The Value of Life, & How We Prioritize Some Lives Over Others

Occasionally I like to write things that make me somewhat uncomfortable.  I think of it as a cerebral enema, to cleanse by mind of sinister cobwebs that, from time to time, start building nests in it if not cleared out.  The topic concerning the value of life, and the fact of how–since we can’t save all lives–we prioritize some over others with partly reasonable, partly arbitrary justifications, is a discussion I find simultaneously disturbing and necessary to have.

The initial instinct for most of us is to vehemently maintain that all lives, regardless of mediating circumstances, ought to be seen as equal to one another, and thereby equally deserving of consideration and protection.  That if we are to have a truly just society we should focus on forwarding this simple principle because it is a primary means by which to preserve impartiality and reduce disparity in the legal system, as well as reduce our personal biases on matters of moral dilemmas.  Historical events, like the American Eugenics movement of the early 20th Century, are a clear example which we can point to as an obviously immoral/unethical breech of the egalitarian mindset we strive to (albeit, not perfectly) construct our society around today.

All this is well and good, however, I’ve noticed in these sort of conversation that we tend to also leave the specific details concerning the practical application of this egalitarian principle intentionally vague and open for interpretation, primarily because by dwelling too deeply on the finer points of this moral principle we promote, we might uncover a number of factors that would reveal the ideal to be both unattainable and undesirable in reality.

Although we might say (and truly believe) that all lives are equal in worth and deserving of protection, we hardly ever hold this moral principle to be absolute.  For instance, what happens when a group of people are stranded at sea, on a sinking ship, and they need to prioritize who gets into the lifeboats first (because it’s a simple fact that somebody will have to be the first one in).  The most fair thing to do would be to let people in on a first-come-first-serve basis; however, the problem then arises as to the inevitable fact that this sort of laissez-faire approach to the dilemma will create a situation in which a disproportionate number of people saved will be those most physically capable of getting to the front of the line.  In other words, just about all the children on the boat will potentially be left behind to sink.

“Fine, so let the children on first,” you might say.  But why is the life of an 8 year old worth more than that of a 20 year old in this scenario?  The latter hasn’t lived long enough to truly grow-up and experience life yet, either.  S/he might even be on the path to achieve something unimaginably beneficial for all of mankind?  So why would it be right to rob her/him of a chance to accomplish something in life simply because s/he had the bad luck of being born a few years before the prioritized group?  And what about the parents of the children who get priority–do they get a seat because their children depend on them for survival?  Does that then mean that the life of a parent is worth more than the life of a childless person?  By what right is this a fair system?

The point of the scenario described above is to illustrate that often situations arise that require us to prioritize one thing over another, which unfortunately can include prioritizing one life over another.  As much as it might go against our deepest moral inclinations, we have to be honest with ourselves and admit that we do in fact place more worth on some lives over others and see them as being deserving of greater protection; often depending on the situation we find ourselves in.  While the motivation and mentality of this truth is quite dissimilar from that which inspired the eugenicists of the early 20th Century, the underlying reasoning is certainly comparable.  And, to put it a bit controversially, this underlying reasoning does have a line of rationality behind it.  When it comes to the sort of dilemma presented above, one is faced with the harsh fact that to stubbornly hold on to the ideal of saving everybody, can yield a situation where you save nobody.  In which case, regardless of your good, sound, moral intention, it would have been equally useful if you had done nothing at all.


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