Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Human life is not infinitely valuable

Hi, thought I'd spark some life into the blog, been slow to update recently because I'm working on something rather large. (That's what he said, I know, way to raise the tone). But I thought I'd just jot out this idea.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of ethical maxims that are taken as read by all civilised people (including me) that are just flat wrong. I'm going to take a couple of quick examples.

  • Human life is infinitely valuable.

  • As long as you've got your heath nothing else matters.

These ideas are accepted without thought by almost everyone, I cant imagine anyone would say they disagree. The problem is nobody at all believes them. You dont for a start. You're reading this on the internet, so I assume you have access to at least a small amount of cash above the level at which you would literally starve to death.

If this is true, then by no means do you believe human life is of infinite value. Or even of particularly great value. At least in a concrete sense you dont. If it was true that you really acted like every life was worth more than any other thing, then you would not have any money. Consider the UN vaccination program going on right now across Africa to eliminate malaria. This will finish at some point due to lack of funding, and at the point where it does there will be that one last child who could have been helped if they had had just a little more money, the money that you didn't donate. I'm not trying to guilt trip you here, I'm simply stating a contradiction.

This isn't a situation where a really believed maxim isn't really followed through with. We dont, on the whole, feel guilty about not giving all our money to charities. We feel we should give something, but if pressed we would say frankly that we dont think it's reasonable to expect that we would give up even a slight level of comfort. It's not true that we feel we have to donate but it's only a temporary failing on our part that makes us not, we really dont feel ourselves as having committed the infinite moral failing that the maxim suggests.

As for health. Quite apart from how selfish this maxim seems on the most natural interpretation it is not true. None of us look after our health as if it was the only thing that matters. Because at a fundamental level it isn't. We all of us eat food that isn't good for us, we dont work out as much as we feel we ought to, we dont go to the doctor for every single little thing. Some of us go very far down this line, but nobody totally commits, everyone thinks about something else as well. We all have things that we enjoy doing in the time we dont spend working on our health.

Why do I point this out? Firstly because these maxims are annoying. In a discussion you can easily win points by connecting your thesis to some such rule and win the argument on the basis of a moral idea that nobody accepts. Secondly, it's important I feel to appreciate the gulf between theoretical moralities and how people actually make decisions. I'm not pointing out that people fail to live up to their own ethical standards, this much is obvious, everyone feels guilty about something. I'm pointing out something else, that people's real intuition about what they should do, what makes them feel guilty or satisfied, is very very far from what they claim to believe.

And this is important I feel. If we're arguing with a friend about some moral issue, the aim (at least in theory) should be to make the world better, (if we let “world” include the entire universe of moral relevance, including gods, afterlives, karma, the universal life force or whatever else). Each side in a moral dispute must by definition think the other is damaging the world with their immorality. If we really think our choices matter then, we should work hard in the field of morals, it's really important what point wins the argument. And I want to argue that as part of this we should be honest with ourselves. If we're arguing about Kantianism verses Aristotelianism we're not having a discussion about the moral decisions that change people's lives, we're engaged in what Dawkins might colourfully call “intellectual masturbation”, not that there's anything wrong with masturbation, it's great fun. But it's important not to confuse it for the real thing. There are moral debates about vaccination in Africa, about torture and the war on terror, about war and peace, good and evil, life and death. And we owe it to ourselves as a species to actually make progress in those debates. To get better answers to what things will make the world better and how we make people do them once we've worked that out. And ideas that nobody believes dont help forward these discussions.


  1. Hi Adam!

    I'm going to comment, isn't it exciting!
    I think you're trying to refute a view that isn't actually that well spread in society.
    And I'm not convinced they are a doctrine of civilisation.
    I think people think their own life is infinitely valuable, and that of their family, but have little time for other people.
    How many people wanted Raoul Moat to die?
    Bringing back the death penalty is one of the top suggestions on Nick Clegg's webstite.
    I've been on a train held up by someone on the tracks, within 5 minutes people were calling to run him over, even though his sister was on the train with us.
    We're easy to turn to war, and even though every British soldier killed is met with mourning, we don't give a monkeys for the enemy soldiers killed in the same conflict.
    We hear of suicide bombings regularly on the news (the ones we hear about) which kill scores of people, but we want to get it over with quickly so we can see who won the football.

    As for health, no one gives a hoot about how healthy they are. I don't even think it's a good moral argument, as health doesn't equate with happiness. And 'as long as you've got your health, nothing else matters' sounds hugely selfish, and is the sort of thing that isn't utopian, but screams of a world run by the capitalimperialismo.

    I think you would struggle to find people who believe in both your above points, even if you asked them before they'd read this eloquent and well articulated blog post. They are also both quite secular ideas, I don't mean to bang on about the whole 'being religious' thing, but both points seem largely irrelevant to a person of faith.

    The last paragraph I'd quite like to comment on, but I'm not sure I know enough about moral discussion, as I think it's all kind of navel gazing anyway. If you want to better the world that much, get out there with a spade and dig stuff.

    This was really long, sorry.
    Go to bed earlier, being on computers past midnight is not good for your health.

    Lots of Love

  2. Hi, sorry this is delayed, not been following the comments closely.

    I'm not sure I disagree as much as you think. I'm fairly confident nobody actually thinks human life is infinitely valuable. My point was that most people will *say* that they think those things, even if they then act in a way that's totally other.

    Dont mean to bang on about the whole not being religious thing, but I would have thought human life being infinitely valuable (as opposed to the health one) would fit far more comfortably into a religious ethic than most others. (By which I simply mean I can think of far more arguments for it that involve God than ones that dont, I know your personal idea of morality is pretty far removed from such ideas). But that's just me I suppose.

    I'm interested in your response to the last paragraph. I agree totally that to improve the world we need to get out there with a spade. But I'm worried we dont know where to dig. In fact I'm more than worried, considering the things that have been done (especially by governments) in the name of making the world better I'm quite confident we do not know where to dig.

    By that I mean we know roughly what makes the world better, firstly vaccines, secondly education, political and economic freedom come on the list fairly close after. But in practical spade in the ground terms I dont think we do. I think we know that getting rid of dictators is a good idea, but Afghanistan and Iraq prove we have no idea how to do it. We know that education is important, but the number of people who are illiterate in prison and the number of unskilled long term unemployed people tells us we dont know what good education is.

    I agree that a lot of moral arguments are navel gazing, but I think there are moral discussions that are important (especially political ones).

    Dont worry about length, it's what you do with it that counts.

    Hugs and kisses


Feedback always welcome.