Article
Creed
Life & Death
Middle East
5 min read

How much is a human life worth?

Concerned by the conditional responses to deaths in the Israel-Hamas war, Ryan Gilfeather considers why we should value all human lives.

Ryan Gilfeather explores social issues through the lens of philosophy, theology, and history. He is a Research Associate at the Joseph Centre for Dignified Work.

A line of people, some old, some young, wait to cross a road.
Palestinian life near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, Israel, 2021.
Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

The horrors of recent weeks have bought a disturbing reality to the surface: human dignity, the unearned and basic worth of all people, is up for negotiation. As I write these words, a dire conflict rumbles on in Israel and Gaza; the latest horrifying flashpoint in an intractable and brutal conflict. A cacophony of voices in the West are espousing histories, interpretations and solutions. Many of them reveal an implicit sense that only certain lives have an inherent dignity.  

Some praised Hamas’ brutal attack as a just act of decolonisation. The lives lost were not to be mourned, because, in their words, these Israelis were fair game for violence because they are colonisers. They asked for it. They have given up their right to the preservation of life. Implicitly, these voices suggest that human dignity is conditional; their actions have taken away their inherent value.  

Just as troubling is the apathy as thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children in Gaza are slain in their homes. Many of our leaders are silent about this unimaginable loss of life, as if it does not represent a tragedy, and as if they are just the collateral damage of war. The implicit message is that human dignity has preconditions, that only certain kinds of people get to have it in the first place, and that these particular Palestinians do not.   

Why should our rational autonomy or other capacities mean that we have an unearned worth? 

It is, in some ways, unsurprising that human dignity is up for negotiation in this way. Secular discussions of human dignity often ground it in the human person.  

In the philosophical tradition, following Kant, many consider our inherent dignity to be grounded in our capacity to make choices, be autonomous, and exercise reason. In other words, the capabilities which separate us from animals give us all an unearned worth or status.  

Others will point to our sentience, our capacity for creativity, empathy and caring relationships, or our membership of the human species. Hence, our inherent dignity is grounded in something that we do or possess, over and above the rest of creation. The problem with this grounding is that it can, at times, seem arbitrary. Why should our rational autonomy or other capacities mean that we have an unearned worth? It is little surprise that dignity is so often overlooked in practice.  

To respect this dignity, we must allow each person to live out this gift. Each person must be allowed to be free to think and act, without having their life violated or cut short. 

In contrast, Christians root the dignity of every human person in something altogether outside of them: the unbreakable love of God. It is a cornerstone of Christian belief that God loves every person who has ever lived and will ever live, regardless of what we have done or will do. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God”, as St Paul put it. God’s love for us is so profound that he became human and died for our sins so that we might be reconciled to Him.  

Central also, is the belief that God is omniscient, he knows everything that can ever be known, and he does not make errors of judgement. For Him to love us without any conditions of who we are or what we do, is to affirm that we are all inherently worthy of love.  

Our inherent dignity, is, therefore, grounded in something far more fundamental than something we do. It is rooted in the love of the creator of the whole universe. If we believe in the Christian God, therefore, we also accept the supreme value of every person. 

God’s gift to all of us expands on this picture. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells us that God made all humans in His image.  In this, God gives us the gift of reflecting his goodness and love here on this earth. He has granted us the capacity to use our minds to think about God and abstract things, to live lives marked by His love, joy, peace, justice, and courage. He calls us to use these capacities to nurture and care for creation just as He does. Since God is infinitely valuable; those made in His image are too. Hence, this gift gives us an inherent dignity. To respect this dignity, we must allow each person to live out this gift. Each person must be allowed to be free to think and act, without having their life violated or cut short. Crucially, this gift is unconditional. No matter what we do, we can always turn back to God and accept his gift of reflecting His goodness. There are no preconditions for who God gives it to. He freely offers this gift to all.  

Returning to Western responses to Israel-Gaza, we see that the Christian vision of human dignity does not countenance celebration of or apathy toward this loss of life. Some people saw Israeli deaths as unworthy of grief because they believe their actions forfeit their right to life. They implicitly see human dignity as conditional. In contrast, Christians believe our inherent value is unconditional, God will never cease to love us and will never take away our ability to reflect His goodness. Indeed, the death of Palestinians has been met with apathy and silence by many in the West, much as human tragedies in the Middle East often are. Implicit to this response is the sense that human dignity has preconditions, it is only extended to certain groups, those who live similar lives to us. The Christian vision objects here. God’s gift has no preconditions, it is freely offered to all. All possess an inherent dignity. This is not to pre-judge the complex questions of how to deal with the heart of the Israel / Palestine conflict, but it is to say that as we do so, the value and dignity of every human life must be paramount in the decisions taken   In the midst of this darkness the Christian message offers hope: every death is a tragic loss beyond all imagination and measure because all are infinitely valuable in God’s sight.  

Article
Assisted dying
Comment
Life & Death
5 min read

The careless conflation of independence, autonomy and dignity

As Jersey begins to legalise assisted dying, there’s keyword confusion.
A elderly women in a care home stands and places her hands on the shoulders of a seated woman.
Eberhard Grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Reviewing Canada’s legislation on assisted dying, one anonymously authored article raises the concern: “Does it make dying with dignity easier than living with dignity?” This insightful question cuts to the centre of the debate: dignity. Or more particularly, the unwitting conflation of dignity with independence, and of independence with autonomy.  

As Jersey becomes the first place in the British Isles to begin the process of legalising assisted dying, I feel that we should listen carefully as to how and where these terms are being used, both in the formal debate, and in the commentary that surrounds it. The States Assembly in Jersey voted to allow the development of assisted dying legislation for those with six months to live (or twelve months if their condition is neurodegenerative). A second vote to make assisted dying available more broadly to those who experience conditions that entail “unbearable suffering” was defeated by a narrower margin. Reading the flurry of press releases that followed the vote, these keywords, autonomy, independence, and dignity, are everywhere. But are we really thinking about what these words communicate?  

People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position.

The word dignity comes from the Latin word dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, and this is still the primary definition given to the English word dignity today. The OED has it as “the quality of being worthy or honourable”, immediately followed by reference to “honourable or high estate”. If this is so, then dignity is not something that can be bought, nor assumed – it is a status conferred upon someone by the esteem in which other people hold them. The haughtiest person in the world can still be esteemed undignified, as can the richest. Moreover, the opposite is also true: we are never prevented from conferring dignity upon, and esteeming the worthiness of, those who live the humblest of lives.   

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves – do many of us not quietly associate the idea of becoming rich and powerful with becoming dignified? Do we not tend to assume the worthiness of those in high office – at least until we meet them and realise pretty quickly that they all put their trousers on one leg at a time, the same as the rest of us. This association happens because we have such a tendency to conflate dignity with independence (the ability to live without assistance from others) and autonomy (the ability to make one’s own decisions, and not have those decisions limited or interfered with). People in positions of wealth and power have more independence and autonomy, more choices and freedoms, but it is we who ascribe dignity to those in that position. It is society who sees the autonomy of those in high status, and esteems it as dignified.    

Does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified? 

Repeatedly ancient wisdom, in the bible, warns us not to assume that dignity comes with the freedom of wealth or power. All the great ‘heroes’ of that book suffer their indignities. Fresh from the success of his Ark project, Noah gets drunk and exposes himself. Elated from a victory against an enemy, King David dances half-naked through the streets. These are just two examples of the catalogue of embarrassments and mishaps that beset nearly all the kings and leaders whose stories are told as part of the Christian story. One after another, they stumble and struggle with life and leadership. The apostle Paul explains that this is because God uses the foolish things of this world to shame human pride, “for even the foolishness of God is still wiser than human wisdom.” Therefore, Paul argues, God chooses to speak to us through the weak and the lowly things and people of this world. Never was this demonstrated so clearly as when Jesus was born in a draughty stable, lived a life of poverty, and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  

But what has all this to do with the debate over assisted dying? Well, I am struck by how often the idea of losing one’s independence (through disabling or terminal illness) is conflated with losing one’s dignity, and so dying through personal choice (autonomy) is presented as regaining it. One campaign group that speaks to this debate even calls itself ‘Dignity in Dying’ – but does this not unwittingly suggest that choosing to live in a state of extreme dependence on palliative care is, by implication, undignified?  

Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone. 

The Dean of Jersey, the Very Reverend Mike Keirle, has spoken of his concern that the change in legislation will make vulnerable people feel pressured to end their lives. Examples from Canada, where physician assisted dying is already available, show that his concern is not unfounded. In 2022, Canadian veteran and Paralympian Christine Gauthier phoned her caseworker to chase up the over-due installation of her new wheelchair ramp. She then describes how she was horrified to find herself being advised to consider assisted dying instead.  

"It is remotely just what they're doing,” says Gauthier, “exhausting us to the point of no return. […] I was like, 'Are you serious?' Like that easy, you're going to be helping me to die but you won't help me to live?"

Gauthier is not alone – she spoke out when she learned that four other Canadian veterans had reported similar experiences. In these unhappy moments, one can see how dangerous the assumption can be – the assumption that no one would want to live a life of needing help. Here are disabled people who do want to live, and this assumption, this careless conflation of independence, autonomy, and dignity, leaves them fighting for their right to do so. Why should anyone have to fight or even speak for their right not to commit suicide? It is little wonder that disabled actress, Liz Carr, describes assisted dying legislation as “terrifying” for disabled people. 

I respect that there are terminally ill people, and those who love them, who speak from a desire to end their suffering; it is clear that people on all sides of the debate need to have this difficult and emotionally charged conversation. But whatever the eventual outcome in terms of legislation, we must be careful that it is not based on careless assumptions, or on the conflation of one thing with an entirely different other. Independence is not possible for everybody, or not possible to the same degree. And dignity? Well, dignity is possible for anyone – it is a state that can be conferred whenever, and upon whomever society chooses to confer it. Autonomy is the matter in question – we are talking about autonomy in dying. And whatever happens, we should by no means legislate in a way that leaves disabled people esteemed unworthy, left open to the indignity of fighting for their right to live.