Thursday, January 20, 2011

Valuing Human Life

I am not looking to discuss abortion policy at this time, but a recent discussion on that subject has led me to revisit some thoughts about our ethical intuitions concerning how we value human life.

When philosophofofosizing about morality or ethics, people often bring up rather horrible situations in order to create a relevant thought experiment. So forgive me - I'll make it really broad.

If we had to make a terrible choice between allowing a 30 year old to live and allowing a four year old to live, assuming there were no practical considerations concerning physical ability and subsequent chances of survival or anything, I think most of us would choose to preserve the four year old.


We have an instinct to protect the younger person to a greater degree than the older person. Perhaps we feel it is because of her "innocence" - her lesser degree of understanding (perhaps?) of the situation at hand. Since I am trying to dig into this a bit - I am guessing much of this instinct to protect comes from our desire to preserve more of life. The four year old has a greater potential for more life ahead of her. The 30 year old has more of her life in the past. The thirty year old has already lived.


If we had to choose between saving a four year old and a four week old, what would we choose? This is much more difficult. I think that perhaps we would choose the four year old.

This would be because the four year is more aware, having more thoughts, feelings and experiences.

So perhaps we greatly value the potential for life, yet we also consider who or what is holding this potential when making value judgements. I suppose this is a balance of values - the potential for future thoughts, feelings and experiences weighed alongside the holder of that potential's current ability to have thoughts, feelings and experiences. The potential for life is weighed alongside the current level of ability to experience life in a meaningful way.

Do you agree with my ethical intuitions? Would you make the same choice?

Once again, this is really unpleasant to consider, I apologize. Obviously weighing values and being forced to make a decision does NOT mean that there is not a tremendous amount of value on both sides of the scale. I just find it really relevant to ponder this stuff sometimes.


  1. Steven, interesting discussion (and the most important topics are usually the hardest to discuss). There's an old Vonnegut short story about a family (mother, father, three sons) who are kidnapped and forced to play as pieces in a giant game of chess in order to win their freedom. The caveat is, of course, that any piece (themselves included) which is "lost" from the board is killed. Do they sacrifice the one son for the life of the rest of the family? Or do they choose instead to forfeit all of their lives?
    I think part of how we choose is by gauging a person's comprehension of sacrifice. The 30-year-old has an understanding of what it means to give up his/her life for the four-year-old's. At the same time, neither the four-year-old nor the four-week-old have any true grasp of the concept of sacrifice, so perhaps we choose based on whom of them is more likely to remember the event, and thus learn the meaning of the act? It's not clear. Just a thought, anyway.
    I've spent many hours discussing not only the value of human life, but of life in general. Should we consider polar bears and tigers to be more important than human beings, since their numbers are so much fewer than ours? Or do we value human life over any other life, regardless?

  2. I need to read that story! I can understand going down either path in that situation. Choosing to preserve what life you can is understandable, but choosing to preserve the family unit instead of life is also understandable......maybe? good question.

    Yes, why is human life so valuable? Probably because we are humans, of course....and if we do value tigers over humans, is it really so? Or are we valuing tigers over some humans because they represent a diversity of life for humans to enjoy?

  3. You can see, though, how difficult it is to try to apply some logical equation to this type of scenario when you look at the 4 week old vs the 30 year old. Innocence then trumps sentience.

  4. Randy, yes it is very difficult. I suppose ethics classes deal with this sort of thing all the time.

    One the one side we value potential life and our desire to protect innocence/fragility. On the other side we value the ability to have experiences, thoughts and feelings. Actually, we value both a lot - they are usually not in competition with each other, but it is interesting to dig into our ethical intuitions a bit and try to find some principles which might help us understand and apply those intuitions better.