In my previous post on this subject, I promised a discussion of the argument often made that human life is sacred. By “sacred” we are given to understand that the life is intrinsically valuable in a special way that means life is to be protected without regard to cost, and that we all have a duty to actively protect it – even if the person whose life it is no longer wants it.
(Life is not said to be intrinsically valuable in the sense that we are duty-bound to create as much of it as possible and have babies every year. It is a different kind of value, a sanctity of already-created life rather than an obligation to create more and more.)
From this premise – that life, once created, is sacred – the pro-lifer deduces that any destruction of human life is wrong, even at the extremes of existence. The destruction of embryos is wrong, even if there is no womb to bring them to personhood. The assisted death of a terminally ill patient is wrong, even one who is in unremitting pain with no hope of relief. And it does not matter whether the person wants to live or not. Life is so objectively and intrinsically valuable that what people want and whether they want the life is not considered in any way relevant.
This argument is seductive. We really do feel that human life is special, that it is sacred. The claim that life should be protected without regard to cost is deeply attractive. The consequences of that claim may seem unpleasant for some affected individuals, but the claim itself sounds good.
I want to examine that claim. And I want to ask whether, even if life is indeed sacred, it necessarily follows that any destruction of life is wholly wrong.
Firstly, what is so special about human life that it is sacred in a way that other life, or even non-living objects, are not sacred? Can we identify anything special? Christians say that humans are special because we were created by God in His own image.
Well, that we were created by God is “nothing special”. I mean by that (assuming for the purposes of responding to this argument, if for no other reason, that we will buy into the Christian conception of Life, the Universe and Everything) simply that everything was created by God. Which would mean, if creation by God is the key, that everything should be treated as sacred. Wasps, clouds, murderers, rocks, the moon, celery, even David Dickinson. That is not a worldview that many Christians would espouse – the pro-lifers least of all, I think.
What about the fact that we were created in His image? Again, what do we mean by that? God doesn’t have two legs, ten fingers or an impressively long small intestine. Usually when people talk about our being made in His image, they are talking about our nature – as, for example, rational beings with a sense of morality and justice. And, when you think about it that way, all sorts of things were created in God’s image. As C S Lewis puts is in The Four Loves:
God has impressed some sort of likeness to Himself, I suppose, in all the He has made. Space and time, in their own fashion, mirror his greatness; all life, His fecundity; animal life, His activity.
So being created by God in his likeness is really “nothing special”, nothing that marks human life out from anything else that God created.
Is there a non-religious argument for the sanctity of human life? Can something ever be important in itself regardless of whether it is important to anybody or for anybody?
Some argue that nothing can be valuable in and of itself. A life, just like anything else, is only valuable if there is someone who values it. It is football crowds who give footballers their value; it is collectors and appreciators who give art its value; and it is people who give human life its value, most importantly the people whose life is at stake.
Yet others argue to the contrary. Great art is intrinsically valuable and ought to be preserved, even if it is ugly. Species are intrinsically valuable and should not be allowed to die out, even if they are poisonous and warty. Ancient trees are intrinsically valuable and should be protected, even if they are knackered-looking and threaten to undermine the foundations of someone’s house. And human life is intrinsically valuable too, even if it is not much of a life, even if it has barely begun or is almost over.
I’m not going to try and argue for one view or another. But let us suppose that the second view is the true one, and that human life does have some intrinsic value. What then?
Life is valuable in three ways. It is valuable to others because a person can help or bring pleasure to others. It is valuable to the person whose life it is, because without it she is nothing. And, as we are presently assuming for the purpose of argument, it is intrinsically valuable, i.e. it has a value independent of its value to the person whose life it is or to anyone else.
Life can also have disvalue, although this time only in two ways. Life can be a disvalue to the person whose life it is because it brings so much pain that she would rather be nothing than continue to live it. And it can be a disvalue to others because it can bring them trouble or harm.
All these values, and no way to judge between them. If life is a disvalue to the person whose life it is, and brings them and others nothing but trouble and pain – can this ever outweigh the intrinsic value of the life? Or is the intrinsic value of life so valuable, so inviolable, that no amount of disvalue can ever make it acceptable to end the life?
And if life is so intrinsically valuable, shouldn’t it be treated with dignity and respect? Doesn’t the dignity of life entail that death should be dignified too? Doesn’t respect for life entail that life should be allowed to have a good end? And in ascertaining what amounts to a dignified death, what amounts to a good end to life, shouldn’t the wishes of the person whose life it is be taken into account? Who after all is in the best position to make that decision?
We artificially extend life time and again with medical interventions. There are few who would argue against such interventions where their purpose is to draw life out. Where the purpose of an intervention is to draw life in, to bring life to a dignified close, should we feel differently?
My own view is that the answer to these questions is, obviously, that there are cases where a person may reasonably and ethically choose to die rather than go on living a horribly painful life. I further believe that only the person whose life it is can make that decision, because nobody else can assess the value of her life as well as she can. Where a person has made what she considers to be a reasonable and ethical choice for death over continued suffering, I do not see any moral problem in allowing her to end life in a dignified way. Many people (myself included) would have an understandable squeamishness about the actual administration of the lethal prescription, but that is only squeamishness, and not a moral judgement. I would fully respect and endorse any doctor brave enough and loving enough to offer that final, desperately wanted assistance.
Postscript on pro-lifers
People who argue against assisted dying (and a fortiori against euthanasia) are usually also against abortion. That seems logical, if we are talking about the sanctity of human life. But it is remarkable how often such people are also in favour of, say, the death penalty. Or war. Or letting foreign people die for lack of basic amenities. Perhaps their energies would be better spent on saving people in the thick of life, rather than denying choice to those at the very thinnest ends. Or perhaps their views on these wider issues betray that their preoccupation is not with the preservation of life but with the control of others. They are not pro-life, but anti-choice.