Behind the outrage at the graphic Planned Parenthood videos and the hunting of Cecil the lion – as well as the uneven media attention to these stories – is a question that we don’t have a good answer to, and that we’re not very good at discussing.
What is it about life that makes it valuable?
It’s one of most central moral questions there is, because it determines what living things we have an obligation to protect and why (and how) we should be protecting them. The answer to this question partly defines our moral compass, and informs our beliefs about whether abortion, hunting, eating meat, euthanasia, war, capital punishment and a host of other things are acceptable or not.
[sharequote align="center"]On what basis do we give life a greater or lesser value?[/sharequote]
And, while there’s a sense in which all life is valuable, the position that all life is equally valuable means that the death of any living thing – human, animal, insect, vegetable, microbial – is just as bad as the death of any other living thing. In practice, though, it’s hard not to differentiate their value, so we have to refine the question:
On what basis do we give life a greater or lesser value?
As a society that cherishes liberty, it’s natural to think people should get to choose what to believe about the subject. While that might be true about belief, it can’t be true about behavior: We can’t let people simply choose for themselves whether or not they’re going to view another person walking down the street as having a right to life. Being “pro-choice” about something’s right to life is the same as saying it doesn’t have a right to life. There has to be some class of living things where the law says, “Whatever you think or believe, you have to respect the life of these entities, you can’t kill them for no good reason.”
So, again, what’s the group of living things that the law should protect? What is it about them that gives them value above other living things?
It can’t be cuteness. The fact that something is cute or pretty (like a lion) shouldn’t give it value over animals (like chickens) that aren’t cute (let alone babies that aren’t cute). And to say that human life has value and non-human life is as arbitrary as saying people of one race are worth more than another; unless, of course, we can spell out what it is about human life that makes it more valuable.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.
So what is it? Is it the ability to feel pleasure and pain that makes some life more valuable? By that standard, humans and many animals rank above plants, but it would make killing animals wrong. Is it our awareness of our own existence, our ability to think and reason? That would put humans above pretty much every other living thing, though it would exclude the unborn and infants, as well as people with brain damage (e.g., anencephalic babies, people who are comatose or in a persistent vegetative state).
Is it our ability to empathize or sympathize with the happiness or suffering of others? Our ability to understand and strive for liberty? Is it some basket of all these things, or something else altogether?
Every answer we entertain is going to have problems, and it may be impossible to reach a consensus. But there’s no point dancing around the question, because it haunts so many of the moral controversies we confront in politics and life more generally.
And it’s important that we debate the question without demonizing. Again, every answer that we suggest is going to raise problems and objections. Yes, people are sometimes going to turn a blind eye to the consequences of their beliefs, whether it’s supporters of Planned Parenthood overlooking the treatment of “fetal remains,” or people overlooking religious instances of infanticide. These inconsistencies should be confronted without writing off the people who indulge in them, unless we’re willing to be written off for doing the same.
We need to be able to explain why we value what we value, and we need to be able to do it in a way that gets us closer to the truth, rather than making us devalue each other.
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