Sanctity of Human Life?
Skepticism is often about debunking myths. However there is one myth in human society that we have a nearly impossible time giving up, and one that is often considered beyond criticism. This is the sanctity of human life myth. Most people believe that to harm another human being is inherently wrong because all humans have the right to life, or because there is something sacred about human life. This is why murder is wrong, why some people oppose abortion, why we feel we should not hurt others, and why some people are pacifists.
But what is it that truly sets human life apart from others? Are we content to simply say that because we are of one species, our lives are more important than other animals’? That seems just as arbitrary as racism. Peter Singer argues that the things that make a life morally weighty are rationality and self-consciousness. These two things mean that a creature is able to plan or hope for the future and see themself over time, which means that killing them is taking away those future plans and goals. Those who believe in the sanctity of life are often pulling from Genesis, in which God tells man that he has dominion over all animals. However there are many other religions that view animals as morally important, such as Jainism or Hinduism. It hardly seems right that whether or not we accept animals as morally important should rest on one line from the Bible. Especially when the sanctity of life view affects public policy, we should not be ready to accept it if its only justification is the Bible.
In order to understand the place of human life in ethics, it seems important that we understand what we feel is ethically important in our relationships with other people. From this perspective, we can understand what it is about human life that we feel is important. Most people would suggest that we should respect other people because it is how we would want to be treated: there is something universal about the desire to have pleasure and fulfill our interests. Although some will point to God as the source of morality, this is not a plausible way to base a morality that finds its way into public policy or is strictly based on reason and rationality. If we ignore the interests of others, then we are hurting them in some way.
This harm is what we should avoid. So what kind of harm is death? If we do not exist after death, then we are not in pain, we have not had any of our interests foiled because we cease to have interests. What is it about death that harms us? Singer suggests that death is only inherently a harm to rational, self-conscious creatures because those are the creatures who have future plans, and death deprives them of being able to fulfill those interests and plans. There may be many counter-suggestions to this, including a contractarian view, the suggestion that killing deprives a person of their autonomy, or the suggestion that killing does harm to a society. However none of these views relies on a concept in which human life is inherently sacred, or in which humans are always separate from other animals. The view of human life as something inherently apart and special seems to only hold up to scrutiny when it’s based upon a conception of God and humans made in God’s image.
Perhaps some of the conclusions that we may reach by de-mythologizing the value of human life may seem inhumane, heartless, or cruel. They may point us towards a softer opinion on things like infanticide (which is acceptable in many societies), and this seems like an obvious reason to abandon these positions to some people. However as skeptics we should be wary of these gut reactions. Oftentimes they come from a culturally conditioned perspective, and we come from a culture that is steeped in Christianity and the myth of human dominance. We often talk about the woo of religion, but rarely do we go so far as to criticize our place at the top of the hierarchy. Perhaps our skepticism should lead us to do so.