Monday, April 14, 2008

Less than Human

Is it possible for one person to be less human than another? As I argued in The Root of All Evil, such objectifying of people often leads to the most heinous acts of violence and murder, but yet it persists even in an “enlightened” culture like that in the United States. The following thought experiment illustrates my reason for believing that the answer is “no.”

Imagine discovering that the person you trust and love at some point before meeting you was responsible for the deaths of many people. That person, like every one of us, was born perfectly innocent and lived that way through childhood. To meet psychological or physical needs, the deaths of others became logically necessary. Afterwards, the person discovered other ways to meet those needs and became the person you know today who you believe to be incapable of such acts in the future.

Does knowing the person’s past change in any way the experience that you’ve shared, or the experience of the person before the transformation that led to the murders? Is the person any less “valuable” to you as a result? Is it “right” to execute such a person, effectively throwing away the rest of the person’s life just as the earlier murders stole the lives of others; and if so, for what reason if not self defense? What was evil when the murders were committed: the person, the conditions that changed the person, or the act itself?

One line of reasoning would add up the value of every action in one’s life and ascribe a total value based on the result. If this were done, regardless of the criteria, then practically every one of us would fall short of the greatest value. An arbitrary value for being fully human would then need to be assigned. By extension, shouldn’t killing a “less human” person count less than killing a “fully human” person? And isn’t this the same logic that many murderers use for justifying the killing of others, the difference being who got to set the standards?

In my view, the totality of humanity, past through future, defines what it means to be human. We all have equal “value” despite our differences and our experiences. Killing one person is equivalent to killing another person. The act is wrong, regardless of the reason, because it diminishes the number of humans already alive. We cannot, by definition, be less than human; but we can have fewer humans.

No comments: