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The value of a human life

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Jim Opionin by Jim Powers
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“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” Attributed to Banksy

"Someday soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That's when I will be truly dead - when I exist in no one's memory. I thought a lot about how someone very old is the last living individual to have known some person or cluster of people. When that person dies, the whole cluster dies, too, vanishes from the living memory. I wonder who that person will be for me. Whose death will make me truly dead?” ― Irvin D. Yalom, Love's Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

What’s the value of a human life? Does it even have individual value, and if so, why?

I often drift into philosophy in these columns, simply because our opinions are based strongly on our individual philosophical beliefs. So I think it’s important that I reveal my philosophical bias when I rant on about this or that. Philosophically, I am an existentialist.

Philosophy is a slippery slope and existentialism is one of the most slippery of the slopes in philosophy. Reduced farther than it should be, it’s the belief that, as the writer Hunter S. Thompson wrote, that we are all alone, and that we are responsible for creating meaning and purpose in our own lives, not teachers, or gods or governments. 

I’ve been thinking about this lately as we are really debating whether life has inherent value, and the nature of that value, when we talk about abortion or mass murder or whether the government should exercise ultimate control over women’s bodies, or who we love, or when and if we have children.

We might argue that life always has value to the individual, because without it we have nothing. The fact of suicide seems to dispute that idea, though. I believe there are far worse things than death, including enduring a life of intractable suffering, of inescapable poverty, of oppression by individuals or governments, only to die alone and lonely.

Many Christians would say that the Bible teaches us that life has inestimable value because God created it. They have used this belief to justify the right of the government to make abortion illegal from the moment of conception, or to make birth control illegal. I think this is a gross misunderstanding and misuse of the Bible.

If you look at the Bible in its entirety, neither the Old Testament God nor the New Testament Jesus appear to place ultimate value on human life. It is the human soul that is the concern of the Bible.

God repeatedly ordered in the OT his people to commit genocide. He destroyed almost all of humanity in the great flood. In the New Testament, it seems clear that Jesus and the NT writers valued the fate of the soul far more than human life. Jesus literally gave up his life to secure the souls of Christians.

“For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” (Phil. 3:20-21)

We don’t have to spend much time talking about how little our society values human life. 

Billion- and Trillion-dollar corporations control our society and government because money is deemed speech and has corrupted our representatives. Social problems that directly affect people and events, such as mental illness, are ignored as “too expensive” to solve, while we have the most expensive military in the world, and our government constantly erodes individual liberties by at the same time arguing for restrictions on gun ownership because, well you know, life is valuable.

What’s my argument in all of this? Do I actually believe that life is without value? Of course not.

To the existentialist, individual life is the ultimate value.  But our government and the giant corporations that control it, are using a supposed concern for life as a tool of control. And, where we as a society focus our attention and wealth seem to clearly contradict the idea that we care, ultimately, about human life. And that ultimately falls back on our lives as individuals. Because it’s not governments or gods or authorities who are responsible for giving our lives meaning or purpose. It is us. Don’t give up that power in the pursuit of shiny baubles.

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