Not So Deep Thoughts

The Political Value of Life

Written by Joe Pettit

(Previously published as a Baltimore Sun Op-Ed titled, “Government should assign equal value to all human life,” December 25th, 2005, p.30A).

While many people think of governments in terms of wasteful bureaucracies and windbag politicians, recent events have reminded us that they are also places where life-and-death decisions are made.

Yet wars and executions are only the most obvious manifestations of the lethal and life-giving powers of government.  Winter shelters for the homeless, treatment facilities for drug addicts, access to health care and the procedures at detention facilities are other recent, but less obvious, issues for our national and local governments that have had life-and-death consequences.

Politicians do more than pass laws and spend tax dollars.  They are also enabled, in the language of our Constitution, “to promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”  Human welfare and liberty are expressions of human life, and we understand what we it means to promote and secure them when we know what it means to value human life.  Unfortunately, we are not very good at talking about the value of human life publicly and politically.

Consider the debate over the recent execution in California of convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams.  In this case, death and life were reduced to a debate over merit.  The victims of the crimes clearly did not deserve death, and those who supported Mr. Williams and those who endorsed his execution made their cases in terms of whether or not Mr. Williams deserved to live or die.  But life presents itself as plenitude and possibility, not justice.  Our great religions speak of life as a gift.  This gift was taken from the victims of the crimes, and it was taken from Mr. Williams.

Both sides of the debate used the language of redemption.  This language is unfortunate because it implies that the worth of human life can change depending on the character of the life in question.  This is a hierarchical understanding of human worth.  Once accepted, the idea that different human lives are of different value provides the foundation for all of the worst expressions of human life and government, including bigotry, slavery, abuse, exploitation and war.

Standing against the idea that some human lives are more valuable than others is the claim that human life itself is of extraordinary value.  Therefore, the worth of every human life is equal, simply because each life is human.  Many religious traditions affirm this understanding of human life.  Human life is in the “image of God,” or it has within it, “Buddha nature,” more valuable than a wish-fulfilling jewel.  The religious position allows us to judge actions but not individuals.  We can call this the radical understanding of human worth.

The religious position is radical because it means my real worth has nothing to do with my net worth, nor can I forfeit my worth through failure.  It means that even if the worst characterizations of Mr. Williams are true, his worth as a person is no less than mine.

Most of us are not ready to accept this very challenging idea of human worth.  We prefer the hierarchical model, and we reflect it in our politics.  We pay property taxes to educate children in our school district, but not children in other districts.  We offer welfare to families but not to individuals without children.  We invest in businesses but not drug addicts.  We do not worry about the conditions in prisons or jails because those who inhabit them are just not worth our care.

Our governments are at their best, however, when they follow the radical insight into human value.  Democracy insists that no person or group is more valuable than another.  Therefore, government must be of, by, and for all of the people, and not just some of them.

The United States, as many of its citizens, is in need of redemption as it struggles to live up to the democratic ideal.  But redemption is not about life or government regaining a value that it had lost.  Rather, it occurs when the extraordinary value and dignity of all human life and the many ways that we violate this dignity are at last understood.