Saturday, November 08, 2008

Why do we value life?

Suppose we were to encounter a race of people very much like our own, except that they did not have the attitude toward murder, or rather homicide, that we have. If they wanted someone to die they killed them, and it was legal so long as a proper compensation was paid to the victim's family. They even had commandments from their
god, only there were just nine and "Thou shalt not kill" was left out. How would we make a case for the value of life to them.

I once had an officemate who thought that the so-called value of life was just that: so-called. The real values were pleasure and pain, and being alive or not simply didn't count. "When death is, we are not, when we are, death is not." Another friend said "Based on your philosophy, I could kill you right now and it would be OK." He answered "Only if you could do it painlessly."

How would you defend the value of life to these people?


Randy said...

Well, since they are paying compensation for killing someone, doesn't it follow that they place some value on life?
What happens if they kill someone and can't make proper compensation?

As to your officemate, if pleasure and pain are of value, it follows that life is of value for there could be no pleasure and pain without life.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

Among other things, you might ask them how they distinguish (i) causing a subject, S, to undergo e rather than e' where there's less pleasure associated with e than e' and (ii) killing S so that S doesn't enjoy e'' where the value of e'' is equivalent to the difference in value between e and e'.

It seems that you can cause deprivations of pleasure in these two ways so if all you care about is pleasure and pain, that's precisely why you ought to care about causing someone to lose life here--from the perspective of a hedonist, the reason there is not to cause (i) to come to pass just is the reason there is not to cause (ii) to come to pass.

Ilíon said...

VR: "How would you defend the value of life to these people?"

Especially in reference to your poseur officemate, why even bother? Just "homicide" the bastard ... it's not as though he actually has any grounds for objection ... and then you have the pleasure of having the office-space to yourself.

Don't you wish you'd had me around in those days to help you sort through these pseudo-dilemmas?

Ilíon said...

And, if I recall correctly, your poseur former officemate even admitted to you that he had no grounds by which to object to you "homiciding" him -- even as he vainly and illogically tried to impose upon you the obligation to do it painlessly, lest you mar his pleasure, quite overlooking the fact that *your* pleasure in "homiciding" him in a painful manner obviously takes precedence over his desire to avoid pain.

Ilíon said...

And in reference to you mythological society, any such society will "homicide" itself in short order. It cannot be otherwise.

There must be a reason (i.e. a cause which we may grasp via reason), must there not, that Japan and several of the European nations are already registering negative population change (and the others are not far behind)? Of course there is a cause for these on-going national suicides, for nothing happens without cause.

Gordon Knight said...

if there is no stict personal identity over time, then it seems to me that you office mate is correct. But if I continue to exist as me, then killing me deprives me of valuable experiences. You could replace me with someone else, and that individual would perhaps have more valuable experiences, but you still took the rest of my life from me.

Ilíon said...

GK: "[reference "valuable" experiences]"

Which still doesn't explain why VR *ought not* take the rest of his life from the officemate. Rather, you are assuming the very thing being questioned.

And, furthermore, even if there is "stict personal identity over time" (as, of course, there is), if identity ends utterly at physical death, then your objection cannot stand, in any event.

When VR "homicides" his officemate, not only does the fellow's potential future experiences cease to be potentialities, but so too do his past experience cease to be actualities.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of your argument from human rights.

It's hard to argue that a person's life has objective value with someone who doesn't.

If it has objective value that can't be trumped by people, its value is independent of people's opinions. But if its value determines its relation with other persons, a person must be involved somewhere in the idea of a human being's value. The person responsible for the value of a human being cannot be the human being himself because if it were then he can legitimately commit suicide. So I can't make sense of it without a presumption of theism.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say in the second sentence "... with someone who doesn't believe it already."

Ilíon said...

It's a shame that these days 'subjective' and 'objective' mean something like "private (and thus discountable) opinion" and "public knowledge (all bow!)" respectively, rather than something like "pertaining to subjects" and "pertaining to objects."

For, after all, when speaking of valuations, it is meaningless to speak of objects valuing anything, and it is meaningless to speak of values existing independently of the subjects who do the valuing.

Mike Darus said...

If one of their 9 commandment was about stealing, that could be a basis for explaining that killing is stealing a life. The next task would be to convince this tribe that the only proper compensation for a life was the life of the taker.