Social Conflict and the Life-Ground of Value

By Noonan, Jeff | Philosophy Today, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Conflict and the Life-Ground of Value


Noonan, Jeff, Philosophy Today


Paradoxically, perhaps, the value of life is if often illuminated by death. Death, the ultimate existential frame of human existence, has traditionally, in both literature and philosophy, been interpreted as the great leveler-master and servant, rich and poor, all equally face it, no earthly power or wealth buys escape from it. Inequality in life is thus ultimately resolved in the equality of death. Setting aside the question of possible after-lives, death, viewed from the standpoint of embodied living activity (henceforth, life-value) would seem to be equally bad in principle for everyone. Since death negates life in the same absolute way for everyone, it would seem to follow that its shared reality ought to emphasize for the living the equal value of life for everyone. Yet we inhabit a concrete political universe a standard feature of which is the active de-valuation of the lives of some relative to the lives of others. "Active de-valuation" may take a number of forms, from the immediacy of targeted killing to the mediated form of death as a consequence of social principles that fail to ensure the satisfaction of the most rudimentary physical needs of existence. Wherever political calculations or social principles might be exposed as resting upon a presupposition of unequal life-value, there will always follow rhetorical strategies designed to justify this inequality. The most extreme form of such rhetoric takes the form of de-humanizing discourses directed against those who are killed or left to die. Judged against the assumption of equal lifevalue, I will argue, these rhetorical strategies will always be exposed as morally irrational. Judged from within the logic of the current global socio-economic political order, however, they make perfect sense. Hence exposing the deep-seated moral irrationality of systems of thought that devalue the lives of some for the sake of increasing the value of the lives of others is a crucial step in exposing the underlying life-blindness of the current global order. If that which makes sense within the justifying discourses of system defenders is morally irrational, then so too must the system itself be morally irrational.

The occasion for this argument is the claim, made in July 2006 by the American United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, that the deaths of Lebanese civilians killed in the Hezbollah-Israel conflict of that month are not morally equal to the deaths of Israeli civilians. He made this comment in response to the deaths of eight of my fellow Canadian citizens killed in the early days of the cross-border war. My purpose is not to criticize Bolton specifically, or to arrive at judgments of causal responsibility for the conflict, to sort out accusations of terrorism, or to propose political solutions to this and other conflicts around the world. As I said above, Bolton's comments are only an occasion for a deeper critical reflection upon the underlying life-blindness of the current global order. "Life-blindness" means that the principles that govern strategic, political, and socioeconomic decisions in the world today do not proceed from the principle that life is of equal value to all who live.' Instead, I will argue, there is a pervasive and systematic confusion between the needs of human beings as living beings and the needs of the current socio-economic and political system. Once human needs have been assimilated to system needs, such that life has value if and only if, and to the extent that its conduct serves the interest of the global system, the invidious distinction between the value of the lives of some and the value of the lives of others becomes inevitable. I will explain and justify this conclusion in three steps. In the first, starting from Bolton's words I will expose the logic of system thinking that inevitably leads to claims that the lives of some are worth more than the lives of others. Yet, in trying to justify civilian deaths Bolton's argument paradoxically leads critical moral reason beneath the life-blind logic of the defense of system needs to the shared life-interests and equal life-value of everyone. …

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