Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Death, dignity and eternal life

One way to look at the difference between the deaths of humans and brute animals is to say that the death of a human typically deprives the human of goods of rational life that the brute animal is not deprived of. While it is indeed an important part of the evil of typical cases of death in humans that they are deprived of such goods, however, focusing on this leads to a difficulty seeing what is distinctively bad about the death of humans who are not deprived of such goods by death, say elderly humans who have already lost the distinctive goods of rational life.

Sure, one can say that the death of a human is the death of a being that normally has the goods of rational life. But it is unclear why the death of a being that normally has the goods of rational life but actually lacks them is worse than the death of a being that actually and normally lacks the goods of rational life.

(Of course, not everybody shares the normative view that there is something distinctively bad about the death of a human being even when the goods of rational life have already been lost. A significant number of people think that euthanasia in such cases is morally licit. But even among those who think that euthanasia in such cases is morally licit, I think many will still think that there is something particularly morally bad about killing such human beings against their clear prior wishes, and those may find something plausible about what I say below.)

How, then, do we explain the distinctive bad in the death of human beings, even ones that lack the distinctive goods of rational life? In the end, I think I would like to invoke human dignity here, but to a significant degree that’s just giving a name to the problem. Instead of invoking and trying to explain human dignity, I want to explore a different option, one that I think in the end will not succeed, but perhaps there is something in the vicinity that can.

Here is a hypothesis:

  • It is the nature of human beings to live forever and never die, but the nature of brute animals is to have a finite life.

If this is true, then death always constitutes a mutilation of the human being. It is what directly deprives the human being of the normative diachronic shape of its life. And killing a human mutilates the human being.

Objection 1: If a murderer didn’t kill her victim, the victim would still have died at some later point.

Response: The murderer is still the proximate cause of the victim’s not living forever. And such proximate causation matters. Suppose that my brother murdered Sally’s brother, and to avenge her brother, in true Hammurabic fashion, Sally seeks to kill me. When she finally comes upon me, I am already falling off a cliff. A moment before I would have hit the ground, Sally shoots and kills me. Sally has murdered me, a grave evil. She is the proximate cause of my death. And that matters, even though it would make little difference to my life if Sally hadn’t killed me.

Objection 2: Even if it is the nature of brute animals to have a finite life, it is not the nature of brute animals to die young. But it is not wrong to kill a brute animal when it is young, even though doing so mutilates the brute animal in much the same way that killing a human mutilates the human by causing her life to be finite if the hypothesis is true.

Response: Agreed: it does mutilate the brute animal to kill it when it is young. But to foreshorten the life of a human being from infinity to a finite amount is much worse—in a sense, infinitely worse—than to foreshorten the life of a brute animal from a longer finite length to a shorter finite length.

Objection 3: Christian faith holds that humans will be resurrected. Thus, killing a human being does not succeed in causing the human being to lose infinite life.

Response: Yes, but according to the hypothesis it is not only the nature of human beings to have an infinite future life but it is also the nature of human beings to have a death-free infinite future life.

Objection 4: Imagine an otherwise unremarkable shrub which has a very special nature: it is supposed to live forever, undying. Destroying this shrub would feel distinctively bad as compared to destroying an ordinary shrub, but still not bad in the same way that killing a human being is. Hence, reference to the normativeness of an infinite future life is not enough to explain the distinctive badness of killing humans.

Response: I think that this objection is decisive. Mere invocation of the normativeness of an infinite deathless life is not enough to solve the problem of the distinctive badness of human death. One still needs something like a story about the special dignity of human beings. But it might be that the hypothesis still helps: it multiplies the synchronic dignity of the human being by something like infinity. So less needs to be accomplished by the dignity part of the account.

4 comments:

Christopher Michael said...

"How, then, do we explain the distinctive bad in the death of human beings, even ones that lack the distinctive goods of rational life?"

If only one were to hold the position that at death human beings cease to exist... :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

That wouldn't help much, I think, because at death brute animals cease to exist.

And if human beings cease to exist, then given the resurrection, it is hard to distinguish death from instantaneous forward time travel.

Jo F said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jo F said...

I think, one way or another, I'll end up returning to the principle that things have value according to the manifested will of God, but here's an idea might at least show this principle has something to propound for this question:

That which has the nature of living eternally is, to an infinite degree, meant to have life and, to an infinite degree, is endowed with the purpose/nature for eternal living. Perhaps this is why it constitutes a greater perversion of God's will as manifested in His creation to introduce death to that which was meant to never experience it than to that which was meant to experience it.

As for that last objection, I don't think it's problematic considering that there isn't such a shrub. Therefore, insofar as we are comparing eternality-destined humans to death-destined shrubs, we have been given no reason to reject the hypothesis. However, I think the objection does demonstrate that the having of an eternality-destined nature confers (or indicates) special value to anything--be that shrubs or humans--to an equal degree. Therefore, if we find ourselves comparing eternality-destined shrubs to eternality-destined humans, we will have to find an extra reason for understanding the murder of human life as being distinctly worse than the murder of eternality-destined shrubs.