The Modern Survival Guide #65
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I recognized a few years ago that I, and I think a lot of people, hold a bit of a paradoxical attitude towards human life. Given that I am alive, as are many other people, attitudes about life are an obvious survival topic. I want to explore the following quandary with you today:
We are trained to value life inherently and we are instructed to value life based on its quality.
This seems like a simple little statement, but it has MAJOR implications. After all, what do you think the abortion debate is about, when you get right down to it? Or end-of-life care discussions? Or discussions about drug abuse, or assisted suicide, or even basic concepts of a “purposeful” life? In each of these cases, we bounce back and forth between these two modes of thought, and which side we land on determines things like our politics, our lifestyle, our friends, our faith, and our work. I think it behooves us to understand the topic a little better.
The Inherent Value of Life
Life is valuable because it exists. This is a reality most of us acknowledge at some level — people who do not are psychopaths or existential philosophers, insofar as there’s a difference.
But why is this the case? Why do we think life has inherent value? Depending on who you ask you’ll get a different answer (this is metaphysics, not physics), but I think it boils down to three reasons: scarcity, empathy, and beauty.¹
Life is scarce. Any astrophysicist can tell you that; 96% or more of the universe is emptiness, most of the remaining 4% is unusable real estate, and we have yet to confirm that life exists anywhere other than Earth. Anything that rare is precious. And life is unusual, even miraculous, in its operation — somewhere in the interaction of proteins and enzymes things that are dead turn into things that are alive, for reasons that we simply do not understand. Consciousness is even more unusual, with self-awareness taking the top spot as the most rare thing that we know of in the universe. And even if there are aliens out there somewhere², humanity still only exists on one world.
That’s kinda heavy. Just think about it… you’re a representative of something so rare that, as far as we know, it only exists in one place out of trillions of potential environments. Therefore every human life has value as a rare resource.
We are also empathetic creatures. Almost every human (not counting sociopaths) instinctively reacts to the circumstances of others, good and bad. This is one of our primary survival mechanisms as a species, in fact; empathy is a good thing if you’re trying to promote cooperation and mutual care, which is how we mostly get by. And we commonly apply this empathy to any other life form with which we are familiar — dogs, for example, are hugely valued and treated as family in many places in the world.
Accordingly, we seem to value life because we can put ourselves in the place of others. We look at another creature, imagine ourselves in its place, and our sense of self-preservation does the rest. Life is valuable because we can feel what others feel, we can imagine the experiences of others, and we instinctively want that experience to be good — because we can imagine it as our own experience.
Last but definitely not least, the bit that causes these other two points to hang together: life is beautiful. I’m talking about the moment when you wake up to a gorgeous sunrise and see the sky turn crazy colors that would make a painter turn in their brushes. I’m talking about smelling coffee and eggs cooking in the next room while you lie snuggled in bed. I’m talking about feeling the grass under your feet, and the wind on your face, and that moment of delicious warmth as you walk outside in the summer. That moment where you feel your lover’s hand in yours, or their lips on yours. The raw thrill of driving a car for the first time, and the gentle relaxation of watching your favorite TV show.
We experience millions of events which are simply wonderful. They make up for the other shit we have to drudge through in life, because the thing is, the real point, is that every life has the potential to experience these moments of wonder. Life is valuable because every life has the potential for joy.
So to sum up — life is rare. We have empathy. Life can be beautiful. These are sufficient reasons, in my own opinion, for life to have inherent value without any other consideration.
The Qualitative Value of Life
Life is valuable based on its quality, which is a very loaded term and one that I’ll attempt to pin down. What I mean by this is that we value life, particularly human life but also any life with which we can empathize, based on how pleasant that life is as well as its potential and accomplishments.
Traditionally when we hear the words “quality of life,” we think of this as a medical phrase: how well the patient can move, their degree of everyday pain, their mental state, etc. We will not be limiting ourselves to that definition in this discussion. Quality of life is a huge discussion area of experiences, socio-economic-cultural potential, and actual accomplishments, and it leads us, inevitably, to a stark conclusion:
Lives are not of the same worth.
This is how we justify all sorts of things. It’s why we don’t feel too bad eating meat. It’s why we give politicians bodyguards, but you don’t get one. It’s why we value celebrity weddings. It’s why you’re not considered a serial killer for murdering all those mosquitoes. It’s why we don’t feel bad about using antibiotics that destroy billions of bacteria, but there is an abortion debate every year. This is serious stuff.
It is also worth remembering that we absolutely do not consider all humans lives to be worth the same amount in actual practice. Someone from my country is worth more to me than someone from a different country. Someone I know is worth more than someone I don’t know. Someone who has a good job is considered more valuable than a homeless person.
This is all due to the balance of a trio of variables, when you get right down to it: (1) a life’s pleasant qualities, (2) its potential and (3) its accomplishments.
We value all life, and particularly our own life, based on how pleasant it is. Oh I am going to get in so much trouble for this, but it’s true and you know it. The value that we assign to life fluctuates based on how pleasant that life is. And this value assignment changes quickly, because it is not based on an average of the life’s pleasant moments vs. its moments of pain and horror. Instead, it is based on how things are going right now.
This is why we can say things like “His passing was a mercy,” or “He’s in a better place.” It’s why we euthanize pets at the end of their lives, rather than let them live on in pain. It’s also one reason why we say things like “It was a tragedy,” when someone dies in the prime of their life.
And of course this is the reason why the assisted suicide movement has gained traction in recent years. We are engaged in a great social discussion on what this valuation of life actually means in terms of concrete actions that we are willing to condone or embrace in society. Part of that is also based on the next point.
We value life — all life, but especially human life — based on it’s potential. We look at animals and people and make judgments about what they can do with the life they have, in terms of their experiences and contributions to society. This affects our perception of their value. Even in cases when it shouldn’t.
Do you ever wonder why white boys in prep school get reduced sentences for rape charges? This is part of it.³ The judge is looking at them and running the calculus of “privileged family + good education + connections = probably going to be a productive member of society some day.” And then they get off. Their lives are valued because of perceptions of potential. Even though they have committed a heinous crime, the judge values the potential of their lives very highly.
Compare and contrast to other groups, and we see that this is a big problem. We often seem to value some lives more than others for bad reasons — and these ideas of potential are right at the top of the list. People will make judgements based on bias when it comes to determining potential. Not only is this a survival issue, it is the survival issue for many people.
And at the same time, do you ever wonder why most people don’t value cow lives? Again, this is part of the reason. We look at cows and, for the most part, come to the conclusion that the cow’s function and aspiration in life is, basically, to be a digestive tube. And consequently we don’t feel particularly bad about appropriating that life for our own ends. Cows lack potential — our definition of potential, that is.⁴
On the flip side, we also value lives based on accomplishment. We judge lives based on what has been done with them. This is the realization of potential — we value people highly when they live up to it.
There is a reason why some people have bodyguards and others do not. No matter who the President is, they have accomplished an insanely difficult task by becoming President, for example. They have accomplished the goal of attaining a position of enormous power and responsibility, and that position is sufficiently important that their lives are highly valued as a result. It is a sad but simple truth that if I died tonight, the nation would keep right on moving without a hitch. If the President dies, it’s an instant crisis for millions of people, maybe even the whole world.
For the same reason, but on a lesser scale, a prized racehorse has great value. The racehorse has done amazing things, and has contributed greatly to its owner’s pocketbook. It may still get turned into glue in the end, but not until it has been bred, and certainly not until it is past its prime. Until that time it lives a charmed life.
In these examples we can see how potential and accomplishment exist in a state of interplay and mutual reinforcement. Someone with potential can do big things, which puts them in a position of even more potential, which gives them the leg up on even greater accomplishment. And our valuation of their life spirals up as well, until such time as their potential turns negative. A billionaire at age 40 is valued for what he will do next. A billionaire at age 97 is valued for the inheritance he will bequeath.
In many cases, it is important to remember that this round-robin of potential and accomplishment isn’t always a bad thing. We value people with potential because we need people who will do big things. We value people with accomplishments because they have demonstrated they can do big things. But this can go wrong very, very quickly, because human beings often operate based on prejudice, and our judgements always operate in the shadows of bad information, misinformation, and no information.
There is a logical problem that emerges from these values of life: why do we hold both of these measures of value? If life is inherently valuable, why do we then place qualitative values on it? And if life is valuable based on qualitative measures, why do we insist that it be valuable inherently? Shouldn’t one cancel the other out?
The answer is that neither one is sufficient in and of itself to describe the complexity of the value of life. One, the other, or both measures of value are necessary in different situations. We cannot argue that life has no inherent value. It obviously, manifestly does, and that should be our starting point for any consideration of life. But it is also true that the inherent value of life must sometimes, perhaps even usually, take a necessary second place to a value judgement of its qualitative worth.
This is an incredibly dangerous enterprise.
It’s worth noting at this point that this is the starting gate of atrocity. It is stupendously easy to get this judgement hideously, horribly wrong. To judge another life as worth less — to say that the sum of its quality is secondary or subservient to one’s own life — is where the abominations of history take shape.
But it’s something we have to do anyway.
We must, because the world will force the choice on us. We will be forced to choose our lives over others. We will be forced to balance the lives of others against each other. We will be forced to value species as greater or less than our own. That is the reality of our existence in this universe, and it does us no good to hide from it. For better and worse, the moment humanity attained sapience we became judges.
When our survival is the name of the game, the rule is always to value our own lives and the lives of those we love higher than others. If we are starving, hunting a deer for food becomes a necessary option. If we are in danger, destroying the source of that danger becomes an overwhelming priority. If we are oppressed, fighting the source of that oppression becomes the only rational choice. To do otherwise in these instances is to voluntarily reduce the worth of our own life — to eschew survival and a decent quality of life.
Some might say that this is a principled choice, to forgo one’s life or quality of life in defense of principle. I disagree. To my way of thinking, one must survive in order for principles to mean much. There are some exceptions, of course, but the blanket statement that I must always value life so highly that I cannot defend my own is ludicrous; if I die, my hopes, dreams, principles, and potential die with me.⁵ There will be survival choices that you will make in life… or someone will make them for you.
When the survival of another is within our power, we will have to make choices as to who receives support and who does not. You have already done this, if you have ever voted or contributed to charity. It’s strange to think of it in that way, but by supporting one group you have, by choice and design, not supported another. You have made a value judgment, and someone’s life probably hung in the balance.
The same choice may appear in even more stark terms for you at some point. The choice of which child to save from a house fire. The choice of which pedestrian to strike in an out-of-control car. The choice of which nation to make war upon. Some of these choices will occur in a moment; some will be deliberated for days or weeks. But you will make them.
When the survival of another species is within our power, we will have to make choices as to which creatures survive and which fall to the weight of our survival, hubris, and economic necessity. And it’s worth noting here that we value other species in direct proportion to how many of them there are, how annoying they are, how dangerous they are, and how cute they are.
Why do we value tigers? Majestic and magnificent creatures though they may be, they are confirmed maneaters and are natural competitors with humans for territory and resources. Evolution has something to say on that subject, and the tigers are losing. Now that they’ve almost lost… suddenly we value them. We have passed the point of qualitative evaluation, and returned to an inherent valuation of tiger lives.
We have the advantages of intelligence, cooperative tendencies, innovative minds, and opposable thumbs. That puts us as the dominant species on this planet, and there’s no sign that will change anytime soon. We will make choices about which species to preserve and which to force into extinction. Some of those choices will be yours — which foods you eat, which products you buy, which environmental groups and policies you support.
A Rational Valuation of Life
Assigning value to lives isn’t something we get to pretend is beyond our capabilities, or even beyond our rights. It is something you will do in your life. It is unavoidable.
So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to try to be rational about it.
That means understanding where values of life come from, which is a philosophical rabbit hole I encourage you to explore. It means examining our lives and figuring out where we are making life value choices. It means deciding, in advance if at all possible, what our choices are going to be — because we may not have time to really think about them in the chaos of the moment. And it means coming to peace with those decisions.
It also means being very, very careful. At other points in this series I’ve touched on situations where valuations of life become extremely important, and it’s worth noting that none of them have stopped being important.⁶ Getting a judgement wrong in this case is, literally, a life-and-death situation.
And there are so many people who want you to accept their ideas about the value of life. Obviously, I’m one of them. Guilty as charged. But every politician, every religious figure, every friend and family member, every boss, every government agency, every corporation or non-profit group or charity… ALL of them will have their own interpretations on this issue. You’ll need to be able to choose who to believe, and evaluate how that choice will affect you.
So to sum up, a rational valuation of life consists of the following points:
- Develop your values: Read, listen, investigate. Find experts. Check facts. And draw conclusions where you can on what you think is valuable about life. If you can’t do that, or don’t feel comfortable doing that, find the kindest person you know and copy them. When in doubt, be kind.
- Make your choices: Decide how you’re going to make life valuation judgements and when you’re going to make these judgements. Common situations include whether or not you will eat meat, support the needy, support or oppose abortion, and support or oppose capital punishment.
- Be careful: Watch out for people who want to manipulate your values and value choices; they may be benevolent, they may be malevolent, and it may be very hard to tell which are which.
- Act: Follow your values. Act your choices. Live, and judge.
This is one of the hardest things that I will ask a reader to do in this series, second only to the constant recommendation to think. Any valuation of life comes with an inbuilt directive to act. It’s not my job or intention to tell you what that directive is for you, or to what extent it’s applicable. I just know, and want you to know, that it will exist. And like it or not… you will follow it. Such is the reality of survival in this universe.
¹I’m not addressing religious views on the subject here. There are more than enough of them, almost all state that life is inherently valuable, they all mostly default to the explanation “because God said so,” and they all seem to have an exemption clause. I’m looking for something a bit more nuanced for this article.
²Which there probably are. We already know that the possibility of life evolving anywhere is “1,” which means that given the enormously vast number of places life could evolve elsewhere in our galaxy, there probably is alien life. We just haven’t found anyone else who can talk to us yet. That being said, the Ancient Aliens guy is still full of shit and shouldn’t be trusted with science or large sums of money.
³Also patriarchy and racial preference.
⁴The other part is that they’re tasty and as long as you personally don’t have to butcher the cow, getting meat is easy.
⁵The obvious exception is heroism. There are cases where the principles one is defending, or the outcomes of one’s actions, are so important that on the balance the individual life comes in second. But we must always be careful not to confuse heroism with desperate suicide or zealotry. This is the mistake of terrorists the world over — the heroic valuation of someone who sacrifices their life to perform horrible, not heroic, actions.
⁶Specifically, discussions of risk, politics, science, personal worth, moral choice, harm, religion, protests, compassion, ethics, existential threats, government, terrorism, mental health, happiness, law, tolerance, racism, sexism, life extension, and religious persecution. And that’s just so far. This is a topic with broad implications, after all.