Life, Death, and Subjectivity: Moral Sources in Bioethics

By Stan Van Hooft | Go to book overview

Four
RESPECT FOR LIFE

Since they constitute the only possible source of modifications in the genetic
text, itself the sole repository of the organism's hereditary structures, it
necessarily follows that chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of
all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the
very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of
modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable
hypotheses.

Jacques Monod1

Life is a phenomenon that is at once quite familiar and quite mysterious. It is familiar because we are alive ourselves and so we know, from the inside as it were, what it is to be alive. Moreover, health care workers are in daily contact with the biological reality of clients and patients. Apart from extreme emergency cases, they can tell readily enough for most purposes when a patient is alive or dead and feel confident about what this difference amounts to. And yet life is mysterious too. The knowledge that I have just mentioned is seldom explicit. When we begin to reflect on what life is we realize that our own being alive is difficult to describe or explain. We come to see that a body's being alive is a highly puzzling phenomenon. More generally, that there is life on this planet at all is a fact that is truly wonderful and awe-inspiring.

It is sometimes suggested that the very presence of life on this earth is a kind of miracle and that life is amongst the highest values that we should live by.2 It is asserted that life is the most precious gift that a person can have: that almost any suffering is better than not being alive. It is argued that the killing of another human being is wrong for no further reason than that human life is of absolute value in itself. Environmentalists argue that the diversity of life on the planet has an intrinsic value and that human commercial interests must take second place to it. It is argued that animals are of inherent value and have rights simply because of the kind of life that they have: namely, a sentient form of life. In short, there is a virtue of respect for life based on the notion of the value of life. While it is not my intention to discuss all of these ideas in detail, I do want to understand what life is and thus to begin to understand why it might be valued and responded to in these ways.

Life raises metaphysical as well as ethical questions. Examples of such metaphysical questions include “What must be the nature of reality if life can appear in it?” and “What is the nature of life so as to ground its value?” And an example of such an ethical question is “What is the value of life and what does it demand of us in the way of an ethical response?” The metaphysics of life and the ethics of life are so closely related that they are often conflated into a single proposition such as that “Life is sacred.” Some authors,3 however, interpret this proposition in a purely ethical manner and take the so-called “principle of the

-83-

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Life, Death, and Subjectivity: Moral Sources in Bioethics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction 1
  • One - Subjectivity 19
  • Two - The Moral Significance of Persons 39
  • Three - Reconciling Caring and Justice 59
  • Four - Respect for Life 83
  • Five - Life as a Moral Source 101
  • Six - Living Subjectivity 121
  • Seven - What is Death? 143
  • Eight - Accepting Death 173
  • Notes 201
  • Bibliography 213
  • About the Author 225
  • Index 227
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