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Valuing human life



In recent weeks the value of human life has become a topic of public conversation in different contexts. Proposed legislation on abortion and assisted dying has continued to focus attention on it. Debate about loosening COVID restrictions has also balanced the risk of death from the disease with risks to health and economic welfare from lockdowns. In Afghanistan the victory of the Taliban has again raised questions about the morality of the war and the killing involved by both sides. These  questions were neatly pointed by two drone attacks. One reportedly killed the Isis planner of the suicide bombing at the airport; the other reportedly killed a family with four children. The suicide bombings, too, focused attention on the actions of people who die deliberately while killing others.

These incidents raise many questions about the taking of human life. For example, under what conditions, if any, would one person or group would be justified in taking another’s life, or in obeying orders to do so? Under what conditions would a person be entitled to take their own life. What responsibility do we have to protect our own and others’ lives? What values, if any, would outweigh that responsibility and entitle us to risk our lives?

The answer we give to each of these questions will disclose the value that we give to human life, and so the way in which it is related to other values. It is clearly in the interests of all societies to place a high value on human life. If people are entitled to kill at will and with impunity, all social bonds will be precarious, placing the economic and cultural development of the society and its survival at risk.

The value of human life in most cultures, however, is grounded more deeply than in this pragmatic argument. Life, in its taking and respecting, has commonly been seen as sacred. It is set within a religious framework. This can be seen trivially in the concern of crime stories to enter the mind of the killer. The unveiling of their identity is preceded by the revelation of their state of mind and heart, and so prepares for their ritual exclusion from society either in a shoot-out or by arrest. The dramatic arc of such stories soars above the pragmatic need for social discipline.

The sacredness of life is expressed more seriously in the continuing portrayal of the deaths of soldiers as a sacrifice. The word emphasises their agency in the actions that led to their deaths. They do not die simply as part of a crowd who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sacrifice also attributes death in war to the service of a higher cause and so ennobles it. In earlier times God was often identified with the fatherland as the cause. The Latin poet Horace’s line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is delightful and seemly to die for the fatherland) emphasises the agency and nobility of soldiers who are ready to die for the Roman Empire and its Gods.

The deaths of people who died bravely trying to save others are still commonly described in sacrificial terms. Lifesavers, firemen, family members who die in dangerous situations while attempting to rescue people at risk are said to sacrifice their lives. The association with religious ritual both ennobles the deed and provides reassurance for those affected by it.


'All of us have an interest in asking whether it will be conducive to a humane society in which the lives and integrity of the most vulnerable of its members are respected.'


Martyrdom is another religious concept drawn upon to describe the higher significance of both the readiness to die of some people and their death. The honour paid to Christians who refused to renounce their faith and religious practices in the face of torture and death inflicted by Roman authorities echoed that earlier given to Jews in a similar situation. They were called martyrs because their steadfastness witnessed to the truth of their faith and to God’s power within it. This higher value ennobled their death. The title has extended to people whose faith led them to defend their communities against unjust repression, and led young women to resist the sexual advances of men at the cost of their lives. Both appealed to a value of personal integrity that mattered more than their lives. It opened the possibility that there might be ‘a fate worse than death’, the ‘worse’ measured by personal values that transcend staying alive.

In Christian faith the death of martyrs and the readiness to risk one’s life for a good cause are set within a network of values and stories enshrined in Jesus’ death. The relationship between life and death is made paradoxical by the understanding that there is a higher life beyond this one, and that our access to it comes through a person executed in ways that were neither seemly nor delightful. Out of the humiliation, passivity and deprivation of agency involved in accepting such a death comes life, freedom and joy. This was encapsulated in Jesus’ paradoxical saying that if you want to find your life you must lose it, and if you want to save your life you will lose it. Questions of life and death are not resolved by individual choice but by personal surrender for winning others.  In this view life is a gift that is to be received and respected, but not hoarded. It is to be risked generously and shared for others and, if necessary, sacrificed in a death like Jesus’ own.

Contemporary suicide bombers also see themselves as martyrs whose deaths witness to the value of their faith and cause, and their hope in a God who will reward them in a new life. We should not discount their commitment or courage. Their concept of martyrdom, however differs from the Christian one in that it is not paradoxical. It is not about loving and forgiving enemies but engineering their destruction. Not about love but about justice, not about respect for little people but about making use of them for strategic goals. In contrast, too with the Christian tradition of martyrdom, in which provoking martyrdom was frowned on, it is actively sought.             

In contemporary Western culture the sacred character of life and death has been diminished. The industrial scale killing in the trenches mocked any sense of agency and dignity in a soldier’s death. As Wilfred Owen showed, it was no longer possible to say: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The bombing of London, Dresden and Hiroshima further mocked any appeal to higher values. At the same time Christian faith leached from society, and with it the operative belief in a life beyond death and in the paradoxical implications of salvation through Jesus’ death and rising. In such a world it became difficult to see any difference between the Christian and ISIS understanding of martyrdom, nor any reasonable basis for an operative belief in life after death.

The discrediting of higher values that might govern our attitudes to human life, has naturally encouraged a flatter calculus in making decisions about life and death. The decisive value governing legislation in such issues as abortion and assisted dying is increasingly individual choice, supported by an appeal to compassion. Many have welcomed this trend; many of us have been disturbed by it. All of us have an interest in asking whether it will be conducive to a humane society in which the lives and integrity of the most vulnerable of its members are respected. That should be the subject of further conversation. 



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A group of friends putting their hands together. (Cecilie Arcurs/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Coronavirus, lockdown, restrictions, election, vaccination, Covid-19



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...somber reading for RUOK day. I found the article strayed or meandered between or entwined lives sacrificed delberately or willingly by those with a belief and others resigned to their fate but resentful. No doubt Horace and Owens penned their art - and shared that Latin phrase - with very different objectives in mind; both were soldiers, we know Owens fought and died in France, awarded the Military Cross. Horace was known for his satire; I won't state he was being sarcastic but his Ode is formulaic of Shakespeare's Henry V St Crispin's day speech defying "hold their manhood cheap...". Perhaps the military specifics best define something which this article seeks to evaluate; the Victoria Cross is "For Valour" (an act valued) and the Military Cross is for gallantry (courage). If martyrdom has ever had any value it will be greatly diminished by its misuse; it's about time religious and other groups defined a martyr as someone who died by necessity for the cause and didn't hurt anyone else in the process. I'm afraid to say that I am at my beam ends when it comes to hearing "that's for further conversation..."; you can read the results of inaction and conversation today in tomorrow's obituaries.

ray | 09 September 2021  

War and its associated horrors have been part of human history since earliest times. The Assyrians could teach anyone about genocide: some of their friezes are horrific. Jesus took a stand against bloodshed: a dramatic one. It spoke volumes. Perhaps it is the Quakers, who came into being whilst the horror and carnage of the English Civil War were being unleashed, who are the truest Christians on this. The Friends Ambulance Brigade has served through many wars bringing succour to the wounded and dying. They have suffered very bravely for their traditional pacifism over the centuries. Bishop Tom Frame, a thoroughly decent and honorable man and ex-naval officer, wrote a piece on Just War before the invasion of Iraq. He did not have the full facts about the so-called 'weapons of mass destruction' and later revised his views. General Sir Mike Rose called for the impeachment of Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq. Blair is still trying to involve himself in the Middle East peace process! Our own John Howard, now very much a respected elder statesman, probably single handedly got the federal government to reverse the rejection of visas for the Afghan interpreters who worked with our forces. War will always be with us but we need to try and mitigate its effects and never to use it as a first response, if possible.

Edward Fido | 10 September 2021  

"The discrediting of higher values that might govern our attitudes to human life, has naturally encouraged a flatter calculus in making decisions about life and death."

I don't agree with the words 'flatter calculus'; I think 'a more difficult calculus' is how most people see it. The Church, it seems to me, takes a simple black and white view of complex issues, and that's an easy way out, so attractive. But take the issue of legalising abortion ... why did so many traditional Catholic women vote for it? They weren't making a flatter calculus, but a more difficult decision, balancing faith/principle with reality, and a result which would, overall, be the best in the circumstances. Sometimes there aren't 100% right answers. If the Church acknowledged that, it might be on the way to helping people think through these issues.

Russell | 10 September 2021  
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I'm with you Russell. A black and white approach to complex issues may give one a answer but it usually doesn't solve the problem. Beware the simplifiers, be they in politics, science or religion.

Ginger Meggs | 14 September 2021  

‘I don't agree with the words 'flatter calculus'; I think 'a more difficult calculus' is how most people see it.’ Many people don’t see the vertical dimension of morality in which pain is also taken to affect the ‘Him’, not just the ‘I’. Calculus (plural calculi) also means rock or tartar. ‘Flatter calculus’ could well be used to refer to the flat-topped boulders used as altars by ancients with the sensibilities of Tartars on which to sacrifice their morals.

roy chen yee | 18 September 2021  

Christianity bases so much of its behaviour on what the Christian God prescribes. If eternal damnation in fact exists and is the penalty for a life lived without virtue, in defiance of God's preferred optional behaviour for the creatures of his creation, it sets an example which makes issues such as corporal punishment for murder etc and war against perpetrators of human injustices and physical threat to the lives of many look like minor excursions in the playground. If we were to follow the Christian God's example of how to deal with the purveyors of the above mentioned atrocities we would be wiping out the culprits with everlasting gusto. But then, perhaps when he also gave the example of turning the other cheek and loving one's enemies, he forgot to tell us that he had annulled eternal damnation and we could get on with whatever atrocities we desired!

john frawley | 10 September 2021  

i have always followed churches teaching on the values of respecting human life from the time of conception until the time of death whether it be stillbirth or normal death
with these new forms of legislation coming before the
nsw parliament i feel we must strenuously fight to stop this form of life destruction to happen
support the right to life on these issues and do it now

Maryellen Flynn | 10 September 2021  

Who really values human life? “The heart is more devious than any other thing, perverse too: who can pierce its secrets.” (Jeremiah 17:9)
When values are only applied to score points, there can be no meaningful dialogue. Tribalism results: “my gang good, your gang bad.”
This year in Chicago, 280 children have been shot with 35 dying, including 4-year-old Mychal Moultry who died having his hair cut. The mayor has been condemned by police union boss John Catanzara who accused her of having more sympathy for rioters than police: “For 2 ½ years that she’s been major, she has vilified police.” Yet the US media is largely silent because their political favourites run the city.
The abortion lobby brooks no limits, demanding abortion up to birth for any reason, and opposing medical assistance for babies who survive abortions, leaving them to die—52 in Victoria (2007); 27 in Queensland (2015).
And when Texas enacted its Heartbeat Act to prevent abortions once a heartbeat is detected, Joe Biden promised a “whole-of-government” effort to fight it, saying life does not begin at conception. Washington’s Cardinal Gregory, who won’t deny communion to pro-abortion Catholics, rebuked him: “The president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching.”

Ross Howard | 11 September 2021  

Is it the "discrediting of higher values that might govern our attitudes to human life" so much as the denial of or indifference towards transcendent realities such as the existence of God and our revealed relationship with our Creator?

John RD | 13 September 2021  

Another rich and sensitive treatment of a complex topic, Andy, and which is rarely covered in such terms by both the secular and Catholic press. It also gainsays the question of Christ's martyrdom, in that He must have questioned at many junctures the logic of His actions that led to the taking by others of His Life! In 1998 at the height of a particularly galling persecution by militant Islamists in Pakistan that led to the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad shooting himself when the Pakistani Supreme Court upheld the Sharia Law of blasphemy, it was widely speculated in the Catholic media that, far from committing an act of suicide, Bishop John Joseph had been a martyr for his cause because it involved mitigating the sentences of those on Death Row and who, subsequent to release, were ferreted out of the country instead of executed. There was also immense speculation in the more conservative corners of the Catholic Press that the good bishop's mind was temporarily deranged by this seemingly extreme judicial action, in respect of which his was the lesser of the two evils. Whatever the case, your article registers that we Catholics are unequivocally Pro-Life on all avoidable fronts.

Michael Furtado | 14 September 2021  
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‘all avoidable fronts.’ Doing the ‘Ray’ (as you see it) (with apologies to Ray for the use of ‘Ray’)? ‘Yes, but, no, but’ varietal, and a self-exculpatory flourish for ‘we Catholics [who] are unequivocally Pro-Life’ while rolling a boulder over the Church to which suicide, being objectively unacceptable, can never be pro-Life?

roy chen yee | 18 September 2021  

Interesting yet again to read Roy's fundamentalist mindset and the way in which his logic of division works. The globe, i.e. the cosmos of language, culture, politics, race, gender and faith, which constitutes almost in its entirety the primary universe that he inhabits, is created entirely (or, in his mind, divvied up) by drawing lines that carve up a continuum. Every line of his divides reality between two zones: the upper zone, right-handed, White, male, stable, rational, clean & holy, compliant with magisterial command and, it goes without saying, virtuous. No need to add that it is ranked infinitely higher in value, tabulated authority and (his) reality. It must necessarily exclude, subordinate and control the 'other', which is on the left ('sinister'), dark and unquestionably diabolical, female - or worse - gay, unstable, chaotic, wayward and, worst of all, unclean. The Mullahs write that kind of text, no?

Michael Furtado | 21 September 2021  

‘The Mullahs write that kind of text, no?’ Even the ‘moderate’ (ie. cafeteria) mullahs have a problem. Their text is, of course, canonically violent. ‘The globe….divvied up….zones….upper zone…stable, rational….’ Religion undergirds culture, or so one should believe if one believes in the existence of a Divinity which precedes all things. Religion is the primary expression of a Divinity because it is how we know that that Divinity exists. Science certainly can’t tell us that. The question might then be asked why, applying probability and statistics over millennia and across the expanse of the globe, the zone and culture which, institutionally, aligned most with the Upper Room is also the zone and culture which produced the most personal freedom and economic wellbeing for its people, and that even advanced cultures which were mostly undisturbed and left to their own devices, eg., China and Japan, and even India, failed to replicate that miracle.

roy chen yee | 22 September 2021  

I think one of the problems modern. secular, urban people have with life is that in our modern consumer society, where almost everything is supposedly 'available' - in truth only to the extremely powerful and wealthy, who can afford or cajole it - many people have lost touch with life as it was lived by our ancestors. It may, in retrospect, seem harsh and deprived - remember Jesus never enjoyed a hot shower, nor did Shakespeare - but life and death were closer and more comprehensible to people. Abortion and euthanasia now become 'legitimate life choices' as does IVF for those without a partner, who have 'a right to have a baby'. What about the baby's rights in both cases? It seems, in both death and birth, they have no choice. I fear we will soon have involuntary euthanasia, as I think now occurs in the Netherlands and Belgium, where someone with the power of attorney decides it's time for granny to go. There are stories of older people being held down as they fight against being 'put down mercifully'. The Brave New World has come. Possibly not yet to our front door, but it is on its way.

Edward Fido | 23 September 2021  

Some human life is invaluable and, sadly, some is not worth tuppence h'penny.

john frawley | 23 September 2021  
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‘Some human life is invaluable and, sadly, some is not worth tuppence h'penny.’ A soul which elects to reside in hell must, by definition, have always had a life that, in retrospect, was, or was eventually, not worth tuppence. A soul permitted to cleanse itself purgatorially must, by definition, have always had a life that, in retrospect, was, or was eventually, invaluable. Retrospectivity exists because of eventuality and eventuality exists because final penitence or impenitence can be post-mortem as per Maccabees 2, because, God living in an eternal present, one can pray effectually tomorrow that the decedent was penitent at or after the moment of decease today. Perhaps, God being merciful, one who is lax in his duties might even be permitted to pray effectually next year that the decedent was penitent at or after the moment of decease last year, or how would one today be able to intercede effectually for anybody’s, in particular, dishonourable, ancestors? Of course, God, being omniscient, might simply bank tomorrow’s prayers in favour of today’s decedents, in which case, choosing to die anonymously may be doing yourself a disservice as a random walk past your gravestone in the next century might be the banked prayer that gets you out of a hole.

roy chen yee | 24 September 2021  

Hello Roy. If and when I pass by my grave next century I hope I'm a butterfly not a human being!!!!!

john frawley | 27 September 2021  
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Its a shame, John Frawley, that your very real and profound objections to the violence of this world leads you paradoxically to share Roy's violent corner: one which promises hell for wrongdoing and summons up all manner of violent apocalyptic punishment as a restraint against the violent of this world. Were you and John RD, as well as Roy and some others here, to follow Andy's logic, you would see that it resonates closely with the work of Rene Girard, whose mimetic theory blows open the Fall argument that regards Jesus as the sacrificial victim of his Father for the salvation of humankind. Given that everything in the Gospels points to Jesus's excoriating critique of violence, and especially of the violence of the Church to which he belonged, it is easy to see that Jesus Himself would never have acceded or permitted, if He had half the chance, to becoming a sacrificial victim, in the manner that Moses was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and sacrifice itself became the touchstone of the entire way in which we have come to 'construct' salvation until now. That we celebrate His Life and Role as a peacemaker has yet to penetrate our religious consciousness.

Michael Furtado | 29 September 2021  

‘violent corner: one which promises hell for wrongdoing and summons up all manner of violent apocalyptic punishment as a restraint against the violent of this world.’ The straw on this strawman is mouldy, but it keeps getting re-used because not only does Michael Furtado not believe in the Devil, but he also does not believe in Purgatory. Were he to do so, he would see that his posturings are straw.

roy chen yee | 30 September 2021  

Dr. Frawley, a great man with poetic sensibilities might be permitted to read fairy tales but he must not be taken in by them. After a long and illustrious career studying both the permanent and impermanent natures of Man, you, of all people, should not give in to the New Age nonsense that a man who changes into a butterfly is a butterfly. He is still a man, but travelling third class in the cramped compartment of a butterfly. Why would an esteemed surgeon like you want to be travelling third class anywhere?

roy chen yee | 30 September 2021  

Roy, Why would I want to travel third class with the butterflies? Because I'd meet a better class of travelling companions!!

john frawley | 05 October 2021  

I do not subscribe to a soteriology Michael Furtado (29/9) conceives as a "Fall argument that regards Jesus as the sacrificial victim of his Father" (any more than I accept the relevance and accuracy of a scapegoating analogy that "Moses (sic) was prepared to sacrifice Isaac.") Rather, I regard the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, in which every Eucharist participates in an un-bloody way, as the ultimate expression of "agape" - the highest form of love that of its nature involves self-giving, scripturally contained in the Pauline idea of "kenosis" (Philippians 2: 6-11) and the Johannine "God so loved the world he gave his only Son. . ." (John 3:16). This love, available in and through Christ, is the antidote to all destructive orientations, intentions and actions that historically manifest themselves as consequences of the Fall.

John RD | 05 October 2021  
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Thanks for the testimony, JRD. However, many contemporary Christians link redemption theology with a 'personal salvation' tradition that, more often than not, demonstrates an ignorance and abandonment of the poor and downtrodden of this world that is available primarily from the Second Creation Account. While you are wearing and tearing sackcloth in penitence and thanksgiving for the 'ransom', that you and Roy constantly allude to, paid by a Christ crucified for the sin of the Fall, Creation is crucified everyday by those who attach such importance to the First Account as to locate the second as an afterthought in our cosmological ethical consciousness. Speaking for myself, and alluding to my fusion of the Mosaic & Abrahamic stories, I would rather Moses had put out the Burning Bush with his pee, than Abraham drawing a sword to offer Isaac's life in expiation for a sin that mattered nowt alongside that of, say, the many women who were sold into polygamous marriage by elderly patriarchs whose fecundity now litters the globe with the cultural and physical products of First Story account fetishists. One has to wonder too about the violence of the OT account of Yahweh's wrathful drowning of the Pharaonic Egyptians.

Michael Furtado | 21 October 2021  

‘One has to wonder too about the violence of the OT account of Yahweh's wrathful drowning of the Pharaonic Egyptians.’

What matters is not who wrote the various books of Scripture but who published them. At least, that’s the approach taken by progressives towards Rupert Murdoch who rarely writes anything for his publications.

Given that progressives don’t like miracles because miracles are things only the yokels who wrote these books would believe in, even if their publisher the Holy Spirit is a dab hand at doing stuff which contradicts physics, it’s surprising that you don’t see the parting of the Red Sea as a natural wind-driven phenomenon about which, even if rare, the Egyptians with their records would have known.

However, feel free to wonder. After all, Jacob was allowed to wrestle with an angel, and it may have occurred already that loyal citizens of Egypt who are Copts, or loyal citizens of Iraq who are Orthodox, have from time to time wondered why the Publisher made Egypt and Babylonian Iraq black armbands in Old Testament salvation history. Perhaps, it is to show that in Christ, there is no Egyptian or Iraqi, or any personal foible you might favour.

roy chen yee | 22 October 2021  

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