The "sacredness" of human life

Inspired by a pit thread , but not wanting to hijack it further than it already is. I hope this isnt’ too “light” a subject for this thread (if so, any mods, feel free to move it to IMHO).

Regarding the “which would you save a random human, or your beloved pet” issue. In honest curiosity, and in the interest of learning and debate, not snarkiness.

What is it that makes humans, just by virtue of being human, so sacred and so much more important than “lesser” creatures regarding who should live and who should die, whose life is “worth” more and so on?

Not intrinsically, but logically and necessarily common to our perspective as humans.

I mean, there’s nothing intrinsically “better” about human live than the life of influenza viruses, but we do everything we can to help the humans win, and it would be damn foolish of us and contrary to our interests to do otherwise.

I believe that conciousness is what makes us valuable. Other than that, we are no more intrinsically valuable than any other animal out there. Posessing human DNA, in and of itself, does not endow a living creature with any special value.

Those who oppose abortion and stem cell research take the position that human life is prima facie valuable even without any developed personality or sense of self. But I couldn’t disagree more. Give a choice, I’d choose to preserve a self aware android like Commander Data or a HAL 9000 style computer over a human fetus.

Nothing makes a human more valuable than an a priori value system or a self interested value system.

e.g., A Nazi in WWII would sooner murder a Jew than his dog.

e.g., A true Christian would kill his/her dog, before killing an enemy.

A priori values systems determine what life is worth saving and in what order.

Different value systems will focus on different aspects of humanity, and will have different definitions regarding what constitutes a human being worthy of life (witness the abortion issue.)

A self interested value system might say: I advocate saving humans before animals, just in case I find myself in the position of competing with someone’s pet for the chance to live.

Of course, if someone tells you “I’ll kill a human being or your pet; you decide!” the logical thing to do would be to kill them, since anyone who would make such a threat is clearly dangerous,

From an evolutionary presepective it makes a lot sense. You share **much ** more DNA with any random human than you do with your pet. It’s just the genes making sure they get into the next generation.

For the religious, it is the belief that we are created in God’s image that makes humans so special. If not religious, I don’t know of any compelling reason to prefer to save a random human over a pet. The example of killing your pet rather than an enemy is a great example- the true Christian would do it but it also illustrates how hard it really is to follow Christ.

it’s the same thing that makes us believe other humans are conscious (whatever that means) beings. we’re conscious, and they look, sound, and act a lot like us, so they must be thinking all the time too.

our only perspective is a human perspective, so we feel much more empathy, in general, with a random person than we would with a goldfish, no matter how fond we are of this goldfish.

from a social perspective, we’d like someone to do the same for us. from an economic perspective, a person is more valuable than say, an ox. John Mace already pointed out the evolutionary perspective.

there are many different ways we can look at the issue and realize why, for practical reasons, we consider human life valuable, even if it lacks intrinsic value.

That’s a question I’ve puzzled over more often than is probably healthy.

I’ve come up with a number of answers, and some of them are mentioned in this thread.

One I haven’t seen mentioned is just plain selfishness. Because we interact in a more complete way with other humans, we value them in our lives. When they die, we lose something that isn’t easy to replace. A cat, as much as I may cherish them, can be replaced to the extent that I can get pretty much the same interaction from most cats that I can from my most beloved one. But how can I replace, say, my father? That’s a complex and strong role that no one else can really fill.

Then there’s simply empathy, which has been mentioned. I know what I feel, so I assume I know how Fred feels, and how I would feel were I Fred. When bad things happen to Fred, I can “feel” them, too.

(Probably OT: What I notice about myself is that when I read stories about a human being tortured, I empathize with the human. When I read stories about an animal being tortured, I empathize with the animal and with a sometimes nonexistent human observer. For example, there was a story about a tiny dog getting kicked in a parking lot. Not only was I feeling how horribly the dog must have suffered, but I was feeling the horror of the dog’s owner, or any other witnesses, who had to see that.)

What I often wonder is, if presented with a species that was smarter than humans, kinder, wiser, and better looking :wink: , would we argue that we should save them over us? Somehow I doubt it. So arguments based on the intrinsic worth of the species are, I think, misguided.

Suppose that there is a man trapped in a burning building. You can risk your life by trying to save him, or you can do nothing.

What would you do if:

a) There are other people around you, watching you.

b) There is no-one else around and nobody will ever learn about the choice you made.

An interesting essay, When Is a Person? by James Park, attempts to answer this question, more or less, and it could be applied to the “sacredness" of human life.

I don’t claim it to be a perfect or the most professional essay ever written, but it is interesting. In a nutshell, Park says “Personhood,” or “Sacredness” if you like, has four requirements:


If someone doesn’t have these four requirements they shouldn’t be considered a full person. In cases where these requirements aren’t fully developed yet, like fetuses or infants, the correct term would be Pre-Person. In cases where a requirement could be lost, through old age or severe brain injury, the term would be Former Person.

Just having consciousness as the key, as some have suggested, isn’t sufficient in my opinion.

A lot of people may disagree with Parks assessments, but it is at least a rational and philosophical attempt to define want could make a person a “Person,” or Sacred in other terms.

And there is also the “enlightened self-interest” angle. We don’t want people vivisecting us against our will, so we support rules that prevent us from doing it to anyone else.

Mind you, I’m only using vivisection here as an example. If you volutarily want to be vivisected, that’s between you and your vivisector.

Screw dat.

From a genetic prospective, it’s a hell of a lot better from my POV to let the human die and decrease the competition to pass on my genes.

I don’t give a shit about whether or not Dog X passes on his genes (from this POV, in truth my pups are quite important to me), but passing on MY genes is what matters. The less non-me human genes out there the better my shot…

-Joe, evolutionary bastard

Obviously, you and I have very different relationships with pets. I’ve never had any two pets that I had pretty much the same interaction with. Each animal is unique, and thus the resulting relationship is unique. Saying that you can have pretty much the same interactions with any cat or dog is like saying you can have pretty much the same interaction with any child. Sure, you have to feed and shelter all your pets, just like you have to feed, shelter, and clothe all your kids, but after that you’re into things determined by indidual factors and the relationships all vary.

This thread poses interesting question of which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. It certainly should not be assumed, as in the OP, that “humans, just by virtue of being human, [are] so sacred and so much more important than “lesser” creatures”. This is in no way an assumption that can be made, but is rather the question - Is human life more sacred than other animal life?

If we decide to accept act utilitarianism (shortened form: an act is right if the net value of good consequences outweigh the net value of bad), then it would seem that saving the human would be the correct action. After all, the human most likely has more responsibilty, co-dependants, value to society, etc, than the pet dog.

It is also just as easy to devise a system where human life is more valuable (I don’t much care for the term sacred, with the religious connotations that it seems to entail, and which it would seem pretty clear cut that human life is intrinsically more valuable (at least within western christianity) Although, I know very little about this). If we were to take a virtue ethical approach, it would seem to me that we could hold kindness to all creatures as a virtue, or perhaps responsibilty towards your dependants (of which your pet would be one, but not the random human). Then, it would seem that the right act might be that of saving your pet. There is no fundamental reason to value humans over animals, but it does seem that this is what we do, and I think that maybe there are good reasons for this – some of which have been touched upon here already.

Another approach to this problem might be seeing this situation of having to choose between random human X and beloved pet Y as a tragic dilemma (a situation where there are no moral grounds for favoring action x over action y*). In this case, what is the right action? Are both acts acceptable? Is one act better than another? Do we always have to do the best action, or is it acceptable to choose a good action (saving either the pet or the human) even if it may not be the best action? It really gets a bit sticky here.

One final point that I think is quite interesting is that raised by Dog80

In theory, I think that there should be no difference between the course of action in situation (a) and situation (b). And certainly an ethical agent would never choose a different course of action depending on whether people were watching or not. I think the key question in a situation like this is, ‘do you have an obligation to try to save this person?’. It would seem to me, that you have no obligation to put your own life at high risk to save someone else. But, then we just circle back to the different ethical theories that I touched very briefly upon here.

*sorry, I have no cites for these definitions at the moment. I don’t have access to my books right now (or the time to go chasing them down online). Presumably this definition is from a Rosalind Hursthouse paper if my memory serves me right. If you are more interested in knowing where the definition is from e-mail me and I’ll track it down. (on a side note, I’m an undergrad philosophy major, and taking a class on ethical theory at the moment, so if anybody does want to discuss these types of ideas, feel free to e-mail me as it helps a lot to get to put things in writing (and I need to start getting things straight in my mind seeing as I have paper due soon… don’t worry, I’m not fishing for homework help or anybody to do my work for me…)

Is this thought going to connect with another or just lie hanging? Ok, so we are created in God’s image. So what? What’s the next step in the arguement? Is God afraid that magical voodoo faries will bring him bad luck if something made in his image is destroyed?

Well, nowadays, perhaps, but evolutionarily speaking, humans haven’t been a secure species for very long. A hundred thousand years ago (or whatever’s the actual time span), you would have been better advised to make sure that as many specimens of your species survived to reproduce as possible, and that’s really when our instincts evolved.

It’s not so much altruism that makes people do stuff like that, I think, so much as ancient submerged instincts to perpetuate the species no matter what.

I really think it depends on the person.

Ummm, i think maybe you should clarify this a bit. What depends on what person? Or, maybe this is meant to be a “well, that’s just like your opinion, man” type arguments. Because obviously there is no point in debating ethical theory because every theory is just as valid. It is just opinions anyway… :rolleyes:

it might be harder for we atheists to see, but i think the second portion of this argument is trivial. if we are all created in god’s image and likeness, and god is worthy of our worship, it would be pure sacrilege to destroy his likenesses.