Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Life under the Microscope: Is Human Life a Rucksack?

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS AN INTRINSIC GOOD? A good that exists and is unaffected by extrinsic circumstance, which is, in and of itself and without regard to its utility or instrumental value, good? It would seem that human life is one such good.

It is apparent that human life is foundational, the sine qua non for the pursuit of further goods. It is the starting point for any human good. A man with his life snuffed out is not, nor ever will be, fulfilled. There is no flourishing of hope or hope of flourishing in death, at least not in any natural sense. But the truism that one must be alive to pursue further goods is not an adequate formulation of the issue as to the status of human life in general. Is human life an intrinsic good?

The answer to this question might be framed by asking yet another question taking into consideration the notion of necessariness and sufficiency. Consider the following two statements:
  • Human life is necessary for the pursuit of human goods.
  • Human life is sufficient for the pursuit of human goods.
Which one is it? There is a marked difference depending upon our choice. What we will see is that if we chose the latter formulation--the human life is sufficient for the pursuit of further human goods--we will end up believing that human life is instrumental, that is, it is merely an instrument, a tool, with which to enjoy further goods. The "human life is an instrumental good" road is the broad path most moderns follow, but wide is the gate through which this path goes (cf. Matt. 7:13), and and it leads to destructive consequences, especially in beginning-of-life questions, in end-of-life questions, and in the moral treatment of those who may have serious physical or mental impediments. The road less followed modernly, the narrow road, is that human life is necessary for the pursuit of goods and as such it is a basic good regardless of whether it is capable of achieving other basic goods: it is the road, however, that leads to life.

The Narrow Gate to Heaven and the Wide Gate to Hell
by Cornelis De Bie (1627 - ca. 1715)

Let's explore the notion the claim that human life is simply sufficient for pursuing further goods. The claim that life is simply sufficient for pursuing human goods connects, in the mind of its advocate, life's sufficiency with the pursuit of other human goods. Invariably, there is a slippage and the reverse claim raises its ugly head: that human goods are what make life sufficient, that is, the human goods are the things that make human life of value. Goods must be pursuable for life to have value, which means that life has no value if goods cannot be pursued.

Is human life like a backpack?

This views human life as instrumental. Human life is a container for the acquisition of other goods, and if the container which holds these goods is broken, it ought simply be disposed of. Human life becomes something like a rucksack into which one puts human goods, and if the rucksack is torn and is no good for holding and carrying other human goods it is disposable. Viewing human life like a backpack is wrong, though many moderns view human life in that way.

Or is human life like the hub of a wheel?

The notion that life is necessary but not sufficient for the pursuit of human goods does not seem to fall into this trap. Human life seen as necessary, allows us to view human life as a good primus inter pares with other human goods. Although it is unique in that it is the precondition for other human goods to be pursued, it is not seen like a rucksack into which human goods may be packed. Rather, it is seen as as the hub of a wheel around which all other goods revolve like spokes. Human life is seen as a good pure and simple, whether or not other human goods are appended to it. Human life is thus not merely instrumental, it is one, certainly the most essential, of many human goods. Because of this human life has value even if it is not capable--for whatever reason--for pursuing those other human goods. Viewed this way, human life is a good simpliciter and not only because it allows other human goods to be pursued.

[L]ife indeed has value, pure and simple; in other words, it is a fundamental good that is the precondition for the pursuit of all other goods. This is not to say that life is not also instrumentally valuable . . . . But the point is that the value of life is not reducible to its instrumental value--it has its own intrinsic value as a basic human good.

Oderberg, 141. This view of human life, more like a wheel than a rucksack, looks at human life in a dual dimension:
In this way life reveals its dual role as a good: it is the basic precondition of the pursuit of all other goods [hub], and it is a good in its own right, whose fostering helps us to flourish as human beings.
Oderberg, 141-42.

Viewed properly, then, human life is a basic good itself, and cannot be demoted from its place without tragic consequences for our moral choice.

*Note: The discussion of life as sufficient v. life as necessary is from Oderberg, 138-43. I am not satisfied with this treatment of his; it seems confused, and subject to non-sequiturs and some fallacious reasoning. But the point he tries to make in his text is sound: that human life must be seen as a basic good in itself, and not as a sort of carrier for basic human goods, and so it, like the other basic goods, has intrinsic value--and this whether other goods are even pursuable. The notion of life as a rucksack or life as the spoke of a wheel is my view of what Oderberg is trying to communicate in this section of the text.

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