Life – Can you put a value on it?

We believe in the sanctity of life. It’s something special, something precious. It is generally recognised that life has a value and should be nurtured and supported. And yet, although we give it value, that value comes with rules, conditions and caveats. There is no free rein. Life does not have value per se.

This means that sometimes our view of life can seem somewhat arbitrary, even contradictory.

Some examples:

  • Human life is important so long as it in tune with our way of thinking and living. Otherwise we may end up going to war with it. Religion, nationality, political beliefs have the capacity to override the preeminence of life itself. We are quite prepared to destroy life for the sake of what we believe in.
  • Human life is valued so long as it’s reached a certain point in that life. Otherwise it can be aborted. When is life deemed to have been created – at conception or at some later point during the pregnancy? When do we start putting a value on it? Does that value grow as a pregnancy progresses?
  • Human life is important unless that life has taken another life. Some consider that we are then free to take its life. Many countries accept the death penalty as a justifiable sentence for the most heinous crimes. By committing such crimes offenders relinquish their right to life. In such cases life’s value is nullified.
  • If somebody has a terminal disease should we commit resources to them in the hope that we can marginally extend their life even though we know that our efforts will be largely futile? This point becomes even more salient when we consider that those resources could be of more worthwhile use elsewhere. Should we be prepared to let people die, or should we endeavour to prolong life for as long as possible?
  • We will go to great lengths to save an animal’s life – a beached whale, a bird with a damaged wing, a cub rejected by its mother. And yet we are happy to slaughter other animals for their meat. Some animal’s lives are more esteemed than others. It seems a combination of their commerciality and their cuteness are the determining factors in establishing an animal’s value.
  • We are prepared to take risks with life. Extreme sports, parachuting, driving fast cars, dashing across a busy road. And, in so doing, not only do we risk our own life, but we can sometimes knowingly endanger the lives of others.

Except, perhaps, for a purist minority, life is not sacred. It cannot claim any intrinsic, inviolable value. If it’s not in our best interests, either individually or as a society, then we may have grounds to challenge its sanctity. Life’s preeminence is not guaranteed.

As human beings we are too selfish and too emotive to be so strictly governed by principles of value.

It’s not just in black and white terms either. When trying to put a value on life, there exists a whole swathe of greys in between.

If you had to save lives but there were only limited places available, how would you choose?

The customary appeal for “Women and children first” is a convenient solution because the judging criteria is readily apparent. It is presumably based on the idea that you save the weakest because you know the stronger ones will have more chance of surviving the events that follow.

You could equally argue that it would be best to save lives on a “first come, first served” basis. If you have the nous and wherewithal to get to the front of the queue, then perhaps you have something special that is worth saving.

Change the scenario though and you have a mass of alternative considerations. Imagine you are an emergency doctor dealing with a major catastrophe. You have multiple casualties. For the sake of the scenario, assume that they all have the same injury to the same degree. Who do you treat first?

Are young lives more valuable than old lives? Are parents more valuable than childless people? Do some people have jobs and skills that make them more valuable than others? If you’ve made a significant contribution to society does that make your life more valuable? How do you decide?

When deciding on the value of life there are no defined rules. The only thing that can be categorically stated is that, even though we will sometimes be prepared to take risks, we will always value our life and the lives of our close family above all else. They are our over-riding priority and if we feel that they are in any way being undermined or threatened then we will always give their lives preeminence over the lives of others.

© Copyright, Steve Oxley, 2020