To Value Life and Existence

- Sahin Aksoy, MD.
Centre for Social Ethics and Policy, Manchester University
Humanities Building, Oxford Road, M13 9PL, UK.

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 102-104.

Life is the subject matter of many different fields. It has been thought and many people have attempted to comprehend its real meaning. Although a satisfactory explanation has yet to be reached, there has been much literature on the subject. In bioethics, to know the forms of lives and their relations to each other has special importance. In this article, I will try to explore the philosophical and moral meaning of life, as well as its biological manifestations. I will present the stance of different philosophers and scientists, and analyse them to reach a conclusion.

It is known that universe consists of living and non living entities. Both have similarities as well as differences. Every being on earth is a composition of different organic and inorganic elements. Therefore, in terms of their material existence there is not much difference of being a living or non-living being. The smallest units of every thing are electrons, protons and quarks.

Despite these similarities, biologically, the concept of being alive is well defined. Living beings take in energy, produce waste, grow and reproduce. Plants and animals, however primitive, are living beings. Humans are also included in the animal kingdom. This may possibly be due to, the word 'animal' originating from the word 'animate', and humans are also animate beings, unlike plants.

What might be the practical importance of making a distinction between living and non-living beings? It may be useful in determining the borders of biological sciences, or may be argued just for the sake of curiosity. But, actually it may serve more than that. In our subject area, namely Bioethics, we should be knowledgeable about life, and the possible answers to the questions, what is life?, what is living and non-living being?, what are the actual moral differences between them? and do non-living beings have any worth?

As I have partly mentioned earlier, it is crucial to be aware that, in terms of their material and physical existence, living and non-living beings are similar. They are all a composition of Carbon, Nitrogen, Hydrogen and other elements. Therefore, to some extent, the difference between the two is a metaphysical and a moral one.

We have defined some 'life functions' like take in energy, produce waste, grow and reproduce, and classify living beings with these criteria. If some or all of these 'functions' exist, we say 'it is alive', if not, we say ' it is not alive'. Consider a cat, who is wandering and playing around. He eats poisonous meat and lies down. After ten minutes we see him and check for 'life functions'. As we realise they are all negative we say 'he is dead (or not alive)'. Therefore he is not a living being any more. We may now ask, what is the actual difference on the status of the cat between these two moments? Although, in terms of his physical make up, everything is unchanged, how can we define the cat as being alive at one time and not alive at another? Is it just our labelling of beings with our own criteria? And could we be descriptive enough without having some metaphysical considerations?

If I am right to say that the building blocks of every living being are lifeless, not only life but also lifelessness should have some worth. Oxygen and water are unquestionably lifeless entities, but they are the most precious things on earth for worldly living beings. Therefore the intrinsic value of something has nothing to do with its status of being alive or not.

David Hume and many other philosophers argued that objects or events can be valuable only when and because they serve someone's or something's interests (1) In his critique of this argument Dworkin said, "On this view, nothing is valuable unless someone wants it or unless it helps someone to get what he does want", and suggested "Something is instrumentally important if its value depends on its usefulness, its capacity to help people get something else they want. For example, money and medicine. Something is subjectively valuable only to the people who happen to desire it. Something is intrinsically valuable, on the contrary, if its value is independent of what people happen to enjoy or want or need or what is good for them" (2). In his, quite well made, classification Dworkin covers many things, however his definition could be broadened to cover even more, by substituting the word 'someone' with 'something', and 'people' with 'entities'. If we accept this definition, it will emerge that everything has some sort of value, living or non-living. If it is observed carefully it will be noticed that, whether we comprehend or not, everything on earth and in universe has a purpose, and serves for someone or something. Perhaps with the advancement of science and technology we will be amazed by seeing more and more things that we consider them as useless today, are actually valuable for an entity.

After these statements, it appears that life is not a prerequisite in order to value or respect something. In fact existence is primary. As Spinoza proposed, "No one can desire to be happy, to act well and live well, who does not at the same time desire to be, to act, and to live, that is to say, actually to exist"(3). It is existence, that generates every beauty and perfection, whilst non-existence cannot produce anything, good or evil. Although existence is entirely valuable itself, there are degrees of value. I assume that the perfection of an entity's existence is through life. Life is the real basis of existence, because only a living being can experience their own existence, through thinking and reasoning. And all our knowledge is founded on experiences (4).

Schweitzer argues that, the essence of Goodness is; preserve life, promote life, help to achieve its highest destiny (5) According to him, the fundamental principle of ethics is reverence for life. All the goodness one displays toward a living organism is helping it to preserve and further its existence. He believes that ethics deals not only with people, but also with creatures, and an ethics that does not also consider our relation to the world of creatures is incomplete (6).

If something is so valuable and precious, it should be protected, one way or another. There are man-made pieces of art and scientific achievements that are secured and protected with extreme measures. If life is so good and precious, how is it protected?

When we look at nature we see that every living being has the desire to live as an instinct. New-born animals (and humans) have the instinct to seek food. Animals are equipped with instinctual knowledge and skills to survive. A small animal e.g. chicken will fight with a dog to stay alive. It is not only animals but also plants that exhibit a desire to live. Plants from the same species (even from the same breed) grow roots and leaves in different lengths and sizes, depending on their environment, to increase their life chance. Schweitzer defines this with another word, he calls it 'will to live (7)'. According to him, in the universe the 'will to live' is a fact, and the desires of different creatures continually opposed to each other. It is observed in nature that one life preserves itself by fighting and destroying other lives.

Singer criticises Schweitzer, and describes his language as 'metaphorical'. He says; "Schweitzer argued as if what he had said was literally true", and adds "it is misleading of Schweitzer to attempt to sway us towards an ethics of reverence for all life by referring to 'yearning', 'exaltation', 'pleasure' and 'terror'. Plants experience none of these" (8). However, to claim the absence of something necessitates the attainment of ultimate knowledge. We cannot maintain that there is no extraterrestrial, unless we search every corner of the universe. Similarly, to claim "plants do not experience 'yearning', 'exaltation', 'pleasure' and 'terror'" cannot be logical and scientific unless we gain every possible information about plants. And therefore, it remains far from convincing.

Schweitzer points out an important phenomenon; 'Destroying other lives for living'. There are a lot of arguments against taking life. The most popular one is the 'Sanctity of Life' argument, according to which, "Life is a gift from God, and so not be destroyed" (9). However many writers have asked whether the principle asserting that 'taking life is directly wrong' includes plants and animals?

It is crucial to comprehend this rule of nature. One life can only survive by fighting and destroying other lives. We destroy lives not only for surviving but also for our convenience. We cannot built dams and produce electricity without destroying the environment and ending some forms of lives. All our daily foods are plants and animals. It is unavoidable to destroy the lives of some animals, knowingly or unknowingly, for various reason. For instance parasites are simple forms of animals, but millions of them are destroyed by us everyday. We know that industrial wastes are harmful for many kinds of animals but we still produce them. Improvements in the pharmaceutical industry are partly dependent to animal experiments. Not only for testing drugs but also for testing cosmetic products a lot of animals are killed. It is possible to give many more examples but, the point to be made is, it is inevitable to destroy lives to provide better lives for others.

If existence is entirely valuable, and the real basis of existence is life, then life should be valuable and respected at any form. However, is there any difference in terms of their value between different forms of lives? Can animals be favoured against plants, or humans against both of them? Could there be any justification for it? Is this a speciesism?

Harris attempts to find answers to these questions in his book, 'The Value of Life (10)'. He starts the first chapter by asking, "What makes human life valuable and, in particular, what makes it more valuable then other forms of life?" (11). These questions are indications of acceptance that human life is (or is treated as) more valuable than other forms of life. He questions the foundations of this belief. What justifies it and what, if anything, makes it more than mere prejudice to favour ourselves and our own kind? He says, "There is no doubt that we do value human life supremely, we think it important to save a person rather than a dog where we cannot save both, and we think it right to do so" (12). Obviously, the following question should be, 'why?'

Before the attempt to offer a possible answer to this question, we should refer Aristotle's argument in his Ethics. He suggested that, "We must not even demand to know the explanation in all cases alike; there are some in which it is quite enough if the fact itself is exhibited, e.g. in the case of first principles; the fact is primary and starting point. Some starting-points are grasped by indication, some by perception, some by a kind of habituation, others by other ways"(13). And preferences between forms of life fit into this category.

We may not be obliged to find a satisfactory explanation as to why we value human life, even some individual's life, supremely. Who can blame me for discrimination if I rescue a human rather than a cat, my wife rather than a stranger, a black rather than a white, one from my nationality rather than one from another nationality in a rescue operation? Who can accuse me of being a nationalist, racist or speciesist? This is simply a matter of preferences. This does not mean that I do not value the lives of the ones I did not rescue. I cannot be expected to have a special reason to behave like that. I did so just because I felt it was the right thing to do. We could not expect a man to act like a robot without feeling. If there was a robot, there would not be so called discrimination. It would rescue people at random without any special consideration. It would not care whether you are its owner or maker. Someone who thinks not to act like a robot is a sort of nationalism, racism or speciesism, must be ready to be left to burn to death by one of his fellow beings to rescue a goat in a farmhouse fire rescue operation. That is something, I personally am not prepared to accept.

Although it is not necessary to find a 'convincing' reason to value human life supremely, we can distinguish human from other beings by some of their features, namely by consciousness, reason and intellect. Dworkin argues that; "We treat the preservation and prosperity of our own species as of capital importance because we believe that we are the highest achievements of God's creation, if we are conventionally religious, or of evolution, if we are not" (14). Although in religious terminology God is free from achievements and failures, it is true that humans are His special creatures, whom He relates to through messengers. He made him responsible for his behaviours as he was equipped with consciousness, reason and intelligence to distinguish right from wrong. These are what monotheistic religions say. If we are not prepared to accept these arguments, as we believe in evolution without design rather than creation through evolution, it is still true that the human being is the highest achievement of evolution. Therefore he has a privileged position, as he is the strongest and most fit, which entitles him use his power on every other beings for his benefit. That is the basic rule of evolution.

As a conclusion we may say that, to comprehend the 'real' meaning of life is extremely important, but perplexing as well. Maybe we will never achieve that. However, as conscious beings, it should not be too hard for us to respect every being on earth, and reflect that they are all valuable.

Is there any reason to compare the worth of different forms of lives, if we embrace in advance that they are all valuable and necessary for this world? Why should we put ourselves into trouble by arguing, whether we have any right to destroy other forms of lives for the benefit of others? Why do we possibly hesitate to admit the distinctiveness of the human being? Do not we see that he is selected as 'Life's Dominion' by God/evolution. It is perfectly understandable to maintain not to make discrimination among human beings based on their race, gender, nationality and religion, but what could be the reason to devalue humans, in the name of equality between species.

Existence is good, and we should value existing beings. Life is the real base of existence. Consciousness, reason and intellect are precious, and we do value the lives of those who have these features supremely. Every single being on earth and in the universe is valuable, and purposeful. We should be aware of that, and be respectful.

I am indebted to my colleagues David Prayle and Dr. Sarah J. Hobson for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


1. as cited in Dworkin, R. Life's Dominion, Harper Collins Publisher, London, 1993, p. 69.
2. ibid. p. 71.
3. Spinoza, Ethics, tr. White, W.H. and Stirling, A.H., Oxford University Press, London, 1923, p. 196.
4. Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Everyman, London, 1993, p. 45.
5. Schweitzer, A. Civilization And Ethics, A.&C. Black Ltd., London, 1923, p. 26.
6. ibid. pp. 22-3.
7. Schweitzer, A. The Teaching of Reverence for Life, Peter Owen Ltd, London, 1966, p. 25.
8. Singer, P. Practical Ethics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 279.
9. Battin, M.P. Ethical Issues in Suicide, Prentice Hall. New Jersey, 1995, p. 36.
10. Harris, J. The Value of Life, Routledge & Keagen Paul plc., London, 1985.
11. ibid. p. 7.
12. ibid.
13. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, tr. Tredennick, H., Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 77.
14. Dworkin, op. cit. p. 82.

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