I came across a meme today, a picture of an empty electric chair with the claim that it was the cure for pedophilia. I am not fan of child abusers, who would be, and indeed have a particular loathing for them. That said, it saddens me to see so many memes like that. I am also not a fan of the death penalty but every corner of the internet and every place on the ideological spectrum seems to like the idea so long as it is a group or person they disagree with. Oh to be certain the left couches it in terms of just wishing something randomly horrible would happen to someone but that is just comparing apples to slightly riper apples. You would think that two million years of hominid evolution, and self-awareness would help us shake the desire to see those we disagree with dead.
Keeping in mind I am only counting human life, because there is enough data to at least suggest that maybe we are not alone in being self-aware. Evidence has suggested dolphins may have an awareness similar to ours, and some other species as well. It has been suggested that all animal life has some sort of awareness comparable to ours. So maybe we are not alone in trying to determine what is right or wrong, or indeed, that there is even a such thing as right or wrong. Is that what determines whether a life has value, or enough value not to arbitrarily end it, ,or end it for our wants and needs? I don’t have the answer, though it seems to me an awful lot of people do. Not that they are consistent in their application of the “sanctity of life.”
I am not the first person to notice that there is some strange, inverse relationship between opponents of the death penalty and opponents of abortion. Not always, mind you, the stance of the Catholic Church is consistent in this area (just blew your mind didn’t I?) For the most part there is a wide gulf between these two groups, however, and both claim the sanctity of life as their driving cause while ignoring the sanctity that the other puts on a particular set of lives. How is it acceptable to end the life of an unborn child but not a murderer? How is it acceptable to save the life of a clump of cells but not a human being who still has the potential to redeem themselves and make up for the pain they have caused? You see where I am coming from here? These issues, in particular reproductive choice, are a lot more complex than anyone wants to think about, but we draw these arbitrary lines.
We choose a value system, or worse, have it chosen for us for us when we are young and never deviate from it. If we do, our choice is often just as arbitrary. Our culture is a meat-eating one, to varying degrees across sub-cultures. Many people choose to reject the omnivorous ways of their parents. Some have done so after serious reflection regarding their health, or environmental sustainability, but just as many, maybe even most do so on moral grounds: meat is murder. Yet how do they come to this decision? They cite recent research that claims to prove animals have the same awareness we do, but how did these researchers come about that?
Certainly most (though not all mind you) animals have the same underlying neurological mechanisms and some are as complex as ours, and some operate in much the same way, but how does than follow that they take the time to reflect? How does that mean that they aspire, dream, reflect on right or wrong? All the things that we use as qualifiers for sentience are unprovable through simple examination of nervous systems. They can be suggested but not proven. Maybe they do not need to be proven. You may argue that a life does not have to share our sentience to be worthy of consideration, but where do you draw the line then? Is a certain amount of cognition necessary. Do fish, or simple mussels like oysters have an awareness that you find worthy of dignity and saving? What about plants? They react to negative stimuli, that could be a definition of pain. Maybe not, but it is not something to be rejected out of hand, but so often those who would moralize about the need to protect the rights of animals do just that. They hold fast to their barely considered hierarchy of life and hold up their heads in self-righteousness.
This is what we do. We create, or have created for us, these little codes to proclaim our moral superiority to this group or that. We choose the path of least resistance for ourselves. We rant about the death penalty when we have never lost a loved one to a sociopath. We protect the unborn when we have never had to risk our health, or our freedom, after being raped (and narrowly define that term to our convenience.) We fight for lives of animals while people in poor, often black, neighborhoods go hungry. We grab a value set that is convenient to us the first moment is floats our way and then hold on for dear life, never challenging it or ourselves. It is laziness, both cognitively and morally.
I do not have the same values I was raised with. Certainly those values formed a frame, and some of them remains. Some have been bolstered, and some have been discarded. Some have evolved and some just tweaked. I have taken the time to challenge each of them, to wonder why I believe what I believe and whether I should hold those values still. I do not know whether or not life begins at conception, it is ultimately an unanswerable question. I do know that denying a woman the right to decide whether or not to carry a baby to term denies her agency. I know just thinking it is acceptable to take that agency, especially since we cannot empirically prove when life begins, has dire consequences for all women, including those who chose to have children, and those who never can. I know how easy it is to want to see a murderer pay the ultimate price, but I also know that price can never be refunded if we bought the wrong villain, and that even if we got it right we take away any chance that person can ever really repay their debt to society. I have thought about these things, I have struggled, and stumbled and come through with my current values. With more evidence, with more argument, who knows, they might change. They have before.
I am not sharing this, by the way, to prove my intellectual superiority to all the folks I am pointing a wrinkled, fat finger at here. If I thought I was so much more evolved I would not bother. I would shrug my shoulders and say, fuck it, humanity has no hope. It does though. I know you are smart enough to get this, and that it is worth starting this dialogue. We need to do that for the continued growth and safety of our species. I want you to do it because the laziness and the shallowness of your belief sets puts the lie to your moral rectitude and that is something I find morally reprehensible. That is a value I have tested. I have considered the importance of just having a moral code for its own sake. I have considered the importance of tradition. I have considered how these beliefs have created a more ordered society. Then I have weighed the consequences and found the benefits wanting. Think. You can, and you, and all your fellow travelers are worth it. If you do not take the time to challenge your beliefs, how do you know they have value?