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The Value of Life

  • "If a man hasn’t discovered something that he would die for, he isn’t fit to live. "
  • ~ Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights leader, 1929 – 1968
  • "No one knows but that death is the greatest of all good to man; yet men fear it, as if they well knew that it is the greatest of evils. Is not this the more reprehensible ignorance, to think that one knows what one does not know? "
  • ~ Socrates, Athenian philosopher, 470 B.C. – 399 B.C.
  • "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. "
  • ~ Albert Camus, French writer, 1913 – 1960

Insane World

When people discuss the sanctity of life, and issues such as abortion and the death penalty, they seem to imply that human life has a fixed and unchanging value, and that everyone’s life has the same high value. But does all human life have the same value? Hardly; in fact, many lives, by the choice of those who live them, have little or no value — to themselves or others.

Many people passionately oppose the killing of a convicted criminal, while passionately defending the right to kill an innocent fetus. Juries award astronomical judgments to the families of those killed by accident, often making the victim far more valuable dead than alive. Suicide is discouraged and sometimes illegal, although the uncertainty of death may be preferable to the certainty of a miserable life.


Living Sanely

In order to create value, one must be prepared to make value judgments. Most often, these judgments focus on your own actions, but one must also be prepared to judge others. There are five types of situations in which you might have to make the ultimate judgment regarding the value of an individual life:

• Capital punishment: Not only does the life of a serial rapist or a murderer have no value, but they seek to destroy the value they find in others. Yet, no matter how terrible the crime, or beyond redemption the criminal, there are many who believe that “mercy” is always the appropriate course of action, and that fallible men have no right to take a human life. I disagree. If one is sure that a criminal has committed a crime worthy of death, it is absolutely just to kill the criminal, preferably through the workings of the criminal justice system, but if necessary and feasible, through private action. The range of crimes necessitating the death penalty might include, under certain circumstances: murder, rape, or, if on a massive scale, stealing. One can create value by ridding society of value-destroyers.

Under certain rare circumstances, even assassination can be a form of value creation. How many millions of lives would have been saved if Hitler, Mao, or Stalin had been killed before they had the chance to destroy others?

• Abortion: This is a very complex and difficult issue. The producers of the child, the parents, have created something of great potential — a fetus. The parents have an obligation to make sure that this life has the chance to reach its potential, without destroying the value already created in the parents’ life. To simply add one more human life to the billions that already exist is meaningless; to create or destroy value is very meaningful. For an unplanned child, the parents must make a very difficult choice — or a choice that should be very difficult: Provide the tremendous amount of time, effort, and affection necessary to help the baby reach its potential, without destroying the parents’ own life, or destroy the fetus.

• Wrongful death: You may be a member of a jury judging a wrongful death case, or have some other occasion for deciding what reparations should be made regarding death caused by the wrongful actions of others, or perhaps by yourself. In many cases, monetary compensation is not appropriate — life and death should not be treated as commercial transactions. In cases in which financial compensation is appropriate, I would argue that the range of appropriate “compensation” is as wide as life itself. Compensation for a life that was not being enjoyed, or was not useful to others, might be quite low. Conversely, compensation for a life full of potential might be extremely high. In any event, someone should not be worth more dead than alive.

Compensation for death is made more complex by the fact that the most aggrieved person, the one who died, obviously cannot receive any benefit from the award.

• Suicide: While struggling to survive against adversity is one of the noblest things a person can do, this should not blind us to the fact that biological life, in and of itself, has no value. Life only has value if a person can live in a manner acceptable to them. And it is only because life is a finite thing — that it has an ending — that makes it valuable. There is a time to die, and that time is when you can no longer live life your own way. There are many situations in which voluntary death may be more acceptable than life — medical incapacity being the most obvious. Life on a life support system is not life worth living. But there may also be other circumstances in which death is preferable to life. Only the person considering suicide can make this ultimate decision.

We’re always afraid of the unknown, and we don’t know what happens to us when we die. But isn’t the unknown to be preferred to an unbearable life? The highest level of control of one’s destiny is to choose the time of death. Sooner or later, voluntarily or involuntarily, everyone must confront death.

• The ultimate sacrifice: On very rare occasions a person with much to live for may choose to die to save the life of someone they love — or a stranger. This scenario is most likely in wartime or in an emergency. Such situations usually require extremely fast decisions, but before risking your own life, you will hopefully have a chance to decide if the person you are trying to save is worthy of the ultimate sacrifice.

For the hero, death may simply be a natural extension of life. You may be called to choose between danger to your life and the danger of sacrificing that part of yourself which you value most highly — the heroic soul. It is probably more rational to risk your life than to risk your self-esteem.


Value other people’s lives using the same criteria you use to value your own life. 

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Chapter 34 of 35