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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Everyone’s Free to be a Comedian, Just Don’t Pretend It Matters

Conversations have become a contest.  People will talk to each other, and quite often it seems the only thing carrying the discussion forward is the participants’ interest in being the one who will espouse the wittier sarcastic comment for the evening.  Which among us will be the first to point out a fellow commenter’s inferior tastes and ridicule her/his personal interests for sport?  “Pff, you actually listen to that?  No, no, I’m sure it’s great.  As long as you enjoy listening to mass-produced, watered down crap, I’m sure it’s just amazing. Hahaha!”  We are a generation of Jesters, and sarcasm is our native tongue.

It goes further than just a humorized pissing-contest to determine who is the most nonconformist of us all in regard to pop-culture trends.  Being the better joking cynic is, in and of itself, a very coveted role nowadays.  Is there anyone around who doesn’t see her/himself as the silver tongued renegade, putting those around her/him to shame with one clever phrase or pun?

Thus, the role of the Jester is romanticized as the stalwart, nobly standing for truth against an authoritarian regime.  (I believe the reminder most thrown around is how, in centuries past, it was only Jester who could mock the follies of the King.  A nuance that I have become keen on pointing out, however,  is that, no matter how clever a Jester’s words may be, they have never, and they will never, do anything to overthrow the authority of the King he mocks.)

The reason all strive to be the witty cynic, is that cynicism is at this point in time the absolute laziest form of passive resistance to whatever ills one might recognize in society.  Because it’s relatively easy to tear something down, but unfathomably hard to build anything worth looking at up in its place.  Yet, shouldn’t this last bit be the most important component of any legitimate social commentary?  If you notice that the foundation to a house is faulty, doesn’t it do more good to roll up your sleeves and think of a way by which to replace the rotting structure?  Does mocking it with your cynical wit do anything at all to point out solutions to the problem at hand?  Perhaps it gives you satisfaction, and those around you a jolly laugh, but that doesn’t change the fact that the house you’re in is sinking into the ground.  You claim you don’t care about the issue at all?  Then why bothering giving it enough of your attention to seek out and comment on at all?

When you talk to people, are you really engaging them in a conversation?  Or are you partly listening, partly waiting for a mishap on which to pounce on and demonstrate your clever wit?

What I fear is that if we become the generation that speaks in fast-paced, sarcastic soundbites, how will we communicate when the times calls for us to talk through issues which demand for us to expand our attention span past ready-made slogans, chants, and punchlines?

Jesters may be suited at pointing out problems, they are hardly fit to reason out solutions for them.

The Comfort of A Countercultural Mindset

Earlier today, a casual acquaintance made a remark to me which, although I’ve heard repeated often in past conversations, I can’t fully agree with.  The remark in question was (and I’m paraphrasing), “Cultural change is born amongst the downtrodden more than any other class.  This is because counterculture rises from the bottom-up, starting with the have-nots, rather than the haves.”  I take issue with this sort of broad-sweeping analysis.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it would look great on a poster or banner somewhere, but within the scope of modern history it really has little-to-no credible validity as a trusted byline.

To illustrate my point, I’ll refer to one of the most well-known examples of counterculture in recent history: the generation-wide shift in focus and values that came to categorize American youths in the 1960s.

The modes of thinking and doing in 1960s culture reflected the evermore growing generational gap which emerged as a consequence of the baby boomers maturing/reaching adolescence, and the great prosperity that many Americans enjoyed in the economic growth of the time.  Unlike what is implied by the remark stated above, the counterculture of the 1960s was not driven by the downtrodden or the have-nots of the socioeconomic ladder, but the very individuals who benefited most from the economic prosperity that arose throughout middle-class America following the Second World War.

Plainly put, the 1960s ranks as being amongst the richest of times in American history.  This rise in affluence made commercialism and consumerism a wide-scale business (in other words, people all over bought big and they spent big).  All of this reflected in the growing emergence of popular culture, which was essentially a byproduct of the increasing number of teenagers (growing out of the post-War baby boom) who were coming of age, and eager to establish an identity for themselves.  And fortunately there were just as many businesses and corporations eager to sell them the products (music, movies, fashion, etc.) needed to define such a thirst for identity.

Ironically, all this affluence also created a sense of resentment amongst idealistic youths, who sought to reject the commercialism and consumerism of the era.  The Beatniks, for example, began as a small group of idealistic young wanderers (usually middle-class, white, and financially comfortable), who idolized the lifestyle of social outsiders of the 1950s.  This group of wanderers (e.g. Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, etc.), and tales of their Bohemian travels throughout exotic segments of American society, served as inspiration to many of the countercultural offshoots that emerged amongst the youths of the 1960s (the most famous example being the Hippie subculture).

The image of the countercultures of this era are usually portrayed as abrasive (i.e. anti-war protests) or dynamic (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement).  Although these were definite reflections of the cultural divide which had become prominent at the time, the true countercultural thoughts and actions cannot be generalized or defined by a single movement or event, because it wasn’t a single movement or event.  Rather, it was a change in mindset caused by the way a new–larger than ever–generation was reacting to their environment on a day-to-day basis.  But, more than anything, it did not develop bottom-up, and was not inspired out of its participants economic hardship or scarcity in opportunity (statistically speaking, these young people had the most comfortable and hopeful lives out of any of the generations that preceded them).

The reason for this is that in order for countercultural thought to develop, a person must have the leisure time to reflect on their surrounding, in addition to enjoying the economic stability of their social era to make an alternative lifestyle even remotely plausible.  It is a luxury the downtrodden and truly impoverished simply don’t have, because those who don’t have the time or energy to philosophize about social change–who are often entirely dependent on the current social order to maintain even the little that its given them–will have the least interest in setting up a counter-anything (which is why people who reside in the lower-income bracket tend to exhibit the slowest rate of cultural change out of any other economic group).

I think the misconception partly stems from the popular conflation of countercultures with social revolutions.  At first this is an understandable mistake, but upon any close inspection the distinction between the two couldn’t be starker.  The fact is, whereas revolutions seek to overturn, dispose of, and/or usurp the sociocultural order that happens to be dominating in the particular society and time, countercultures alone are not as ambitious; usually willing to be perfectly content with simply carving out a niche for themselves parallel to the existing order, thereby still existing within the greater framework of society, while preserving a distinct identity from it (even if only superficially so).