Why are human beings valuable? What is a human being? You have to answer those questions before you can say that this child isn’t a human being without value.
I had a fascinating discussion with some Christian friends and some non-Christian acquaintances last evening at a dinner party. It reminded me of something that Chuck Colson said last year when he addressed the Harvard Business School on the issue of ethics. He said, “Every person has an infinite capacity for self-rationalization.”
I think about that often. Although this immediate application has to do with how non-Christians often rationalize their unbelief, I think about it in another way. Am I just seeking some answer, any answer, for what I happen to believe now, grasping about for any solution to a problem Christianity presents, no matter how thin that solution may be? Some proposed solutions to questions people raise are just not adequate, yet we believe them because it assuages out doubt. “There’s something I can hold onto,” even though it may not be a real good solution to the problem we’re facing. They’re enough to calm our fears, our doubts, for the moment, but other people see right through them.
This is a good reason we should always be vigilant as we seek to justify our faith. We need to always come back to two things when we confront these issues: are our facts accurate and is our reasoning sound. That’s the long and short of it when seeking correspondence truth, truth that corresponds to reality. If there’s a problem with our thinking, either our facts are wrong our reasoning wrong. But if our reasoning is sound and our facts are right, then there’s no escaping the truthfulness of our conclusions. It’s the way reason and logic works. We all live in a world where our survival depends upon that. So that’s why we should be vigilant and ask ourselves, “Is this a good explanation or am I just grasping for a rationalization that will help me cling to my belief?”
In any event, we had a discussion last night that reminded me of Colson’s remark. It was a discussion about how we make ethical decisions.
I had made a comment, which I have made here, that people do ethics by determining what they want and then reasoning backwards and rationalizing their conclusion based on what they really want. I call it happiness as ethics. “This is what I want in my circumstance. This will cause me the least discomfort, this will make me happy. How can I justify this?”
Of course, I think that’s reasoning backwards about ethics. We talked about not making ad hoc decisions about ethics. In other words, not facing an ethical decision and as they come up, thinking what sounds best and spouting off about it. But first examining in our lives what it is we believe, what is truth, what is right and wrong, and then reasoning from a foundation of truth to an applicational situation that we might face. And one came up yesterday.
In Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, three weeks ago a little girl was born with anencephaly. Most of her brain was missing and she only had a brain stem, but she was still alive. She had reflex functions but no cognitive functions. 95% of such babies are dead within a week, and virtually all die within two weeks.
The reason this case was so controversial is that anencephalitic children make great organ donors, but their organs must be removed while they’re still alive, and that means the children must be killed to harvest the organs that will save the lives of other children. Technically this is called non-voluntary active euthanasia, in other words, a case where the life is purposefully taken from an individual who cannot decide for themselves. In this case, of course, the end in view was clear—saving the lives of other children with the organs of a child who was going to die shortly anyway.
When the parents sought the permission of the courts to allow this action, the courts ruled against them and the reasoning was that the child wasn’t dead yet and therefore it would be against the law to take organs that would kill the child.
I listened to some radio discussions about this issue on a secular station, and characteristically people were not just in disagreement but enraged at the judge’s decision. I heard remarks like:
“We’re not killing a human being. This little baby is not a human being.”
“This may be a human body, but it’s not a human person because it doesn’t have that which distinguishes it from animals.”
“Did this judge think the baby would grow a brain? She’ll never develop into a person.”
“This judge is killing other babies that will die without the organs.”
“This is not a decision for courts but a decision for parents.”
Now, listening to those comments I’m struck by two things. First of all, they sound pretty sensible. There’s a basic appeal to those sentiments. But also there are some things that are a tad curious. I quote, “This little baby is not a human being.”
Of course, before one can say this is not a human being, he must have a pretty clear idea of what a human being is before he can say that any particular child is not one. And it strikes me that there’s something patently unusual about saying that it’s possible that any particular child could not be a human being. A baby isn’t a human being? A child isn’t a human being? How can a baby or a child not be a human being? But what is it that distinguishes us from animals if it is not our innate humanness?
So this whole issue hinges on what a human being is and what, if anything, makes a human being valuable. Why are human beings valuable? What is a human being? You have to answer those questions before you can say that this child isn’t a human being without value.
The pragmatic, utilitarian answer to this dilemma is clear: take the organs because of the good that will come out of it. OK, maybe we have to kill the little girl early, but she would die soon anyway and there’s an advantage to others to taking her now and gathering the organs.
I don’t mean to be irreverent here, but this reminds me of a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was a Medieval scene and a man was dragging a cart through town in the early morning chanting “Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.” People were bringing out the corpses of those who had kicked the bucket during the night and throwing them on this old haywain. And some young guy comes over and he’s got an old man over his shoulder. He’s about to throw this old man into the pile with all the other corpses and the old man says something. He says, “I’m not dead yet.” The young man speaks to the man gathering the corpses and says, “He’ll be dead soon, anyway.” The old man says, “I’m getting better.” So the young man picks up a log, bangs him on the head, kills him and throws him on the pile.
The way this story relates to the issue is that this unfortunate little girl was not dead yet. Because she would be dead shortly was no justification for hurrying the process along simply because there was a convenience to her earlier demise.
And this is where we start reasoning backwards. We first think about what it is that we think is right or what it is that we want and then seek to develop some ad hoc justification for it. If we reason that way, instead of first starting with the fundamental question “What is a human being and why are they valuable?” then we’re in for all sorts of trouble.
I was asked point blank last evening if I thought it was OK to harvest the organs in this case. I said no, and then explained why. And for those of you who are utilitarian on this issue, this isn’t going to sit well with you, but please hear me out. I start from a certain premise. My premise is that I believe human beings have infinite worth and are not to be treated merely as a means to an end, even if the end itself is a good one.
If we were to take the case of this little girl, we would have to say that her life is not as valuable as the end to which we will use her organs. It is not a trade off one life for five lives, if her organs would save five other children. We must view her life as infinitely valuable in and of itself and not a means to an end. And it may be true that killing one person would save the lives of five, but we won’t look at human beings that way.
During the Vietnam War, if a man was wounded, they would send in helicopter after helicopter after helicopter to try to rescue that one life because it was so valuable. The loss of other life was risked to save the one.
It’s the same with this little girl. We don’t have the right to say her life is forfeit to save the life of someone else.
The fact is, we’re all going to die eventually. If we transfer this reasoning, there is a slippery slope that is deadly in all of this. We can see this slippery slope happening. Whenever you argue quality of life, it ultimately has a poison pill buried in it. The only way you can argue quality of life is to say the life as a life, the human being as a human being, is not valuable in itself. And it has value in as much as it leads to a certain quality of life. Once you argue that way, you’ve destroyed something. Something that is the foundation of our Constitution and all our fundamental rights, that all men are created equal.
The only way I can illustrate this clearly is by asking a question I asked last night and I’ve also asked rhetorically here on this program: Are all humans created equal? Of course, it’s in our Constitution. How are all men created equal? Men are not equal except in one way—they are all men. This statement “all men are created equal” is tantamount to saying all men have inherent dignity apart from any other quality they can experience or value they bring to society. Upon that truth our system of justice and human respect and dignity stand. If we remove that, there is no reason to treat people with respect, there is no reason to protect human rights, there is no reason not to treat human beings as animals. There is no reason not to treat human beings as simply a means to another end.
That’s the circumstance that prevails whenever a quality of life argument is used. That’s the poison pill.
Pardon me for using this illustration because it’s oft over used, but that’s precisely what happened in Nazi Germany. There was an idea that there was such a thing as a life unworthy to be lived. If that’s the case, then human beings are expendable.
If you ever watched the TV mini-series “The Holocaust” with James Woods as an artist. In that movie they depicted the destruction of people not just in concentration camps, but prior to that. Before they started to destroy Jews and Gypsies and political dissidents, they first started destroying retarded children, people with brain defects. And they put them into vans and piped in carbon monoxide and killed them all. They looked on it as good because these people were difficult, they were expensive, they were awkward. They didn’t have the quality of life required of the Third Reich. They were expendable. And from that came the Holocaust.
I submit to you that we’re thinking the same way. Every time you raise a quality of life argument or discussion you have this poison pill of the fundamental loss of human dignity and the loss of the foundation for all human rights.
At least that’s the way I see it.