How, wonders a reader, should a human life be evaluated? Surely not, he suggests, “on the basis of the material goods that person possesses, such as wealth and property”. Of course, it seems shallow and wrong to reduce a person to something as crude as how much money he or she has made – although, in practice, many of us do exactly that all the time.
People’s achievements, crude or otherwise, can certainly be evaluated. And if we are reassessing our own existence, it can make sense to adopt a tool such as “the wheel of life”, often used in coaching. This involves identifying important spheres – such as relationships, work, finance, health, leisure and personal development – and rating our satisfaction in each as the starting point for goal setting.
But useful though this exercise can be, it runs the risk of encouraging a reductive approach to life, as if we really were no more than the sum total of those items. If we happened not to be doing brilliantly on some of them, we might then feel that our worth was diminished.
In fact, each of us is a more complex whole than can be captured by such an exercise. What we have done is not the same as who we are, and while checklists can easily capture the former, it is far harder to pin down the latter. Of course, we can’t completely sever the two as, in the end, we must be judged by our outcomes. But these cannot be straightforwardly converted to a judgment on the whole person.
When we use the language of evaluation about human beings, we may be importing paradigms from the workplace. Perhaps it would be better to talk in terms of reviewing, examining and monitoring ourselves instead. In relation to others we may criticise and praise but giving a verdict of worth seems more pernicious. Like the American poet Walt Whitman, we can conclude: “My final merit I refuse you … never try to encompass me.”
In the opinion of our reader, “viewing human life as sacred is one of the most precious legacies of biblical faith”. Many would agree with him. But what exactly does it mean to say that life is sacred?
One way to think about this is to distinguish between the value of life and its quality, how well it is going. The traditional sanctity-of-life view maintains that these are vitally different issues. Life is of supreme value whether it is going well or badly. The life of a healthy, happy individual is worth no more or less than one who is sick and miserable.
What seems to have happened in the modern era is that these two issues have become one. There is no longer any value placed on merely existing. Life is worth living only to the extent that a person has the capacity to appreciate what the world has to offer. Simply maintaining the biological existence of an irreversibly unconscious individual, for instance, is pointless because it does not enable any valuable experiences.
This shift troubles many because it seems to create a world in which some lives are worth more than others. This opens the door to people deciding on others’ behalf that it is not worth keeping them alive or bringing them into the world in the first place.
But placing importance on quality of life need not lead to denying the equality of lives. To say that all life is of equal value is to say that every life should be treated with the same respect and that no one has the right to judge one life to be more inherently valuable than another. This does not mean, however, that we cannot take into account quality of life when deciding how tightly we should cling to it.
It is precisely because life is so valuable that we should not spoil it by maintaining it at all cost. True respect for life should involve a concern for how well it is going and not just how long it will last.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England.
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