Wednesday, February 15, 2006

 

Every Person is a Sacred Child of God; More or Less, and With Exceptions

We, as a people, accord unequal values to different human lives. In this we copy our ancestors and every known human society. What is unique to us is our complete lack of self-awareness and our denial of patently obvious truths. Understanding actual practice gives us fresh insight into the controversies that swirl around us today, including the abortion and capital punishment issues.

As individuals, we commonly set money values on our own lives and the lives of others. What is a life insurance policy but an assessment of the cash value of a particular life? A family policy like some people get through work may provide for $5,000.00 payment on the death of a child, $75,000.00 on the death of a spouse, and $350,000.00 on the death of the worker. (These are figures from an actual policy.) This is just the most obvious way in which we express the different values of human lives.

Of course, wealthy lives carry much higher cash values. Policies for millions of dollars are actually more common than we suppose. We can purchase policies for key personnel in our companies, too, assessing the cash value of each particular life.

Although we would not want to say homeless bums and poor people are without value as human beings, we should face up to the fact that people without life insurance are not valued in the same way as those of us with life insurance.

A minor controversy in the Blogosphere erupted last October because one of those insufferable Hilton sisters was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying, "I'm 21 years old, I run two multi-million-dollar companies, I work my ass off. Like, what were you doing that was so fucking important at that age?" Of course, many of us were in teacher's college; or pre-med; or police or fireman's academy; or other endeavors that Ms Hilton would consider unimportant. A significant number of us were single mothers. Some of us, like me, struggled just to earn a living and continue getting an education. Clearly, though, she spoke for a large number of people who equate the value of a life with current earning power. (Anybody remember the film Roger and Me?)

I don't want to suggest that money is the main way we express the value of human life. "By no means!" as St Paul would say. We have lots of ways to assert that lives are of unequal value and importance.

When we allow people in our streets to murder each other with handguns, we also express the relative value of different human lives. The lives of a few hundred drug dealers in the inner city do not outweigh the value of our "right" to sell and profit from handgun ownership. Ooops, maybe that's a little unfair. Let's say, rather, the value of these lives is less than the investment it would take to stop the killings. To be fully fair, the cost of that investment would mean some actual sacrifice for the middle and upper classes. It would take integration of neighborhoods, opportunities for poor people, changes in gun laws, better policing, better education, etc, etc.

Speaking of murder, it is obvious that the life of a convicted murderer often carries a negative value; that is, many people feel that murderers deserve death themselves. In recent centuries, the death penalty has declined significantly in the civilized world, with only two of the top 30 developed countries in the world still using it. And even in the United States, we no longer execute people convicted of witchcraft or even theft. (Why did they stop public hangings of pickpockets in England? Too many spectators had their pockets picked.)

Of course, the death penalty is still quite popular in countries Americans sneer at: communist China, Laos, Cuba, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Iraq, to name a few. (The last three were called an "axis of evil.")

Even though black people represent a relatively small minority in this country, some 43% of all people executed in the US in the last 30 years were black, and 55% of the people currently awaiting execution are black. It's interesting to think about why this is so; but one conclusion is inescapable: if we judge only on the basis of actual practice, black lives are valued much less in the US than white lives. Death penalty statistics are simply another way of expressing the unequal value of various lives.

I cannot help but think the denial of health insurance to poor people and the unequal distribution of care also speaks volumes about how we value life in this country. The health of the poor matters very little, even though, ironically, the middle class and upper class pay when the health of a poor person deteriorates to a life-threatening level. Of course, I am referring to the fact that hospital emergency rooms are obliged to attempt to save the life of a dying individual. (But live or die, that care is paid for by the hospital through overcharging insured individuals, government subsidy and charitable donations. A more sensible approach would be to provide preventative care to the poor, so as to keep them from becoming disabled by their chronic diseases. Instead, we wait till they go on Medicaid and are totally disabled to give them care. But I digress.)

If we extend life-saving preventative measures to middle and upper class persons but not to poor people, we act in a way that demonstrates the relative value assigned to the lives of those concerned. As a culture, without making a deliberate choice, we decided the lives of those with money are worth more than those without.

Let's see, I covered insurance, earnings, crime and healthcare. My point: our modes of action in these areas demonstrate how we actually value life. Here it is useful to remember the distinction between words and deeds; what we admit to ourselves and others as opposed to actual conditions on the ground.

Next: How We Wage War

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