criticizing arguments against assisted dying on the basis of “the sanctity of human life,” and further criticizing the very idea that life is “sacred.” Inspired by his conversation, I’d like to go considerably further, and argue that not only is human life NOT sacred, human life as such is not even valuable, or deserving of respect. Consider the coma patient whose forebrain is so much mush (for example, Terry Schiavo), but whose metabolic processes can be maintained artificially for many months or years. Consider the anencephalic infant born with no neocortex at all, and therefore no chance whatsoever of ever developing into a person, but nevertheless responsive enough to medical care to be kept alive — maintained as a functioning metabolism — for months, or even years. These beings are undeniably alive, and undeniably human, yet no morally sensible person would argue that their lives have any value that we should be concerned to preserve and protect. In fact, any morally sensible person ought to consider the preservation of such lives a waste of resources that should instead be devoted to some end that is actually worthwhile, like helping patients who might actually benefit from treatment. (Of course, the hullabaloo raised by the Schiavo case sadly revealed just how many people lack any moral sense, and which people are so lacking: religious conservatives.)

What such cases should tell us, if we reflect on them carefully, is that human life itself — “life” in the sense of the mere continuation of metabolic processes — is of no value at all. Not only is human life not sacred, it’s not even morally important. Or rather, to the extent that human life has value — to the extent that life is worth preserving and protecting — life’s value must necessarily depend on something other than merely being alive. This suggests that the problem with making moral arguments based on “the sanctity of human life” isn’t necessarily just the *sanctity* part: The failures of moral reasoning evident in those who strongly oppose assisted dying, euthanasia, and abortion seems rooted in the focus on the value of life itself. Replacing the “sanctity of human life” principle with “the intrinsic value of life” or “respect for human life” might not improve matters, because such muddy language still focuses on life, which is not valuable in itself. Better to cease all this foolish jibber-jabber about the value of human life entirely, and focus instead on what actually makes human life valuable.

We consider cases like those cited above to be tragic precisely because what we actually value about life has been lost (Schiavo), or has failed to develop at all (anencephaly). So what is it that we value? Simply put, it is not merely being alive that we value, but living our lives. The meaning of human life springs from our projects and activities, our relationships and commitments, our ongoing engagement with the life we make for ourselves. As Eric brought up in his first post on this subject, it’s the quality of life that truly matters. However, that immediately raises the question of what standard we should use for making quality judgments, for all judgments require norms. Any reflection at all should make it immediately and abundantly clear that no objective, external standard for judging the quality of a life could ever be supposed or imposed: No one else can actually live my life but me, so necessarily *I* must evaluate the quality of my life for myself — and the same is true for everyone. Thus it isn’t life that we ought to respect, but autonomy.

I would argue that any moral reasoning framed in terms of “the value of life” or “respect for life” — regardless of whether the value of life is called “sacred” or not — precludes (or at least occludes) meaningful consideration of the quality of life. What we ought to respect is human autonomy, for that is the only basis on which quality of life can be assessed. The value of each life can only be determined by the person who lives it. My life has value because I value it. If I ever cease valuing my life, perhaps because degenerative illness has diminished and will continue to diminish my capacity for carrying on the projects, activities, and engagements that give my life meaning and value, then no one can gainsay my judgment on my life’s disvalue. If someone murdered me, what would make their action immoral is not simply that they have taken a life, but that they have taken what I value without my consent. In contrast, what makes physician-assisted suicide the absolute moral opposite of murder is that the physician is not taking what I value without my consent, but is aiding me in discarding what I disvalue, and doing so not just with my consent, but at my request.

On this view, Eric was being redundant when he claimed, in his third post, that assisted dying “is about two things and two things only: intolerable suffering and choice.” Rather, it is about one thing, and one thing only: choice. Whether or not any given person’s suffering is “intolerable” is itself a matter of choice: No one else could conceivably decide for me whether my life is tolerable, for I am the one who must tolerate it. My life, my decision. It really is that simple.

I believe my conclusion here reinforces Eric’s criticism of “the sanctity of human life” as a moral principle: While I think that moral arguments couched in terms like “the intrinsic value of life” or “respect for human life” are potentially misleading because they put the emphasis on entirely the wrong value, such terminology at least leaves open the possibility of asking where the value of life comes form, or exactly what aspect of human life ought to be respected. Given that potential, such terms are not an absolute obstacle to sound moral reasoning based on the value that really matters, respect for human autonomy. In contrast, any moral reasoning which relies on the “sanctity” or “sacredness” of human life is inescapably pernicious: The very idea of “sanctity” can never escape the implication — indeed, the necessary presupposition — that what really matters is not what we value about our own lives, but what God values. And of course, “what God values” always and necessarily reduces to what religious authorities claim God values: Thus, any citation of the sanctity of life as a value that must be respected is not moral reasoning at all, it is authoritarian religious bullying. Fuck that noise.

  1. 2012/11/29 at 4:42 am | #1

    Assuming (as I do) that the “value” of something is due to the extent to which expecting people to protect it contributes to a state of affairs that all appropriately enlightened humans consider “good”, it seems to me that there may be some value in a mindless human life because having a knee-jerk protective reaction on the basis of life itself may be useful in contexts where an attempt to compute some kind of aggregate utility would either cause undue delay and/or might even end up in a some kind of infinite loop.

  2. 2012/11/29 at 7:05 am | #2

    I don’t buy that reasoning, Alan. Utilitarian principles absolutely forbid one-sided evaluation of benefits and harms: one must always choose the greatest overall benefit from all available options. The obvious question this raises with respect to your suggestion is this: Is the value of people having knee-jerk protective reactions on the basis of there being a human life at stake *greater* (that is, does it contribute to a good state of affairs more consistently, frequently, etc.) than the value of people having a knee-jerk protective reaction to human autonomy? I can think of no reason why it should.

    Nor, frankly, does this nonsense about computing aggregate utility and concern over delays have anything to do with the argument I actually made here, which is about which principles ought to be the basis of our moral reasoning, and why. The concern you are raising seems not to be about actual moral reasoning at all, but about heuristic short-cuts in moral thought, or ethical “gut reactions.” But I’m certainly willing to address this completely different issue, so let’s think a moment about what we’re actually comparing: On the one hand, there is the way one values human life based on a principled respect for human autonomy and a thoughtful understanding of what actually makes life valuable. On the other hand, there is the way one values human life based on the notion that human life is valuable, period — either with no “because” at all, or for reasons that are obscure at best. (“Because it’s human life, and human life is valuable, so there!” or “Human life is valuable because God values it!”) I don’t see any reason to believe that a grounded, rationally defensible understanding of *why* human life has value should lead to any less automatic and gut-level protectiveness towards human life than a groundless or faith-based commitment to believing human life has value.

    Furthermore, your argument involves a rather serious elision. Even if having a knee-jerk protective reaction to human life itself is a good thing, that wouldn’t support the claim you make here. You specifically argued for the value of having a knee-jerk protective reaction to “mindless human life” in particular. But there simply are no plausible circumstances where the evaluation of mindlessness is possible as a “knee-jerk” reaction. We don’t see someone asleep and think, “Hmm. Currently not engaged in the activities that give life meaning; I guess that’s just an object of no value, then.” Rather, we see a sleeping person, an autonomous being whose life has value, and who we quite automatically and unthinkingly presume will eventually awake to resume their valued projects and relationships and so on. As opposed to such natural, “knee-jerk” reactions to a sleeping person, it takes very careful evaluation to determine the mental status and recovery chances of a patient in a persistent vegetative state, for example, and the inherent uncertainty of medical diagnosis may give us reason to hedge our bets. And what would we be hedging our bets about? Not whether the human being in front of us is alive; that’s fairly obvious. Heart monitor still beeping? Right, still alive. Our real concern is whether or not the human body in front of us actually has a chance of recovering from its current medical condition to a sufficient degree that he or she could once more be a person with a real life, could actually engage in those human activities which give life meaning and value.

    In short: You’re really grasping at straws here.

  3. 2012/11/29 at 6:17 pm | #3

    I’m afraid that I’ve never managed to find a rational theory of value that struck me as coherent so I often do have to rely on “heuristic short-cuts in moral thought” and ethical “gut reactions”. But even at the utilitarian level it seems to me that something can acquire value by virtue of the emotional attachment that some people have to it – even if that attachment itself has no rational basis.

  4. 2012/11/29 at 6:33 pm | #4

    Sounds like you should read Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals: He would agree with you wholeheartedly that value is not rational. So, for that matter, would I. To say that a given value claim is rationally defensible, as I did in this post, is not at all the same as saying it is purely rational: Empirical claims are rationally defensible without being the product of pure reason, after all. And while I don’t think value claims can be reduced to empirical claims, it does seem like they are the sort of claim for which we can produce evidence — because value (the noun) must necessarily be rooted in valuing (the verb), and we have plenty of reflective and empirical evidence that people do indeed value various things. Filling in the details of such an account of value is well beyond the scope of a blog post or comment, but I don’t think it’s transparently hopeless on the face of it.

  5. H.H.
    2012/11/29 at 7:06 pm | #5

    What such cases should tell us, if we reflect on them carefully, is that human life itself — “life” in the sense of the mere continuation of metabolic processes — is of no value at all.

    This reminds me of a snippet of dialogue from the excellent HBO production Game of Thrones. The character Daenerys Targaryen saves a witch from being raped by her barbarian husband’s tribe. Later, when her husband Drogo’s life is in peril, Daenerys begs the witch to use her magic to save him at all costs, which ends up including the life of her unborn child. Drogo lives, but in a vegetative state. Discovering that she traded her son’s life for a shell of her former husband, Daenerys confronts the witch:

    Daenerys Targaryen: I spoke for you. I saved you!

    Mirri Maz Duur: [scoffs] Saved me? Three of those riders had already raped me before you “saved” me, girl. I saw my God’s house burn. There where I had healed men and women, beyond counting. In the streets, I saw piles of heads. The head of a baker, who bakes my bread. A head of a little boy that I cured of fever just three moons past. So, tell me again exactly what it was that you saved?

    Daenerys Targaryen: Your life!

    Mirri Maz Duur: Why don’t you take a look at your Khal? Then you will see exactly what life is worth, when all the rest has gone.

    (emphasis mine)

  6. 2013/01/03 at 5:34 am | #6

    You write: “No one else can actually live my life but me, so necessarily *I* must evaluate the quality of my life for myself — and the same is true for everyone. Thus it isn’t life that we ought to respect, but autonomy.”

    So, you’re saying that when there is no longer an “I” to be able to perform such an evaluation (in the case of Terri Schiavo), or when there never can be such an “I” (anencephaly), there is no need for debate that a life exists that is worth making heroic attempts to save.

  7. 2013/01/03 at 9:25 pm | #7

    Yes, but there’s more to it. While the hopeless cases help illuminate the fact that mere metabolism is not what we really do or should care about about when we talk about the value of life, it’s important to focus on what we actually DO value. When we acknowledge that it is autonomy itself we value rather than mere metabolism, and therefore that the value of anyone’s life is wholly dependent on the value they autonomously place on it, then it becomes evident that those who oppose physician-assisted suicide are not simply mistaken in what they think is valuable, but that they are directly opposing and undermining what is genuinely valuable — the autonomy of patients.

  8. 2013/01/04 at 3:39 am | #8

    So “my right to make my decisions about my life” trumps “your judgment about the relative quality of my life.”

  9. 2013/01/04 at 5:18 am | #9

    Exactly! Even further, my right to make decisions about my life trumps your judgment about the absolute value of my life, the relative value of my life, or any other damned opinion you have about the value of my life — because YOU don’t have a right to an opinion on the value of MY life. Or at least, you don’t have any right to an opinion I am obliged to respect, and you certainly don’t have the right to constrain my decisions about my life based on your opinions. This is what real respect for human autonomy consists in. As I wrote in the post: My life, my decision. It really is that simple.

  10. 2013/01/05 at 5:22 am | #10

    So, to what would you attribute the desire for certain groups to continue to set policy and standards for groups to which they do not belong? Lack of respect for those populations’ own autonomy (or lack of belief of their right to autonomy), lack of desire to relinquish their own power, a bit of both, or something else?

  11. 2013/01/05 at 7:03 am | #11

    All of the above, plus plain old religious dogmatism and fear of change (which are not unrelated).

  12. rdmcpeek43
    2013/02/02 at 7:26 pm | #12

    Your first word in your reply to Elizabeth @ #8 (“exactly”)
    is exactly my response and the way I’ve viewed suicide since
    I was a very young man. I decide; no one else.

  1. 2012/11/29 at 9:57 am | #1
  2. 2012/11/29 at 1:02 pm | #2

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