Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Value of Human Life

A recent post at the evangelical outpost has proven a good opportunity for me to make clear my views about the value of human life.

I wish you to consider two worlds, and make a judgment about which you would create if you had the power. The first I call "Hor" and the second "Ver".

In Hor there live 6 billions human beings, but each is in a permanent coma. Moreover, each of the 6 billion will live until old age and will, since in a coma, die painlessly. The bodily processes of the 6 billion - expect of course for the brain processes responsible for consciousness - continue without malfunction until death, and thus if we discount brain malfunction, each of the 6 billion is in superb health. There are no other beings in Hor capable of consciousness except the 6 billion.

In Ver there also live 6 billion human beings, and their lives are much like our own. They sleep and then they wake. While awake, they go about the day's business. They work, they eat, they play, they read, etc. Like in our world, there is much pain is their lives, but there is much joy too, and most value both their lives and the lives of those around them. As in Hor, there are in Ver no other beings capable of consciousness except the 6 billion.

Now, my question to you is this: If you were a god, which of Ver and Hor would you create? When I ask myself this question, I find that the answer is obvious. I would create Ver. Indeed it seems to me that there's not really much of a choice. Ver so far exceeds Hor in value that it is obviously the one to create. The value of Hor is really quite small, if in fact it has any value at all. It is worth barely more than a world in which there is no human life at all.

Conclusion: mere human life, divorced from the possibility of consciousness and all that this makes possible, is worth very little.

Do not be tempted to conclude that a human being ceases to be of worth when she is unconscious. This does not follow. If we were to say of Hor that its inhabitants would soon wake from their comas, no doubt we would conclude that Hor and Ver are of equal worth. Thus it is not mere unconsciousness that makes Hor worth so little. Instead it's that the inhabitants of Hor can never regain consciousness. The possibility of consciousness is crucial here.

Let us apply the conclusion to the debates about abortion and euthanasia. When in the early stages of development the fetus is not yet conscious, we cannot conclude that it is then of little value. On the contrary, if there is no defect that would prevent normal brain development, it is of very great value, for it will at a later time gain consciousness. But if the fetus were to suffer from a defect that made it impossible for it ever to be conscious, it is, as it were, mere human life and as such is of little worth. Such a fetus may, it seems to me, be aborted. (I do not say that it must be. I say only that it may be.)

What now of euthanasia? As before, if a person falls into a permanent coma, she then loses the value that before she had. She may be euthanized. (Again I do not say that she must be. I only say that she may be. It might well be that, if a doctor or family member were to kill, or let die, the one in a coma, it would have a deleterious effect upon them. Perhaps it would make them callous, and if this is so, perhaps they ought not do it. Another way to put my conclusion is this: if one restricts one's attention to the one in a permanent coma, there is no reason not to kill or let die. But if one widens one's attention and consider the effects upon others, there might well be decisive reason not to kill or let die.)

Before I end, let me say a word of caution. The medical judgment that a person is in a permanent coma might be difficult to make, and I think it necessary to err on the side of caution. A human being that has the potential to regain consciousness is, because of that potential, of such great value that she ought not to consider euthanasia unless we are utterly certain that the potential no longer remains. (I would say this too of abortion. We ought to be utterly certain that all possibility of consciousness is gone before we consider abortion.) That said, I believe that certainty is possible here. If for instance the upper, cortical areas of the brain are simply dead, or not present, we can be certain that there will never (again) be consciousness.