The dilemma: if we adopt a universal, egalitarian, minimalist standard, then every life should be preserved. To say that “every life” refers to all living things on the planet, we are proposing the impossible, enunciating an “ought” that is completely disconnected from “can.” The only real choice is between “letting Nature take its course” or intervening to over-rule what Nature would produce if left alone. Such interventions cannot, however, cannot avoid killing some creatures (whether it is antibiotics killing bacteria or protecting sheep from wolves and thus condemning the wolves to starvation or condemning the creatures the wolves will devour when they can’t get at the sheep). Interventions, in other words, always make a value judgment that some lives are more worth preserving than some other lives. We can’t slip the noose of death, altogether. Death will come—to all creatures in the long run. We can either let it come as it may—or shunt it in one direction or another, buying time for some creatures even as we reconcile ourselves to, or even actively promote, the death of other creatures.
Humanism, at its most basic, presumably, is a prejudice in favor of human lives over the lives of non-human creatures. Such a definition of humanism would make it strictly homologous with racism and sexism—namely the valuing of one category (a particular species or race or sex) over another.
Robinson Jeffers writes “I’d rather kill a man than a hawk.” A radical attempt to slough off humanism. But not a way to avoid judgment or standards. There are, presumably, reasons for preferring the hawk’s life to the human’s. So—to reiterate—it comes to seem impossible to just say that my ethic is to respect all life, to work to preserve every life. Since life feeds on life, some must die in order that others may live.
But there is another problem, one in a rather different register. Let’s assume a full-bore humanism for the moment. So now it might seem the ethic would be revised to say: all human lives are to be preserved, accepting the consequence that all non-human lives are to be sacrificed to the needs of human life prior to any sacrifice of one human life to preserve another human life. This universalist egalitarianism is “liberal” in many ways, although liberals like Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler are made queasy by the thought of animal sacrifice for human life. Still, both of them are adamant that all human lives should be equally valued—or, to phrase it differently, for Nussbaum all humans have an equal right to live, while for Butler all human lives should be equally grievable.
Certainly for Nussbaum (and I suspect for Butler, but won’t pursue here how she would make her case) this equal right of all humans to live is only a minimum, a floor—and, as such, does not represent her full ethical ambitions. It is not just a life humans are entitled to. Each human has an equal claim on the means, resources, and liberty required to “flourish.” Nussbaum offers a detailed list of 10 things—ranging from food, shelter, leisure, and education, to family, friends, and health—one needs in order to flourish. Nussbaum is not arguing that “bare life” (to use Agamben’s term for “zoe”; Agamben is working from similar texts from Aristotle as those that inspire Nussbaum) is not worth living. But she is arguing there are non-minimalist ways of living that are superior to bare life. For Agamben, “bios” in Aristotle’s texts names this life that is more than “bare life.” And one crucial question is what kind of society, what kind of polity, enables the achievement of bios, of flourishing.
But I want to defer that political question for the moment and concentrate on the judgment, the standard, that justifies distinguishing bare life from flourishing. Because now we have a hierarchy within the set of all human lives. They are not all equal. Some are fuller, better, than others. One way of marking this difference would be to say that some lives are more satisfying than others. A life lived without the burden of chronic illness or fairly constant pain would be more enjoyable, easier to bear, even if not necessarily more fulfilling in other ways, than one lived in poor health. Another way of marking this difference would be to say that some lives are more meaningful than others. This second way seems to lead to issues (and ideas) of productivity. A meaningful life is given over to an activity that is deemed important (or significant)—and it has some success in achieving the important aims that it sets out to accomplish. We could say some lives are more admirable than others (in relation to the tasks that life is devoted to advancing and the success of those advancement efforts), just as (negatively) we can think of some lives as “wasted,” as having not made a very productive use of the time that person was allotted on earth.
The “liberal” solution to this dilemma, which introduces troubling (because unequal) distinctions among lives, is a) to try to distinguish between what is freely chosen by the individual and what is imposed from without, and b) to acknowledge a pluralism that realizes that “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” The sum result of these two tenets is, basically, to say that material and other deprivations that limit the range of an individual’s life chances and choices are unacceptable—especially if others receive the material goods and social/educational/psychological opportunities denied to some. In practice, this usually comes to rest in the assertion that a strict equality of material goods and other kinds of opportunities is neither necessary nor achievable. But we can identify a “floor” of necessities (that is what Nussbaum 10 point list aims to do) that any “good” polity must provide if its citizens are all to enjoy a decent prospect of creating a flourishing life for themselves.
And the pluralism point says that—once that floor has been provided for all—the polity has no right to intervene in the choices people make about how to live their lives. Full bore tolerance is the only sensible approach to the variety of values that underlie people’s choices. Attempts to impose notions of meaning and importance can only lead to conflict. People are incredibly, perhaps congenitally, stubborn—which means that efforts to dictate how they should behave cause way more trouble than they are worth (because such efforts are rarely successful).
The Nussbaum position seems to me fairly unassailable. A good society should make available the means for flourishing. And her list of basic means is pretty convincing. A simple Kantian test works well here, in my opinion. Look at her list and consider which of its items I would willingly dispense with. Then consider on what grounds could I possibly deny to others any of those items. Why do I deserve something I would begrudge to others or, worse, claim that they did not deserve?
The most common candidate, of course, is work. I deserve something because I work for it. That slacker doesn’t deserve it. Don’t work, don’t eat. And that self-righteous distinction between effortful me and slacker him slides into the thrill of meting out punishment. If conservatives are obsessed with envy as the poison pill vice that afflicts all liberals, then leftists need to become equally obsessed with the sadistic desire to punish that is barely hidden within so much conservative moralism.
I want to finish up today’s thoughts by going in a different direction. What are we to do when the basic requirements for a flourishing life are not withheld by social and political arrangements, but by Nature itself? I speak out of personal experience here, but out of an experience more and more widely shared: witnessing old people outlive their lives, lingering on in debilitated physical and/or mental condition in ways that cruelly condemns them to live a life not worth living. Our humanist commitment to fighting against the death that Nature will eventually dole out, to delay as long we can, has the effect of sustaining a life that is worse than death. The values get completely inverted here. There are circumstances in which death is better than life. (Arendt made this point in her totalitarianism book in a most chilling way when she reminds us that certain kinds of torture can also make death preferable to continued life.)
I understand all the complexities of euthanasia and also understand all the legal safeguards put in place even in jurisdictions that allow assisted suicide. I don’t want to get into how to create a good euthanasia program here. What I want to assert—and I think this should be fairly uncontroversial although many would disagree—is that some lives are not worth living. We can—and should—be pluralistic here as well. A life that would be intolerable to me still might be well worth living for another. And maybe there are some people wo are—and can be—absolutists on this score. For them, any life, no matter how dire its circumstances and its debilities—is better than death. But it is certainly the case that there are also many people who find death preferable to certain lives.
This all makes me unhappy. I would like to take life as an absolute standard. But I am compelled by this logic to accept a) that we do judge among lives, finding some more satisfactory or significant than others (even if we want to protect against the polity devaluing some lives below a minimalist floor because other lives are worthier), and b) that in certain circumstances death is better than life.
In short, we can’t just leave it at “bare life” as a good all should have protected and preserved. Bare life is too bare—and in some cases so extremely bare that death is preferable.