On the Value of Human Life

Idyllic human nature
Saturday, 16th December 2017

Two subjects are bound to enrage puritans, especially those with devout religious beliefs of one persuasion or another: abortion and birth control. Don’t get me wrong, I favour vigorous debate on both issues and totally respect the rationale behind an absolute repudiation of the murder of innocent human life. Nothing is more human than a wish to go forth and multiply, but we need to be fully of aware of the likely consequences. Many will argue that once we justify the elimination of sentient beings because of their perceived weakness or superfluousness, we have crossed a moral line that may lead to industrial scale slaughter. Yet we only apply this logic to our own species whose numbers would not have risen so fast since the onset of the industrial revolution without swift technological progress and our enhanced ability to exploit the earth’s natural resources. The same technology that can sustain a growing population and save the lives of those who would otherwise have died can also destroy our environment and kill unwanted people. In the early 21st century we do not lack human beings, but arguably we may have lost sight of what it means to be a living, breathing and above all free-thinking human being.

Before the advent of modern medicine and improved sanitation, only the fittest survived. To put things in perspective, the human population grew very gradually from the spread of agrarianism over ten thousand years ago to the European colonisation of the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries. At the height of the Roman Empire the world’s population did not exceed 300 million (usual estimates are around 250 million). When Christopher Columbus discovered the Antilles, there were still fewer than 500 million people worldwide. It took the colonisation of the Americas and the early industrial revolution to bring the global people count to one billion around 1830. As the industrial revolution spread to North America, the rest of Europe and Japan, our numbers grew to around 2 billion in 1930 and 3 billion circa 1960. There are now over 7.5 billion people and, contrary to the dire predictions of ecologists such as Paul Ehrlich (author of the Population Bomb), fewer people are malnourished today than 40 years ago. In 1798 Thomas Malthus presented an Essay on the Principle of Population that made perfect sense when applied to pre-industrial human civilisations and other animals. However, he failed to foresee an exponential rise in industrial efficiency. So despite famines in the colonies of European powers, in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, by and large most economists believe Malthus got it wrong, but few could have foreseen the next 150 years of rapid technological progress. Some ecologists still argue that eventually we will hit our limits to material growth as the law of diminishing returns kicks in.  When Richard Heinberg wrote The Party’s Over in 2003, we still assumed future economic progress would be inextricably tied to the mass consumption of manufactured products rather than the provision of virtual services. We should have hit Peak Oil in 2008 when we saw crude oil reach its historic high of $150 a barrel. Despite the 2008 financial meltdown, per capita consumption has continued to grow in much of the developing world.

Most people in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australasia have already adapted to our new reality of low infantile mortality and high educational needs by having fewer children. Even the Indian fertility rate has fallen to an average of 2.3 children per woman. The birth rate remains high only in the Middle East, most of Africa, parts of Latin America and Muslim Central Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan). While this may seem good news for those of us who care about environmental sustainability and may have once feared food and water shortages in the event of either technological meltdown or severe limits to growth, one cannot fail to notice that human life is valued much more in countries with lower birth rates. Just consider the case of Japan, with an infant mortality rate less than half that of the US and a murder rate of just 0.3 per 100,000 people compared with 34 in South Africa, 5 in the USA or 0.98 in the UK. It stands to reason that greater economic and environmental strains will lower our tolerance of weaker citizens.

A few weeks ago Islamic fundamentalists killed 305 worshippers at a Mosque in the Egyptian town of Al Arish. Unlike some other attacks against the country’s dwindling Christian minority, this was an inter-Muslim affair. The Western media seldom mentions the ongoing civil war in Northern Nigeria and turned a blind eye to the 15 years of internecine bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. While our media decried the killing fields of the 1994 Rwandan bloodbath, few highlighted the rapid rise in the country’s population coinciding with a rapid fall in the price of its main export, coffee. When the system breaks down and fails to feed, clothe and house the populace, we can soon downgrade the worthiness of human life.

While technology may have, at least temporarily, saved us from the Malthusian trap, it has come at the price of personal independence. In our interconnected high-tech world we buy greater personal freedom by gaming the system. Like all games there are winners and losers, but the prize is greater control over your life.

As we progress to ever greater levels of sophistication and interconnectedness, we become more aware of our relative emotional and intellectual weaknesses. Many prefer to ignore the paradox that affluent societies tend to obsess more with psychological challenges. Throughout much of human history, and still today in much of the world, people were just glad to be alive and enjoy a simple meal with other members of their community. Anything else was a bonus. Today people obsess with their body image, diet, personal accessories, personality profile and ascribe any mood swings to medical issues that require some form of treatment. Whereas until recently we would explain our trials and tribulations to society, upbringing or immutable biological facts, today we view our psychological challenges in neurological terms. Feelings that we once viewed as normal reactions to our psychosocial milieu are now considered signs of a mental pathology, partly because we have so much leisure time in which to obsess about our social status, body image and perceived lack of success. Psychiatry treats the human condition as a potential pathology, something that needs to be fixed by modifying someone’s personality in the same way as one would fix a malfunctioning car or computer. By equating mental health with physical health we devalue the human experience to little more than a set of illusions. Your state of mind, sense of self, thoughts, feelings or reasoned opinions may thus be pathological too. Yet personal freedom means exercising control over of your life by letting your thoughts and feelings shape the world around you, i.e. without someone else telling you what to think or how to manage your life. If the purpose of life is to hand down one’s legacy to future generations, how can we fulfil our dreams if every aspect of our lives is proactively monitored and responsibility for personal wellbeing is transferred from families and individuals to social institutions that treat us as overgrown children? Indeed why have children at all, if the state tells you how to bring your offspring up?

Coercive social engineering inevitably restricts our personal independence and reduces our sense of self worth. Psychologists love to talk about the importance of self-esteem, as if it were a mere hormonal reaction to neurological systems and not the result of real life experiences and complex social interactions. Here we should contrast pleasure with happiness. The former may respond to biochemical stimulation or cheap thrills, while the latter is the result of life’s achievements that require mental, emotional and physical effort. By suppressing our natural instincts or failing to channel our inborn urges in a socially advantageous way, we devalue what it means to be human. If we just wanted a perfectly harmonious community of diverse individuals devoid of jealousy or any form of interpersonal conflicts, we could biologically engineer a bunch of selfless asexual drones, whose happiness depended on only the collective good. In small communities the well-being of our team-mates or comrades may motivate us if we all share the same ethos with a high degree of mutual trust. However, both creativity and conscientiousness rely on healthy social competition and a desire for self-betterment. In larger more complex societies the abstract needs of millions of other citizens are unlikely to motivate us as much as personal advantage. We’re unlikely to sacrifice body and soul for amorphous corporations with Byzantine hierarchies, but often do so for our kith and kin, but as traditional family bonds weaken, we regress into a lifelong puerile state of submission to our supervisors.

Biological Paradoxes

Humanity would not exist today without millions of years of natural evolution. None of the social or technological innovations of the last 250 years could have happened were it not a cruel process of natural selection in which only the fittest or best-adapted survived. Until recently merciless natural forces would end the short lives of those incapable of self-reliance. Many tribes would sacrifice the weak for the greater good as the late Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert chronicled in Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function , originally published in French in 1898 as Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice. Societies as diverse as the Carthaginians, Etruscans, Aztecs, Canaanites and Celts engaged in ritual sacrifice,. In Aztec culture the victims were led to believe their sacrifice to the Gods would sustain the Universe.

Until recent times one earned respect through survival, the ultimate test of worthiness. The monotheistic Abrahamic religions that evolved alongside the more advanced agrarian societies of the Middle East enforced a new moral order that condemned child sacrifices and upheld the sanctity of innocent human life. The old Testament explicitly repudiated such practices, e.g in Leviticus 20:2–5 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death.” Nonetheless until the advent of modern medicine many weaker children would succumb to disease and painful early deaths. Today’s technology can keep all but the unluckiest of newborns alive. Infant mortality in Japan is just 2 per 1000 live births compared with a staggering 112 in Afghanistan. Historical rates would have been over 200 in most of the world. To provide some perspective in 1950 most European countries had infant mortality rates over 30 per 1000 live births.

On the one hand we have enhanced the value of life by enabling more people to survive into adulthood, but on the other hand we have devalued the unique sense of achievement that each adult survivor has. In countries with advanced universal healthcare systems, we have ceased to be strugglers and have delegated all responsibility for our livelihood to technocrats over whom we have only symbolic control. Extreme interdependence undermines our sense of self unless we retain some sense of personal achievement gained through work. Alas the ongoing artificial intelligence and robotics revolution will deny this opportunity to all but the most talented individuals. Everyone else will be expendable. Should our high-tech infrastructure fail to sustain the 10 billion human inhabitants of our planet mid century, it will be relatively easy to phase out the excess population. In 2016 over 6000 Dutch citizens chose euthanasia to end their lives, sometimes for psychological reasons. As a sign of things to come, I learned of the new 3D-printed suicide machine, the so-called Sarco capsule, that lets users end their life at the click of a mouse button.

An absolute moral stance on the sanctity of all potential human could empower megalomaniac technocrats unless we can afford everyone meaningful and rewarding lives. It's intellectually dishonest to dismiss any concerns either over demographic overshoot or over the coercisive means of control required to manage a large population of dependents. 

To be human means more than just being alive, feeling biochemically induced pleasure or belonging to a monitored social group, it means above all retaining intellectual self-determination interacting with other autonomous human thinkers whom we respect and trust.

Our obsession with mental health and lack of respect for natural selection could lead millions to voluntarily escape a seemingly pointless existence.

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