Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Value of a Life

In a free-wheeling discussion with a friend the other day, I was broadsided by a comment that did not seem to fit with his libertarian views. The subject had wandered around to the controversy about the Tebow ad during the Super Bowl. And he asked me what I thought about very late term abortions.

I said that I had real moral issues with that, because I could not imagine a situation in which delivery could not be attempted, with the hopes of saving the life of both mother and child. And I had looked but found no information that contradicted my conclusions. I pointed out that I had developed severe pre-eclampsia late in my pregnancy with the Boychick, a condition that required induction of labor in order to save my life and that of the Boychick. Fortunately for me, it was not a difficult decision because the delivery would be less of a risk for me than continuing the pregnacy would have been, and we were so close to term, the Boychick and I, that delivery was not likely to be risky for him either. As it turned out, with the help of modern medicine, we came through the delivery fine, both of us and the neonatal team that was standing by filed out of the room without making any interventions. That said, I told my friend, I would not have wanted a government official interfering with such a potentially life-altering decision. I would not want some bureaucrat to require me to undergo an induction of labor. However, I would expect that doctors would be rightly reluctant to perform late-term abortions.

With this as a jumping off point, my friend commented that he wondered if a murder should be prosecuted if no one cared about the death of the person who had been killed. After all, he said, the dead person would be dead, and if no one was left to be devasted, then it was if the life of the person was unimportant.

I was speechless. One can know a person reasonably well and still be surprised.

I probed. I asked, then does that mean if the parents of a six-month infant murder him, and there is no one else to be outraged, does this mean it is not murder? He said he would have moral concerns about such an action, but that it should not be illegal since no one was injured by the action except the child--who would now be dead.

Immediately, images of concentration camps and gas chambers began to roll across my mind's eye. My argument was that certainly someone has been harmed, and that is the person whose life had been taken unjustly. My friend argued that people die all the time.

Of course, we are mortal, I argued, but there is a difference between dying of disease or accident, and the purposeful taking of a life. Certainly, the person who is murdered values his life. And as we were speaking, I realized that my friend had wandered into a collectivist view of the value of a life. His value of liberty was not completely based on the principle of individual rights. Because if his values were firmly rooted there, he would realize immediately that the value of a life is not based on how useful to society, or how precious that person is to another. The value of a life is the ultimate value to person himself.

I was so disturbed that I stopped the discussion when I realized that all of my attempts to elucidate the principle had not penetrated my friends mind; that to him this had become a sophist's argument--made for the sake of continuing the discussion.

For me, the inheritance of the Holocaust makes these discussions more than argument for the sake of argument. As we spoke, the biblical injunction about the responsiblity of the nearby towns to adjudicate the death of a stranger on the road kept coming to mind.
Even the taking of the life of a stranger for whom no one cares must be treated with justice.


Anonymous said...

"I realized that my friend had wandered into a collectivist view of the value of a life."

Sanctioning murder isn't in any "collectivist" philosophy I know of, although implementations of "collectivism" have certainly led to human rights abuses.

I think I'd sort of quietly distance myself from such a friend: he sounds psychopathic to me. Or at least hide the kitchen knives when he came over...


gadaboutblogalot said...

Thank you for your well-reasoned presentation.

Retriever said...

Bravo! A beautiful post, Elisheva. Ties in with something I am working on. But too exhausted to write more (have been llooking after a sick rlative for a week and stranded by snow cancelling my flight home fr OHare). Thank you for this!

therapydoc said...

Retriever sent me over to read this, and it is provocative. The whole idea, people get away with murder, is already cliche. But it is true, no? Unless you think there's a True Judge.

Webspinner said...

Astute observation. You can learn a lot about someone through discussions and questions like these. I have some friends of whom I am suspicious. I look forward to crafting an appropriate line of discussion with your experience in mind.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Deborah: No, sanctioning murder is not necessarily a collectivist philosophy. But in this case the basis for the sanction of murder is collectivist because the value of a life in my friend's argument is based on whether others value it. In the estimation of an individualist, the value of a person's life is based on the idea that each individual owns his or her own life and it's value is independent of usefulness or preciousness to others.

No, he's not a psychopath. In fact, this guy gets saddled with all the stray dogs in the neighborhood because he takes care of them. This was an argument of sophistry on his part--an argument for the sake of argument. But what he did not notice was how easily he slipped into a collectivist viewpoint. This is a danger for many people who are just waking up and attending Tea Parties and the like--their ideas are not firmly based in principle.

Therapy Doc--yes, sometimes I find myself yelling at the newspaper when a child abuser gets a lighter sentence than if he had murdered an adult. And that is precisely because we take a collectivist approach to the value of a life even in our courts. People do get away with murder--but ultimately we all pay the price in this world and in the world to come.

Webspinner: These kinds of discussions lately have helped me see must how much an alien (to western values) culture has taken root in this country. One in which values are neither absolute nor based on firm principle.

Anonymous said...

"But in this case the basis for the sanction of murder is collectivist because the value of a life in my friend's argument is based on whether others value it."

There's a definitional problem here: "collectivism" covers a huge area, as does "individualism". I can't find any source that states that "collectivism" (of any sort) sets a "value" of a person's life on the basis of group opinion. If your friend is really not a psychopath and arguing to roil the waters, I don't see how he's "slipped into" anything. I personally do not play Devil's advocate except for the purpose of understanding someone else's viewpoint, but my use of an "opposing" side's argument in such a case says nothing about my understanding of principles.


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Deborah: Although narrow definitions of collectivism discuss only the economic theory, the ideology of collectivism is much broader. Essentially it posits that a group such as society or some part thereof has a will of its own, or that there is some "good" of society or the collective that supercedes the interests of the individual.
Therefore, arguments such as the one my friend pose above, that posit that the value of something--in this case a human life--depends upon its preciousness or usefulness to a collective ("society" or some other gorup) is grounded in the philosophy of collectivism.

Many people--especially young people--who have been educated in progressive government schools--tend to ground their arguments in either emotion or collectism without any conscious understanding that this is what they are doing.

Given that I know this person, and can make a more informed judgement based on numerous interactions, I believe that this is what had happened in the course of his argument, even though consciously, he supports the philosophy of liberty.

christinemm said...

Wow what a conversation to have. Thanks for this post Elisheva.