Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"All Life is Precious" -- But why?

The title of this post was taken from AMC's original series, The Walking Dead.  The show is about a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world.  I'll avoid dropping any spoilers, don't worry, but a character in the show lives by the phrase "All life is precious."  They don't kill (I'm invoking 'they' as a gender neutral singular here-- have no illusions: no one else hesitates to pull the trigger).  

It wasn't The Walking Dead that gave birth to the content of this post, but the maxim of this character steps closely with something that I've put a lot of thought into over the past few years.  It's an age old question and a favorite topic of discussion between armchair philosophers:

What makes life valuable?

I'd be lying if I said this was the way I phrased the question a few weeks ago when I was walking by the Grim Dell on my way to dinner.  The words I originally chose were: "What makes my life valuable."  No, I'm not having an existential crisis.  I believe that God gives my life value; I am his ambassador and servant., and what purpose could be more fulfilling than serving the king and creator of the universe?  (None come to mind.)  No, I know why I value my value the breath in my lungs; I was more interested in what makes my life valuable to others.

Though I'm still being too general.  Chances are, anyone who shares my beliefs will agree that the church is the body of Christ, placed on earth to accomplish his work.  I need to narrow my search.

What makes my life valuable to non-Christians?  Now we're getting close to the question I really asked myself back on William and Mary's campus.

A few answers came to mind, though I didn't find any of them particularly satisfying.

I might be a pet-- a companion.  Many people find comfort in the company of others.  There is safety in numbers, conversation breaks the silence, and having more people around presents the opportunity to participate in a wider range of activities (it's no fun playing catch or Euchre by yourself).  Perhaps that's what makes me valuable to some of my friends: our relationship is a classic example of mutualism.  The dog gets fed and petted, the human gets a loyal and indiscriminately-loving companion.  Everyone is happy. But what if I'm not your friend?

I might be a processor.  I have spent a lot of hours learning to analyze data and go through computations.  A computer can do math problems much more quickly (and correctly) than I can, but I can feed it the relevant information or even program it to do what needs to be done.  I can read, I can write.  My hands are useful in a lab.  Maybe I'm a processor and some future employer is eager to roll up to me in his swivel chair and input commands so that I can make him more money.  Again, we would have a mutual relationship where he gets another brain to work toward some task that will make him lots of dollars, and I get a few of those crisp Washingtons for my trouble.  But what if you don't need another (weaker) computer?

I might be a tool.  Maybe what gives my life purpose is simply my ability to do work.  Because I can apply a force, I am valuable to society.  Just fuel me up with a cheeseburger or a potato and I'm ready to move some rock or hammer some nail.

Now we're getting to the bare bones of the question.  Again, the question is: What makes life valuable?

What separates the living from the non-living?  The ability to move?  To apply that force necessary to do work?  Google told me that life is "the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death."  What is it about the ability to grow, function autonomously, and reproduce that equals value in life's big equation?

I'm a better pet than a rock.  I'm a better processor than a river.  I'm a better tool than a cloud.  But is my value to society as a useful object the only thing that gives my life force purpose from a non-believer's perspective?  I'm not saying it is, but I struggle to reason that it isn't.  After all, I've always said that if I wasn't a Christian, I'd be a utilitarian.

Furthermore, I'm a better pet than a plant.  A dog is a better pet than a plant!  And I'm a better processor than both a plant and a dog.  Does there exist some hierarchy of value when it comes to life?  Is it okay to kill and eat vegetables but not meat, or is it wrong to eat either?

Is all life really precious?

Now usually at this point I'd drop some opinions on you guys.  Or I would find some convenient way to redefine a key word or twist a fundamental idea of the question to make it so we could all sleep okay at night.  But I already told you my opinion: God gives me purpose and value.

To be 100% honest with you, I don't understand the idea of the inherent value of life from a non-Christian perspective.  It seems that we all grow up just to die if our purpose is tied to this world.

If I dedicate my life to better understanding the universe or inventing some convenient machine, all I've done is made it easier for the next generation to live and die more comfortably, and that's not enough for me.  I don't know how it's enough for anyone.