The worth of a life

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The worth of a life

Postby Elliott » 20 Oct 2013, 09:48

A liberal friend just shared this image on Facebook:


As I nearly always do when liberals post emotionally-manipulative things on Facebook, I said nothing. Here, I will be more candid.

I am frightened to be the bad guy and state my opinion of this idea, but... I think some lives are worth more than others. If we compare, for example, Alexander Fleming (who discovered penicillin) with a chav who lives his entire life off other people, intimidates and disgusts everyone he meets and never contributes a thing to the world, I think it is rather cowardly to say that both men are equal and of equal worth and their lives are of equal worth. Fleming, in my humble opinion, plainly trumps the chav in every case.

Of course, the image uses the emotional pull of a Third World child to guilt-trip you away from thinking that different people's lives have different worths; the threat is that, if you think that, you are racist.

It's an underhand tactic. Nobody wants to condemn a Third World child, even if they want to ascribe a rational amount of worth to the life that that child will likely have. Let us put the threat aside and ask rationally: what are the odds that that child will have a life of equal worth as Alexander Fleming's, or even that of a standard, average person in the First World? I would say it is very unlikely.

Now, compare that child's likely life to that of a chav in the First World, and things get more vague. It wouldn't surprise me at all if that child grows up to be more kind, more generous and more humble than the First World chav - in which case his life, clearly, would have more worth to the human race in general than that of the chav.

This all turns on the question of whether we, as a collective, can ascribe worth to another person's life. You and I might despise the First World chav, but no doubt his mother loves him, and probably he would fight against death as fervently as anyone else (his life has a lot of worth for him). If we ignore his personal feelings and his relationship "value" to his relatives, then we are saying that everyone's life must be judged on how much tangible good they contribute to "the community" - a cold, utilitarian appraisal. If Bill invents a car that goes at 200mph, is Ben's life worth more than his if he invents a car that goes at 210mph? If Arthur sits alone writing poetry all his life and never showing it to anyone, is his life worth less than that of Arnold, who makes other people laugh down the pub? What if Charles has found a cure for cancer, but "the community" are too stupid to understand his technique? When "the community" say that Charles' life is worth less than that of the village idiot, because at least the village idiot makes himself useful by picking potatoes, are we to go along with that judgement?

Of course, as ever, there can be no absolute statements, and I don't like the cold utilitarian appraisal at all - yet I know that, if I were a community leader having to decide which of my flock to allow to starve to death so as to maximise survival chances for other people, it is extremely unlikely that I would choose the chav over the scientist, and indeed I think my people would despise me if I did make that choice. I think that, somehow, we do ascribe levels of worth to people's lives, but it is difficult or impossible to say how precisely we do it. Perhaps it is like intelligence: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
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Re: The worth of a life

Postby Andreas » 21 Oct 2013, 20:11

These are interesting observations, Elliott, and not an easy topic.

The image and words are not just emotionally manipulative; they're also intellectually dishonest. The unstated implication behind them seems to be "you spoiled people in the First World think that your lives are worth more than the lives of children in the Third World." This might be true for some First World inhabitants, but certainly not all. The picture implies that Third World children suffer because of an "idea" and that we in the Western world are the ones with this idea.

In fact the West has done more to promote the idea and ideal of equality than any other culture or civilization in history, and it would be ignorant or absurd to pretend otherwise. The West has done more than anyone else to develop medicines that save or improve the lives of people in the Third World. The idea that all lives matter also has Christian roots (we are all children of the Lord), but of course some liberals would never want to admit to something so retrograde.

"The idea that some lives matter less"--one of the first things that comes to mind with that phrase is female infanticide, a practice that happened or happens in China and India, and is not the fault of the West.

I think that, somehow, we do ascribe levels of worth to people's lives, but it is difficult or impossible to say how precisely we do it.

Yes, I think we do this all the time, as part of the way we size up the people around us. Our culture has an ideal of equality before the law, that everyone should be treated fairly (and this is a good thing), but in daily life we make judgments like this all the time.
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