WHAT IS THE VALUE OF LIFE
Driving on the motorway the other day I had the misfortune to be caught in a ten mile tailback. As I sat fuming, thinking of a few choice expletives to describe the M25 ¾ the “world’s largest car-park” ¾ I heard on the radio that sadly the cause of the jam was a fatal accident. As I slowly passed the scene I saw many forensics people carefully examining the road for evidence. When a life is lost they go to great lengths to establish the exact details of the incident.
Quite understandable, but of course no such thing happens when animals die on the road, as they do in their thousands every day. It is human life that we view as most important. We see that again when it comes to saving lives. Surgeons, nurses, doctors, hospitals and expensive equipment will all be brought to bear to save someone threatened by a critical illness. If a man is stranded on a mountain or somewhere we will bring helicopters, airplanes and whatever it takes to get him down. Life is important. It must be preserved at any cost.
This is especially true when it comes to our own lives. We will do anything to save our own skins, spending our entire life savings if necessary to get medical treatment. We will not go lightly into that good night, as Dylan Thomas put it, neither ourselves nor anyone else if we can help it. We want to fend off the Grim Reaper as long as we can.
That’s obvious, one might say. But remarkably it is difficult to construct a consistent moral framework based upon our behavior that supports our high regard for life’s value. In this respect modern ethics is full of contradictions. For example, it might be argued that life should be preserved so we can carry on enjoying. In which case what is really being said is that the truly valuable thing is the ability to enjoy. But our society slaughters animals without compunction. They too enjoy as we do. They also value their lives and do not want to die. So if this is our argument we should at once stop killing them for our enjoyment.
If we counter that by saying human life has more value because of our higher intelligence; our art, science, philosophy and so on, then is it acceptable to kill less intelligent humans? Of course not. No matter how mentally, or indeed physically challenged someone may be they are still considered equally deserving of life. Under no condition is it allowable to willfully kill another person (unless we consider abortion, but that’s another article).
What exactly is it that we are struggling to safeguard anyway? Life is precious, but what is that life? If we start by qualifying the preciousness as pertaining only to humans then is it the human body we value? If so, why do we discard dead bodies ¾ bury or burn them? Plainly a dead body has little intrinsic value, so what does? When a person dies what has gone missing from the body ¾ that most precious thing that made us employ the best of our technology and skills to protect it?
Such an important question, which underpins our greatest endeavours, but are we even trying to find the answer? Are our schools and colleges tackling it? Education aims at improving our bodily and mental situation, but what about the principle of life itself, upon which everything else depends? Srila Prabhupada would often challenge us that we have no educational departments dedicated to discovering the “difference between a live and a dead body.”
In Krishna consciousness, human life is also considered most valuable, but there are good reasons. Firstly, all life is seen as a part of God, dear to him, and in that sense all equally valuable. We cannot whimsically kill any living creature. “Thou shalt not kill”. But human life is considered especially valuable as it affords us the chance to make spiritual enquiry, to find the answer to the above question. This is seen as the very purpose of life. Who am I? Why am I here? Where will I go when I die? Can I influence that destination so it is somewhere desirable? Vedic wisdom exhorts us to focus on these all important questions and not just let our life slip by in ignorance, with little more than hope that we will end up in some pleasant place.
And the Vedas give the answers. We are eternal souls, different from the bodies we inhabit, meant to enjoy unending happiness in the Lord’s association.
I saw a film about a man who suddenly woke up with amnesia to find himself in a strange place, forgetful of who he was, with no idea how he got there. The whole film was about his great efforts to discover his identity and what had happened, which of course is what anybody would have done in his situation. But this really is our position, and the value of human life is that we can discover the truth. Let’s not waste that opportunity.