Valuing Life: Death Part II

One of the unexpected things that happened when I realized that I was an atheist was that I began to have a greater respect for life.  I know the existence of an afterlife cannot be disproven, but neither can it be proven and so if this is the only existence we have, and death means non-existence, then appreciating this existence is paramount.  I know that being atheist isn’t a pre-requisite for an appreciation for existence, but that’s just how it happened for me (not that I was ever in support of violence).   I realize also that I am in an economic position in life to enjoy it much more than others but it is often surprising to me how often poor people are happier and more generous than those with wealth.  There is something to the old adage “Take joy in the simple things in life”.  Nevertheless there are those beyond just being poor.  Countless millions who do not get their daily need for food and water met.  If one values life then it should be our first and foremost goal to lift all those up to enjoy the marvels of existence.

When someone says they value life, it is often unclear what they mean.  First of all, what do we define as life?  Some people just seem to mean human life.   Some value other animals as well.  For some it is just certain animals that we think of as pets, but not ones that we use for food.  This tends to vary by culture.  Some value the life of animals, provided that they die without suffering and are treated


humanely in their life.  Some value the life of an animal based on how close to a human it is, and are okay with ending the life of simpler creatures.  Finally some value all animals and only eat vegetables.  Why is plant life less important?  Should feelings, or the fact that they are part of Kingdom Animalia at all be the deciding factor on how valuable life is?  As I have argued before that whenever we put value on life just because of its similarity to us, there is a certain human conceit there that I am not so sure is healthy.

For those that value human life, even that is inconsistent.  It is clear that we humans have a different line of reasoning when it comes to the harming of those that we deem innocent.  People often get much more outraged at a mistreated animal, or the abortion of a fetus, than a mistreated adult.     But we were all children once.  A child who is taught to hate minorities will become an adult who hates minorities.  If that adult commits a hate crime, why do we hate him back, call for his punishment, or even death.   In reality he is simply just an older child who was never taught to see the value in all people and that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet.  It is akin to me being upset at someone for not knowing calculus.  How could they if they were never taught?  It always seems to be assumed that as an adult we have choices to just change the way we think in an instant.  This is clearly not true, and in fact it gets harder as you get older, not easier.


The biggest paradox I see for those people who are both “pro-life” in relation to abortion, is that they tend to be conservative in their views on capital punishment, war, and gun control.   Abortion is a tough issue, no question, and one where I truly understand the “pro-life” point of view.  What is clear to me is that no legislation should force a woman to go through something that profoundly effects her body, and for which there is no such equivalent or societal requirement on the father.  And the cold reality of the matter is; mothers ending the lives of their infants are a natural part of our psychology.  It is uncomfortable to accept such a cold fact as this, partially because it almost makes no sense in a modern society.  It is important to remember though that most of our evolution did not take place in civilization, but in the wild.  And in the wild resources are often scarce and raising a child, as anybody even today will admit, takes a lot of resources.  So in our brains when we feel like the child is not going to be able to get the support it needs, women will make the logical choice of abortion.  There is some logic to it.  Yes I said it.  Our brains are not programmed for birth control; our brains are not programmed for a society in which adoption is possible.  In the end, our world is the one right in front of us and in that moment ending an unwanted pregnancy is sensible.  This is why abortion rates are lowest in countries with adequate health care for all citizens, especially mothers, easy access to birth control, and plenty of education about sex and the consequences thereof.   Then of course there is the issue of whether a fetus counts as life, counts as human?  I don’t think that it can be answered anytime soon.  All I know is that it is not my place to decide what happens to an embryo inside a womb in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.


But if I weep for an aborted baby, then why do I not weep for all those people killed in war, shot down by gun violence, sent to the electric chair, or for even that matter the 20,000 people who die every day from hunger.  The answer comes down to the fact that killing is serious business and we have to justify it.  Perhaps abortion is just killing that we have justified.  But then it is no less immoral than any other killing that we find acceptable.  If we can justify abortion based on the grounds that it is not a child so early in development, then is it not the same reasoning we use for any other type of killing we support and even call for?  It comes down to dehumanizing people.  Whether it’s Muslims, criminals, poor people, minorities…whenever we say that any human life has less value then our own you will find things like abuse, torture, and killing.  Dehumanizing at a fundamental level involves two things.  First is the stripping away of things like the individuality of a person (i.e.  All Muslims hate Americans).  Secondly it focuses on making out their desires to always be about negative things.  Things that we consider the worst qualities of humanity or just the opposition of the virtues that we value most highly in our species.   So we can say “All Muslims hate freedom”, rather than suggesting that they are more like us than different, and that all Muslims want is to have a livelihood, take care of their families and have self-determination in their lives.  Something we all want.

This same reasoning can be applied to how many people think of the poor, other races, political affiliations, criminals, etc.  It concerns me that in this country that there seems to be a decreasing value placed on life.  The Travyon Martin case exemplifies this all too well.  Not just about his murder (it is at the very least manslaughter) itself but by the “Stand Your Ground” law.  If being threatened is enough to justify killing another human being then I think we need to seriously address this philosophy in our society.  Something must have gone wrong somewhere for such a law to even be proposed. Should someone’s existence end for stealing a television set?  There was a recent story about a woman who shot at a car for turning around near her driveway.  There were 4 children in the car and children could have been shot.  Luckily the bullets only hit the car.  The woman’s explanation was that her driveway was getting ruined because people were turning around on it all the time.  What does it say about our society when something so trivial as a driveway takes precedence over life?


As far as we know it, death is the very end.  Even if it isn’t, this existence must have value or we would not be born into it.   We must therefore question ALL killing.  We must be forgiving and believe in redemption.  We must look at a human as a product of his experiences rather than a creature who always has the power to make conscious choices to do acts of good and evil.  This planet teems with life and we are connected to it all.  Nothing that lives has more right to life than anything else, and yet killing is also natural whether it is for food or for protection.  As a species we have the ability to kill with the strength and power like no other species, but we also have the equal ability to find alternatives to killing.  The latter should always be our goal.  We should be continually striving to find ways to survive that do not deny the right to life of others even if killing happens along the way.

Death Part I

My first experience with death happened when I was 5 years old.  Sadly my cousin who was 2 died in a trailer fire.  It is safe to say that I really didn’t understand what death meant.   Like many children I was a bit selfish, and perhaps somewhat used to a life where for the first 3 years I was the oldest grandchild and was likely doted upon, and I felt resentful of my younger cousin who always seemed to get first helpings of things like watermelon or cake, even though I was also hungry and, in my own opinion, more important.  It’s safe to say I did not care for her.  I remember distinctly my aunts and uncles sitting around looking quite sad obviously.  Then I opened my big mouth and said “Well who cares no one will miss her anyway.”  To this day I don’t know why I didn’t get a severe beating, but I am thankful for the wisdom of my elders for recognizing that I was only a child and didn’t understand.  One of my uncles simply looked at me and said “Well what if you died, and we said ‘Well who cares no one will miss him anyway?’ “  The words made me understand, as is often the case, when we turn the things we say upon ourselves we can sometimes see their true measure.   To this day, I find it hard to forgive myself for uttering those words.  Understanding grief like I do now, even coming from a 5 year old, those words I uttered had to hurt.  I’ve carried those words for a long time, and if there is no sympathy for a foolish child, then at least know that I truly believed it shaped me into a more compassionate adult.

I can safely say that at the time, however, the gravity of death wasn’t something I completely understood.  It’s not easy to really understand when you’re very young and have so much growing yet to do.  The world is full of adults and so it seems impossible that you won’t at least make it to the age of your parents or aunts and uncles.   I’ve always liked the saying “death is an important part of life”.  Because ultimately it’s true as paradoxical as it sounds.  We have a beginning and an end.  And while we are barely conscious at the beginning (which is really a shame to be robbed of remembering that experience of coming out into the world for the first time), death is something we are all too conscious of.

One could argue that life and death are the only true things that we know in this world.  We are alive in this plane of existence and eventually that life will end.  Now many believe in an afterlife and that’s fine, but ultimately that requires faith, but I believe that everyone, somewhere at their core, has a seed of doubt about the afterlife, even if they don’t want to admit it.  Few people can freely give up their life here for the afterlife.  Those that do still believe that their last earthly act will have an impact of value in this existence, and thus are still, at least in some sense, grounded here.  Of course many of those people one could arguably say are crazy (i.e. suicide


bombers).  Others, while heroes, when they give their life they do so to preserve it for others and I would argue the afterlife is still not their primary goal.  It seems to me that notions of an afterlife regardless of whether they have a punitive or rewarding nature are simply but another to try and cheat the evitable.  Non-existence.

As natural as death is, it is clear that all life fights it.  The will to live and survive is in every creature, and as humans our awareness of death means we are much greater fighters than many other species.  Life is the battle against death.  In any other situation one is unlikely to enter any battle they know they will lose, but this battle is one we never asked to be in, one that we have to fight, and so all we can do is make the best of it.  It does no good to focus on this inevitability, when you do life becomes much more pallid.

I think it’s also interesting though that when you don’t worry so much about death, you start to see that survival really only involves living.  And that if you focus on how to live better, then you start winning that battle against death in a much more meaningful way.  You will still lose in the end, but you are at least fighting with honor and dignity.  The value we place on life (not only our own) has a lot to say, I believe, about how we behave in this world and this will be the subject of a later blog.