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.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Life under the Microscope: The Tomfoolery of "Life Worth Living" Advocates

THE HORRIBLE DOCTRINES OF THOSE messengers of death that find life to be an instrumental good, and therefore subject to moral commerce and exchangeable for worth, are foul to sight and insulting to reason. To trade with life, to give it up like some old shoe when worn or an undergarment when soiled, is morally abhorrent. It is very close to, in fact it may be a form of, an implicit blasphemy, because it is an assault on being, on existence, and created being is very nigh to God who is the self-subsistent being from whom all created being comes.

The proponents of "life worth living" doctrines generally formulate arguments with both subjective and objective components. The subjective component looks at the person whose life is being analyzed from that person's perspective (an "internal perspective" test). The objective components are broken down into two: an objective valuation of the person's whose life is being analyzed (an objective analysis of the subject's life), and the effects of his death (or continued living) on others ("side effects test").

These doctrines will be explored, beginning, in this posting, with the subjective test which considers continued living from the standpoint of the person whose life is at issue. The next blog postings will address the objective prongs of these "life worth living" doctrinaires. All the "life worth living" advocates view life as instrumental, as a backpack whose use is only to hold or carry other goods, and when it is unable to carry these other goods well, it ought to be considered to be refuse. Thus human life is a vehicle for consciousness, or a vehicle for knowledge, or pleasure, etc. And if it is no longer able to support consciousness, or knowledge, or pleasure, etc. it ought to be gotten rid of. So the subjective test, in the words of Jonathan Glover, is an effort to see a person's life "from his own point of view and to see what he gets out of it." Oderberg, 155 (quoting Glover, Causing Death and Saving Lives, p. 191).

We immediately confront problems in figuring out how to mix and measure the pottage of ingredients, the vast and complex matrices, that come with life, the "plans, projects, desires, preferences, feelings, memories, sense of identity, and so on," that are part of even the most ordinary life. How do we identify what ought to be present, and in what proportion, and in what combination? Who has the right recipe of life, if there is one recipe? And if there are recipes, then who has the right recipes? Who and how measure the so-called quality of life?

The "life is worth living" advocates are remarkably flippant about these questions. Given the value at stake--human life--one would have thought that these advocates would spouse something other than "a retreat to vagueness of such massive proportions." Oderberg, 155. Have we collapsed into the realm of mere feelings, and irrationality with this test? If not, then were is the rational, principled standard? It is particularly in the hard cases, in the controversial cases, that some sort of rational, principled standard is required, and yet the advocates of such theories appear to come up empty handed.

Not only is the test horribly unprincipled and not rationally founded, it is hopelessly amorphous in terms of time. The advocates recognize that the decision must be made "over a fairly long stretch of time" so as to avoid the vulnerability to "temporary changes of mood." We ought not come to the conclusion, these advocates admit, that "life is not worth living" because we have had a bad day. The days must be bad, and must be bad for a fairly long stretch of time. But just how long? That's a question that the advocates of "life worth living" doctrines cannot answer. Moreover, how do we assess hopes for the future? Is an optimist's life worth more than a pessimist's life, than a realist's life? On what basis? The whole procedure is clearly unmanageable.

There is, however, a more fundamental question that these advocates cannot appear to answer, and which suggests that something's gone awry in their thinking of human goods, which includes human life. There would seem to be no other basic human good for which we would entertain such a subjective test. Why is there such a subjective test when it comes to the basic human good of life? And why only when the matter becomes controversial? If we were to apply the subjective analysis that these advocates apply to the basic human good of life to another basic human good, say knowledge, the foolishness of their enterprise comes to light.

Like life in general, knowledge in general is worth having. It is a basic human good. Yet we would never judge the value of knowledge based upon a "personal standpoint" or "internal perspective" of the knower. Is knowledge only worth having if the knower feels he is getting enough out of it, only if it seems worthwhile to him? So if someone feels that learning math, or history, or English grammar is a waste of time, he ought not be made to learn math, or history, or English grammar? No, we don't look at knowledge this way. And so the question naturally arises, why, then, should we look at the basic human good of life in this way? More, why should we look at the basic human good of life in this way when the question is a hard one?

Moreover, the subjective test appears to be sort of like an intellectual Deus ex machina which rescues the "life is worth living" advocate from his quandary when the question becomes controversial, difficult. No one would think of applying such a subjective standard to a man who has all the objective external signs of happiness and a flourishing life. Why, then, should this subjective test all-of-a-sudden be rushed in from stage left to solve problems when the problem becomes thorny, difficult, controversial? Is this thinking? Or is this what it appears to be: an anodyne for thinking?

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