Religion and SpiritualitySkepticism

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.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at


  1. July 23, 2012 at 1:35 am —

    Wow, bold topic and question. I have been dealing with this issue too a lot lately. As a person heavily educated in biology, psychology, and philosophy I have come to these following thoughts …
    1-Do no harm; both physically, emotionally, verbally or financially.
    2- Do know harm; know what it feels like to suffer, to be in pain, to give pain, to suffer alone, to possibly die alone.
    3- “Killing hurts but has to be done”; and once you have to put-down anything you love and care for you will learn that killing in general is harm.
    4- Life is cheap now because of overpopulation and nature is a brutal struggle for survival.
    5- Civilization and society buy humans time to enjoy life and do other things to improve the world and each other; some negatively refer to this as social loafing, but society exist to allow for loafing.
    6- I am immoral, I no longer know what moral even means, but I am very ethical.
    7- There is no such thing as mind-reading or seeing into the future, or ever really knowing ‘the real you’ of a person.
    8- Let facts and a persons actions speak for them; and do not concern yourself with motives or reasons; let a person’s actions speak for them.
    And this last premise leads to the first, which is to do no harm to anyone, the best you can.

    As for the big abortion issue, which is what I believe you are aiming at. I believe that whatever goes on in a doctor’s is between the doctor and the patient and no one else should even care.

    I literally close the door on that issue, because it is none of my business.

  2. July 23, 2012 at 6:27 pm —

    Wow, thanks for all the thoughts. I wasn’t aiming at abortion in particular, this discussion could be applied to animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, war etc. I’d be curious what you’d say is the harm of killing: is it to the people who love and care for who/what has been killed? Or is it a harm to the thing killed? Thanks for the discussion 🙂

    • July 26, 2012 at 10:36 pm —

      While I disagree with his conclusions about the moral permissibility of abortion, I like Don Marquis’s framing, which says that murdering a person harms that person by depriving him or her of a future of potential value. It also, of course, deprives a handful of people of a dear loved one, and it deprives society as a whole of a bit of security, which I believe are also forms of harm (but which Marquis essentially dismisses in his argument that abortion, which also destroys a future of potential value, is morally on par with murder).

      • July 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm —

        My only problem with that argument is that you have no way of knowing whether a future child will have more good than bad in their life. We also don’t hold that standard for any other animal, even those that may be more conscious or rational than an unborn human baby.

        • July 28, 2012 at 5:44 pm —

          Yeah, I think he (and many pro-lifers) makes the implicit assumption that lives are, on average, more good than bad, and that therefore a potential life should be valued over no life at all.

          The tricky thing about the future of potential value framing is that the current state of consciousness or rationality is irrelevant, because it’s the future that we’re concerned with. So even though some animal may currently be getting more out of life than a human fetus, the argument goes, that animal’s *future* will be of less value to that animal than the human fetus’s future will be to that human. This of course requires assuming that our more complex brains allow us to value our lives more than other animals can, and it seems pretty hard to argue one way or the other about that.

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