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.