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Valuing human life

  • 09 September 2021
  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