Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Sanctity of Human Life (?)

Lately I've been giving a lot of thought to the proposition that human life is sacred. This is an asssumption that is generally accepted without much question. Even if people don't always seem to act accordingly, most will freely express their belief in accordance with the "consensus". It's easy to make the case that life in society requires that most members hold this position. The climate of cooperation depends upon it. If people reject life's sanctity, it seems to follow that they will opt to act according to their exclusive self-interest. So perhaps it's irresponsible of me to even question the idea.

No doubt our conception of humanity is also reinforced by evolutionary biological drives that determine the long-term survival of the species. If life is not to be preserved for its own sake, then it naturally follows that the species should become extinct. The earth itself seems like it is wholly indifferent to the perpetuation of one specific form of animal. The biosystem balances itself over thousand and thousands of years, and our role in it is determined by how we interact with our environment. Sure... we believe we are indispensable, but we remain vulnerable to the ongoing determination of the workings of the entire system. The nature of life on our planet is constant flux (which in itself presents a strange paradox). Perhaps our own survival intincts will prove to be overreaching, and the necessary corrective will follow with inhuman inevitability. Certainly we face signs that our effect has been less than salutary for the rest of the planet. The significant climate changes, and the resultant threats to human existence, represent compelling feedback to mull over.

But the question is just as fascinating to me on the purely individualistic human scale. One's philosophical stance on the issue depends largely on the quality of his/her faith. If one is a "true believer", by necessity he/she sees the sacred in humanity. The idea of a hierarchy, upon which the human being presides at the top as a kind of caretaker, does not appear accidentally in our holy books. If one has faith, he/she must take for granted this responsibility. According to this perspective, every human being (unlike every animal) is imbued with a soul... and thus valued above any other life form. In this worldview everything else exists as a platform on which humanity depends as a resource. We are thus simultaneously above and beyond the world itself.

The situation becomes quite a bit more nuanced for the "non-believer", and/or the agnostic. If human beings are simply animals, then the whole framework of belief must be called into question. To what (or whom) do such individuals look to for answers? How do we frame our morality? If we assume the philosophy of utilitarianism as a basis for our rationale, then who/what constitutes the "collective"? How do we include animals in the equation?

This quandary is especially difficult for me because I am a meat-eater. If I rely on the flesh of animals for sustenance, and yet I concede that man is merely an animal, then what conclusions must I draw... and how do these affect my choice of actions? Am I "meat" as well? Considering the aforementioned harm that the surplus of humanity seems to wreak on the biosystem, how do I formulate a set of ethics by which human society can be managed? As a human, I have a complexly developed brain that allows me to posit such questions. Does this ability carry with it concomitant responsibilies?

If we are not to be valued beyond our relationship to the rest of the biosystem, then it seems to follow that we must consider alternative factors in addition to the mere preservation of human life for its own sake. The results of 150 (or so) years of modern scientific inquiry strongly suggest that the earth's limited resources are capable of supporting a finite amount of life. What do we do with the knowledge that our actions directly affect the division and management of these resources?

Following this path of rationality can result in an impression of cold abstraction. But the questions that logically follow from these premises have an impact on the most controversial, emotionally-laden issues of our time. Our decisions about abortion, euthanasia, conflicts over dwindling resources, human aid, health care, homosexuality, pollution, conservation, animal husbandry, food supplies, energy consumption, etc. are contingent on the conclusions we draw about the sanctity of human life. The sources we consult for authority on these matters have a crucial influence on our future. Sentimentality and arbitrary faith can confound our thinking and lead to disaster. While it is easy to fall into the belief that these battles are confined to a series of cultural wars, I think that the ultimate verdict will be delivered by forces larger than ourselves- but it's important to recognize that these forces are not beyond human influence. The grounds and terms upon which we discuss these matters need to be assessed with as much clarity as we can muster. Our lives (at the very least) depend upon it.

2 Comments:

Blogger laurie said...

I really liked this post. Read it twice as a matter of fact, because as I read, I was interjecting my own thoughts on the matter(s) and lost track of yours.
Though I'll try to be brief here, I doubt I'll succeed. Yeah, you're meat, maybe not until death, but your body is no more significant than any other creature. Your mind, however, is.
Which brings me to some thoughts on the pineal gland. Housed deep within the brain, this little bugger has a number of functions, the most mysterious being its production of DMT. DMT is always present in trace amounts, but at the time of birth, death, during labor, and near death experiences it is the highest. There is also research that suggests it's present in the body at a higher than usual amount during sleep. (some melatonin relationship) DMT has been designated the Spirit Molecule.
Could it be this gland that convinces humans of their "spiritual" nature? Part of our survival instinct? An instinct that would include the ideation of a collective consciousness that would lead us to form the beliefs that we are somehow responsible for the well being of others and for the survival of humans, the planet, etc.
Enter psychopaths... could it be that with these people there is some sort of pineal gland dysfunction? This can apply to the average Joe psychopath, as well as the white collar criminal/contemporary politician type psychopath. If they have no moral conscious, no spiritual base within, maybe all they need to right themselves is a mild DMT supplement? Heh heh! Dose 'em! Really though, I wonder if anyone has researched the relationship between the two; psychopaths and pineal gland function.
You followin' me?
Again, great post. Great blog!

12:14 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Thanks for the kind words, Laurie.

Very intriguing idea. If I get a chance, I may follow up some of your information.

5:02 PM  

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