Lives will be saved: The Problem of Reality
This is a Fringe Frank Talk, so expect the Fringe to talk about your frank.
Brave new world.
Every logical scheme for organizing human behavior has a key phrase, a few words which explain the ultimate authority from which that scheme draws its power over persons. At one time, in European nations like the U.S., it was “because God wants it”. Today, those with the desire to do good as an idle pass time, the phrase is “it will save lives”.
The obvious reply to those of the old order is that if God wants something, it happens without the intercession of heaven pimps is fancy dresses, and the answer to “it will save lives” is “there are obviously far too many lives already.”
It’s become clear that our society’s fetish for human life has exceeded its benefit. The sanctity of human life has always been flexible; societies value different people differently, and that value is reflected in the way people live, their outcomes in court, at the doctor’s office, when hailing a cab. To pretend we don’t value people differently is unrealistic. In the face of this, though, some maintain that, beyond the complications of every day life (beyond social reality), every human life is valuable, or, sacred in a secular sense.
Indeed, some carry “every life” beyond humans (since they are free of anthropocentrism) to animals. They won’t eat animals, or the embryos or milk of animals. I’ve not yet heard anyone complete that logical extension and refuse to eat plants or their embryos, for the simple reason that anyone that extreme would likely soon die of starvation. So, at least we’re spared that.
So, then why do some value every life (technically, or at least just short of death)?
Like all sociophilosophical themes, this fetish for life appears over and over throughout human history. Different exact values are placed on life, though, as with Central Americans five hundred years ago, when each human life was valued as a sacrifice to this or that deity. Our fetish of human life more closely models the preceding fetish for God. Then, of course, it was the soul one wanted to save; occasionally someone might have to be killed to save their soul. Experts decided that, based on study of the scriptures. The soul is not the purview of science, so the life is what we save (even if we have to sacrifice the soul to save the life). We have experts, true believers, people of all sorts who benefit from “you can’t go far enough to save every human life.”
Let’s examine the logic of this.
For starters, and this is going to shock and maybe even repel many people, everyone dies. It’s true! Look at the statistics, not everyone had died yet, but so far in history, just about everyone has lived for awhile, and then eventually, they died. That’s pretty much the entire definition of “life”: the period between when you are born, and when you die.
We needn’t feel singled out! All animals and all plants on Earth die, and even the Earth and the Sun will die. Everything dies, existence is simply the constant reordering of what is. Which is good! If everything didn’t die, nothing new would arise. We would not be here if stars had not died, see? We are 100% recycled materials. And, we live because things die, and we eat them (please kill your food before you eat it: one of the creepiest things about vegans is they eat their food while it’s still alive!). Death is a part of existence, and once that’s understood, it’s easier to live without causing problems for others.
Is this to say there is no credibility to the value of human life? It’s pretty clear that, evolutionarily, we exist as the species we are because we do care about the lives of others. Most humans, even atheist physicists and devout Hindus, like to be alive, and care for the lives and welfare of others. There is the strong suggestion in current literature that modern humans are more social and symbolic than our Neanderthal cousins, and our greater concern and cooperation might be how we crowded them off the earth. (However, I continue to subscribe to the contention, born out by centuries of war and genocide, that we killed them when we couldn’t enslave them, except for the young girls who account for the 5% or so of Neanderthal genes most people carry.)
Without a value for the generic human and her or his life, we would be like the Empire of Rome, where murder was an acceptable solution to many problems, from squabbles between neighbors to too many children. Even in Rome there was some concern for living humans and some thought to life having a value.
If one believes in morality of the simplest sort, the “do unto others” and “I’m not my brother’s keeper” sort, then we have to take some interest in the lives of other people. To a point.
But, let’s pause to consider the other side of the question, for a moment. This would be a good time to point our that we will need ten plants the size of Earth to provide the resources that the residents of Earth want. We have two choices: reduce population or lower standard of living. Most likely, we will overcome the planet’s carrying capacity in this century. Over-population is a serious problem.
But, there are other reasons to embrace hardship and death. Humans are wonderfully tough, resistant to disease, often indomitable in spirit. We didn’t get this way by cooperating, we got this way by warring and taking chances. Cooperation was important, yes, because we had to gang together to beat up on others. The rape and slavery of war has given us a rich genetic mixture of persons; very few of us can really claim to be “French” or anything else; most Black people in the U.S. have some White blood, and many people who consider themselves White have Black heritage. Most people from anywhere have some ancestry of slavery or Diaspora.
Likewise hardship has given us innovation; innovation is often rewarded by “evolution” because it helps persons do things better, so more people reproduce and more reproduction generally means more people. A lot of the things we value about humans comes from the misery we cause each other.
Likewise, plague and pandemics improve our stock. Hunger, once the frequent companion of humans, has given us exquisite hands and lips and digestive tracks.
Hard times and death give us even personal benefits. There is an old Italian saying: labor to have; suffer to be wise. Carrying the fetish for human life to the extremes we’ve endorsed in this country has another serious negative consequence: it denies people the experience of their lives. The U.S. is the most medicated, psychoanalyzed nation on Earth by some measures. There is even a pill now which will prevent you from forming long term memories so you can forget recent trauma. Is that really beneficial in the long run?
I’ll propose that letting people die is good for everyone. That doesn’t mean we can withhold medical care from people we don’t like; to the contrary, Bill Clinton should have to wait alongside Maria Garcia for his heart medicine. Naturally we should provide for people who need help. We should offer help to those who are in despair. But, I’ll suggest it should be in our national agenda to stone anyone who wants to restrict our lives in the interest of saving them. “Lives will be saved” is not rational justification for social change.
The key to avoiding excessive interest in other people’s lives, or of the obsession with saving every life, is this holy mantra: mind your own business. It’s pretty much that simple. Don’t catch that dog that is running loose: yeah, it may get hit, but it isn’t your dog. Don’t call the cops because your neighbors are fighting, mind your own business. Got a good friend who seems depressed? Offer a variety of help from company to the local mental health clinic, and then mind your own business. Don’t call the freaking cops and say “I’m afraid my neighbor might kill herself.” Instead, respect her space and her right to thin the gene pool, and read a good book instead.
Make no mistake, death and disease suck. But, they’re inevitable; we can only muck things up by trying to over regulate, not make things better. A marked decrease in do-gooderism will be good for us as a people and reduce the size of government. Give evolution a chance to work!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!
-Shakespeare, The Tempest