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.


C Grace said...

"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"

"As before, if a person falls into a permanent coma, she then loses the value that before she had."

These statements make me cringe. I hope on your part that you have merely slipped in the way you are wording them for what you are saying here is that the person looses value when they lose the possibility of consciousness. I cannot agree with that at all.

Consider these two concepts
1) their furhter physical life looses any possible value,

2) the person looses value.

In the first case we are considering that the person's further physical life has no value to them. But the second case can be easily interpreted to mean that the person looses any value to society which is why I dislike the wording.

As soon as we let slip into our thinking this idea of trying to give value to a person on the basis of their usefulness or ability we are on a slippery slope to moral chaos.

Franklin Mason said...

When I spoke of value, I did not mean value to anyone or anything. Rather I meant intrinsic value.

I'm unsure why it is that one might be tempted to say that, if the brain is so irreparably damaged that consciousness is no longer possible, that the person yet remains. If I were to suffer such damage, I would say that I had departed.

If one thinks that I am not my body but am a soul instead (and I do take this view quite seriously), it seems to me that brain death, and not the death of the body, is the time at which the soul leaves the body. If on the other hand one thinks that I am my body, I would suggest to you that what worth I possess does not depend upon the mere fact that I am alive. My argument for this is the the post.

Last point: I do not say that the usefulness of a person determines his worth. There are those who are quite disuseful (to coin a term) that matter no less than the most useful. Nor do I say that ability determines worth, if by that we mean something like talent, or developed skill. But if that means the mere possibility of consciousness, I do say that it is quite relevant to worth.

Let me ask you this: if there were two in danger, one brain-dead and beyond all hope of recovery and a second healthy in brain and body, and you could save only one, which would you save? If the two are of equal worth, it seems that one should flip a coin. But it seems to me that one should most certainly not flip a coin. There is one that should be saved and one that should be let die. Moreover, this does not to risk moral chaos. Rather it's a decision that, albeit hard in a way, we sometimes do have to make. We might regret such decisions, but they seem a result of a principled, and defensible, moral view.

C Grace said...

"it seems to me that brain death, and not the death of the body, is the time at which the soul leaves the body."

This is interesting and sheds a new perspective on your post. It is not something I had considered.

You seem to be saying that a body without the possiblity of consciousness no longer possesses a soul and therefore no longer posesses any intrinsic value.

I don't tend to believe that the soul leaves the body when the brain is dead, but rather when the body dies, but I can understand where you are coming from and agree with it from that perspective.

"If the two are of equal worth, it seems that one should flip a coin."

Not so. Since I believe that the soul leaves the body at the death of the body I would consider the two of equal worth, yet I would not need to flip a coin in considering which one to save. I would decide based not on intrinsic worth but on what I think right in the context of the situation. In this case I would make my decision on based on who I think would benefit more from my help which obviously would be the healthy person.

There are millions of starving children in the world. I cannot save them all but this does not mean that I do not value them all equally. We use our resources to the best of our ability and leave our hearts open to hurting over the fact that we live in a fallen world.

Sometimes we cannot fix things and compassion is all that we have to offer people. The gift of compassion is not trivial though and it is what I would give to the man I couldn't save. It is this compassion that makes us regret the hard decisions we have to make.

Anonymous said...

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