The Value of Life

For Jedi Realists, our ethical principles tend to revolve around a single practical truism: that all life is intrinsically valuable, or sacred. Given this understanding, we tend to appreciate that life is not something to be treated in a flippant manner, and that it becomes something which must be both protected and nurtured – this conclusion essentially being that from which many of our more practical applications are derived from.

We have to assume, naturally, that life itself is valuable simply because it would be fallacious to consider anything else around us to be valuable if we do not have a similar appreciation for that which permits us to have any ability to judge anything else as being valuable. Thus, while our belief that life is precious might be derived from other values, life must be considered inherently valuable simply by the fact that we exist to be able to make such an assessment in the first place.

However, the very notion that life itself is valuable does create some rather large philosophical issues that I feel the need to address, in the interests of fostering some understanding on the matter.

First and foremost comes the fact that most of us (by which I refer to humans in general) tend to have a different idea of which lives we consider to be the most valuable – we might consider the life of a human more important than that of an animal, or the life of a child more valuable than that of an elderly person. This in itself becomes a problem simply because this creates a system of inequitable moral value, even to the point whereby one might be considered to have unethical values, by taking one life as preferable over another.

What is our reasoning for this? Simple: we can say with a degree of objective certainty that all beings have but one life, and once they die, that life is over. I won’t necessarily argue and say that such is the end, since I realise that some people do believe in reincarnation and such similar concepts, but let us at least not argue with the fact that each individual life is unique, and thus, once an individual dies, that uniqueness is lost. Under those circumstances, we really have no justification for choosing one life over another, if basing our assessment purely on the intrinsic value of life.

However, because we base the value of life on additional derivative values, we come to the point that we treat the value of each person’s life differently, simply based on the fact that all life is not equal, and thus should not be treated as though it were. There are various criteria that we can use to determine whether one life is more valuable than another, chief amongst them being the quality of one’s life – not the intrinsic fact that an individual is alive, but rather, what state that person is actually living in. Thus do we encounter particularly difficult ethical notions such as Abortion and Euthanasia: when we have the opportunity to determine whether an individual should live or die, we take into consideration the manner in which that life would continue to exist if allowed to do so.

I doubt I am the only person who feels this is particularly dangerous ground to be on. The way in which we determine what are acceptable conditions for life inevitably stem from current social values – hence, we making decisions based not upon objective data, but rather on subjective preference. This is something that is incredibly important to point out to all practitioners – at some point, you may very well have to choose between two lives upon purely subjective criteria.

How can you reconcile such a thing with the underlying truism that all life is sacred? Inevitably, you are required to assess the value of a life within the context of their existence – hence, according to those derivative values I mentioned earlier. It is important, however, to make a singular distinction: while you may be forced to consider the value of life based upon those particular values, it is not to say that you are valuing one life as being worth more than another, but rather that you are having to prioritise which life you can protect.

If you need an example, you are working with the Fire Rescue services. Two people are trapped within a burning building, but you can only save one of them before the building collapses. Thus, you are led to a singular conclusion: one person is going to die. Thus, under these circumstances, you are not choosing the person who is to live, but rather determining which of the two is to die. If your only criterion for making such a determination is that life is intrinsically valuable, your actions are entirely arbitrary – it doesn’t matter which one you choose to save.

However, if I was to say that one of the people was a baby, while the other was an elderly person of 70 or 80, which one would you choose? I expect most people would protect the younger of the two, since there are several motivating factors:

  • The age of the baby compared to that of the elderly person (likely the primary factor)

  • The physical size of each individual concerned (the elderly person would be larger and therefore likely more difficult to rescue than the baby)

  • The number of those likely to be indirectly affected by the death of the individual (though I accept this may be something that can only be determined in hindsight)

  • The social value of the individuals concerned (the elderly person was a war veteran, while the baby has yet to gain such distinctions; the baby has more potential than the elderly person)

There are plenty of other factors that need to be weighed up, but in all likelihood, you won’t have the kind of time you will need to be able to satisfactorily weigh the pros and cons of rescuing one over the other, and vice versa. Although I think we would all find such decisions easier if we had more objective and detached criteria available to us, alas such a thing is not always possible. Thus, there will be times when objectivity is not the most efficient course available to you – and that, perhaps, is the most important thing to keep in mind under circumstances like these.

For the purposes of an exercise, perhaps you ought to consider the criteria by which you determine the value that you personally place upon each individual life – why does one life mean more to you than another? What criteria would you use to resolve the dilemma of the above example?