The universe consists of living and non-living entities which have common as well as different properties. For example, each and every entity is made up of different organic and inorganic elements so that, in terms of material composition, there is no absolute difference between a living or non-living entity: in each and every one, the smallest units are electrons, protons and quarks.
Despite these common properties, the concept of being alive is well defined in biology. Living beings take in energy, produce waste, grow and reproduce. Plants and animals, however primitive, are living beings. Humans are included in the animal kingdom in that, like animals and unlike plants, they are animate.
It may be useful as well as interesting and challenging to make the distinction between living and non-living and seek answers to the questions, What is life? What is living and non-living being? What are the actual moral differences between them? and Do non-living beings
have any worth? The fact that (as we noted at the outset), in respect of their material and physical composition, living and non-living beings are similar, is a crucial one: if every thing is made up of Carbon, Nitrogen, Hydrogen and other elements, then, to some extent, the difference between living and non-living is going to be expressed in meta-physical and moral terms.
We define certain ‘life-functions’ like ‘take in energy, produce waste, grow and reproduce’, and classify entities as living or not by these criteria. If some or all of these ‘functions’ are there, we say ‘it is alive’, if not, we say ‘it is not-alive’. Consider a cat wandering and playing around. It eats poisonous meat and lies down. After ten minutes we check it for ‘life-functions and, realizing they are all negative, we say ‘it is dead (or not-alive)’. We may now ask, what is the actual difference in the being of the cat between these two states? Although, in terms of the cat’s physical make-up, everything is unchanged, how can we define it as being alive at one time and not-alive at another? Is it just our labelling of beings with our own criteria? And can our descriptions be adequate without some metaphysical considerations?
If it is right to say that the building blocks of every living being are lifeless, not only life but also lifelessness should have some worth. Oxygen and water are unquestionably lifeless entities, but they are the most precious things on earth for beings living in this world. Therefore the intrinsic value of something has nothing to do with its being alive or not.
Dworkin (1993, p.69) reports the argument of David Hume and many other philosophers that objects or events can be valuable only when and because they serve someone’s or something’s interests, and (p.71) comments:
On this view, nothing is valuable unless someone wants it or unless it helps someone to get what he does want.
Dworkin’s own view is:
Something is instrumentally important if its value depends on its usefulness, its capacity to help people get something else they want. For example, money and medicine. Something is subjectively valuable only to the people who happen to desire it. Something is intrinsically valuable, on the contrary, if its value is independent of what people happen to enjoy or want or need or what is good for them.
Dworkin’s classification, wide- ranging though it is, could be extended by replacing the word ‘someone’ with ‘something’, and ‘people’ with ‘entities’. If we accept this extension, it emerges that everything living or non-living has some sort of value. Whether humans comprehend it or not, everything on earth and in universe has a purpose, and is of service to someone or something. Perhaps with the further advance of science and technology we will come to see more and more things, now considered as useless, as in fact valuable for some entity or other.
It follows that life is not a prerequisite in order for something to have value. It is existence that is primary. Spinoza (1923 edn, p196) wrote:
No one can desire to be happy, to act well and live well, who does not at the same time desire to be, to act, and to live, that is to say, actually to exist.
From existence every beauty and perfection may come, whilst from non-existence nothing is produced, good or evil. Although existence is entirely valuable itself, there are degrees of value. We are almost bound to assume that the perfection of an entity’s existence is through life for only a living being can experience its own existence, through thinking and reasoning. And all our knowledge is founded on experiences (Locke, 1993 edn, p.45).
Schweitzer (1923, p.26) argues that the essence of Goodness is: preserve life, promote life, help it to achieve its highest destiny.According to him, the fundamental principle of ethics is reverence for life. All the goodness one displays toward a living organism is helping it to preserve and further its existence. He believes that ethics embraces not only people, but also creatures; an ethics that does not also embrace our relation to the world of creatures is incomplete (pp.22-3).
If something is so valuable and precious, it must, in one way or another, be protected. We go to great lengths to secure and protect man-made pieces of art and scientific instruments. If life is so good and precious, how is it protected?
Every living being has an instinctive will to survive and is equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills. A small animal e.g. chicken will fight with a dog to stay alive. Plants too exhibit a desire to live. Individuals from the same-species grow roots and leaves in different lengths and sizes, depending on their environment, to increase their life chance. Schweitzer (1966, p.25) calls this the ‘will to live’. The ‘will to live’ is a universal fact, and entails competition between individuals and species. We observe in nature that, as well as co-operation and mutual helping, there is struggle: one life preserves itself by fighting and destroying other lives.
We destroy lives not only for survival but also for our convenience. We cannot build dams and produce electricity without destroying the environment and ending some forms of lives. All our daily food are plants and animals. It is unavoidable to destroy the lives of some plants or animals, knowingly or unknowingly, for various reasons.
If existence is entirely valuable, and the real basis of existence is life, then life should be valuable and respected in any form. However, is there any difference in terms of their value between different forms of life? Can animals be favoured over against plants, or humans over against both animals and plants? Could there be any justification for it? Is this a species-ism?
Many writers have sought answers to the question: ‘What makes human life valuable and, in particular, what makes it more valuable than other forms of life?’ (Harris, 1985, p.7). Harris questions the assumption that human life is (or should be treated as) more valuable than other forms of life. What justifies it and what, if anything, makes it more than mere prejudice to favour ourselves and our own kind? He says: ‘There is no doubt that we do value human life supremely, we think it important to save a person rather than a dog where we cannot save both, and we think it right to do so.’ Obviously, we must ask Why?
Before attempting to offer a possible answer, we should refer to Aristotle’s argument in his Ethics. He suggested:
We must not even demand to know the explanation in all cases alike; there are some in which it is quite enough if the fact itself is exhibited, e.g. in the case of first principles; the fact is primary and a starting point. Some starting-points are grasped by indication, some by perception, some by a kind of habituation, others by other ways’ (Aristotle, 1976 edn, p.77).
And preferences between forms of life fit into this category. We may not be obliged to find a satisfactory explanation as to why we value human life, even some individual’s life, supremely. Who could accuse me of unworthy discrimination if I rescue a human rather than a cat, my wife rather than a stranger, a black rather than a white, one from my nationality rather than one from another, in a rescue operation that does not permit me to rescue all? Who could accuse me of being a nationalist, racist or species-ist? This is simply a matter of preferences. This does not mean that I do not value the lives of the ones I could not rescue.
I cannot be expected to have a special reason for making that or a similar choice. I did so just because I felt it was the right thing to do.
Although it is not necessary to find a ‘convincing’ reason to value human life supremely, we can distinguish humans from other beings by some of his features, namely by their consciousness, reason and intellect. Dworkin argues that; ‘We treat the preservation and prosperity of our own species as of capital importance because we believe that we are the highest achievements of God’s creation, if we are conventionally religious, or of evolution, if we are not’ (Dworkin, 1993, p.82). Although in religious terminology God is free from having particular achievements or failures, it is true that humans are His special creatures, to whom He relates through Messengers. He made humans responsible for their conduct as they uniquely are equipped with consciousness, reason and intelligence to distinguish right from wrong.
In conclusion we may say that, to comprehend the nature of life is extremely important, but perplexing as well. Maybe we will never achieve that. However, as conscious beings, it should not be too hard for us to respect every being on earth, and reflect that they are all valuable.
Is there any reason to compare the worth of different forms of lives, if we embrace in advance the idea that they are all valuable and necessary for this world? Why should we put ourselves to the trouble of wondering whether we have any right to destroy some forms of lives for the benefit of others? Why do we hesitate to admit the distinctiveness of human beings? It is perfectly understandable to reject discrimination between human beings on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion, but what could be a sufficient reason for devaluing humans as such in the name of equality between species?
Existence is good and every single being on earth and in the universe is valuable, and purposeful.
Therefore we should value all existing beings.
Consciousness, reason and intellect are precious, and we do accord supreme value to the lives of those beings who have these features. We should be aware of that too, and be respectful and responsible accordingly.
- Aristotle (1976 edn)The Ethics of Aristotle, Penguin Books, London.
- Dworkin, R. (1993) Life’s Dominion, Harper Collins, London.
- Harris, J. (1985) The Value of Life, Routledge & Kegan, Paul, London.
- Locke, J. (1993 edn) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Everyman, London.
- Schweitzer, A. (1923) Civilization And Ethics, A.&C. Black Ltd., London.
- Schweitzer, A. (1966) The Teaching of Reverence for Life, Peter Owen Ltd., London.
- Spinoza (1923 edn), Ethics, trans. White, W.H. and Stirling, A.H., Oxford University Press, London.