Monday, July 30, 2012

the value of human life -- some offhand phenomenological musing

It's odd I ended up writing about this. I went on a bit of a walk to try to solve a problem about whether I could meaningfully say I am or have a body, and just what that sense of a unifying whole, apparently delimited notion of lived experience would mean. Instead.....


We think rather highly of consciousness. We presume that it is the most significant — not to say the most valuable — trait of ours.

There is a massive ongoing problem in ethics related to this, concering the moral value of human and non-human life. Every attempt I have seen to distinguish these two on the morality scale has involved a commitment either to a humanist or theological position. In other words, it is under the presumption of the specialness of human being, and of human beings, that all this ethical discussion takes place. For now, I’m going to let ethics off easy, for instance on the point that, for most world religions, the sacredness of individual human lives has proved “negotiable” (as George Carlin put it): a human life is valuable pending certain qualifications.

In phenomenological philosophy, the certitude of the centrality of consciousness is also taken for granted. This appears to be so even when phenomenologists are trying to account for something more basic, like affectivity, or desire, or being vulnerable. In From Affectivity to Subjectivity*, Christian Lotz argues that the basic ethical value is connected to this kind of affect and vulnerability. [Think a minute how this plays out in terms of Carlin's jab: if chickens can be vulnerable (to pain, e.g.), then what exactly is our negotiation? Do they somehow deserve it? Are chickens secretly commies? Or do they deserve it just because of their irritating clucking and flapping-wings behavior, and because they happen to be tasty and nutritious? Talk about negotiation!]

Where does that affect come from? How is it that we can be affected? Lots argues that for anything to affect our senses and draw us to attend to it, there must be, prior to that attention, some valuing of what draws us. He says that attention is directed by a structure of “being-able-to,” meaning, I would say, a core valuing-activity: attention is directed by some subjective determination of what is valuable — ultimately calling on Levinas’ notion that every experience is held together by the equation of life and happiness. “Being-able-to,” as a source of valuing, implies intentionality, hence consciousness in the way we’re accustomed to considering it, to wit: human consciousness. (The reference to Levinas — a deeply theological thinker — is a giveaway.)

It’s a terrible argument, but leaving that aside, there’s nothing obviously related to consciousness, intentionality, or our being human, that we can demonstrate is the final source of moral value. Without the presupposition that affectivity is connected to intentionality we also cannot finally deny that vulnerability as an attribute of non-human life, especially non-human animals. If it matters that we are vulnerable, then how can consciousness be our definitive characteristic, at least, as it comes to moral value?

*The original title was not From Here to Eternity. I looked it up.


1 comment:

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

I feel pretty confident that no one actually thinks about chickens that way. Except, perhaps, the folks at Chic-Fil-A.