PHT402: What is the value of a human life?

This is my fourth contribution to a series of weekly posts related to the #pht402 Professional Ethics course. This week’s topic is specifically about torture, but the general principle concerns the rights of the individual vs the rights of society, as well as asking about the relative value of a human life.

free-humanityI’m going to begin by answering the question in the title: “It depends on who’s life you’re talking about”.

When preparing this course I thought that the topic of torture could be used to move a conversation beyond the specific example of torture and look at the broad principle, which concerns the rights of an individual human being weighed against the rights of society. Or, to put it another way, how do we ascribe value to human life? I hadn’t really considered the possibility of a physiotherapist being asked about a patient’s physical condition in order to determine whether or not they could be hurt by someone else. It shouldn’t have surprised me though, since in South Africa we have a long history of our medical profession being complicit in human rights abuses that include torture (as highlighted in one of the readings for this week).

Even though the topic of torture has been questioned as part of this course, I think that the principles that emerged from the week’s discussions are relevant to other areas of our practice. For example, how many lives is one life worth? What value do we place on human lives? Are all human lives valued the same? These questions bring us back to the idea of equality and morality. Are we all equal? In what ways are we equal? How different are our boundaries of what is “right” and “wrong”? Is torture ever the “right” thing to do? The United Nations says it never is. But, there are times when your personal morality might say that torture absolutely is necessary. Wendy expressed this nicely when she asked about actions that may be morally wrong but which are morally justifiable.

I think that these are interesting questions that don’t need to be answered, but talking about them may help us to figure out some things about ourselves.

Naom makes two good points in her post, which are that your thinking around this topic is influenced by how you value human life, and whether the value of lives from those within your group is higher than those outside of it. As noble as we like to think we are, we do inherently place more value on certain lives than on others and this is where the importance of context comes in. My daughter’s life is more valuable to me than any other child in the world because she is my  daughter. She doesn’t need to have any special skills, knowledge or potential in order for me to value her more. As much as I like to think that we’re all equal, I have to acknowledge that we don’t all have the same value.

Um’r makes the point that for thousands of years, human beings have consistently looked for more and more ingenious ways to inflict pain and suffering on each other. He also links this week’s topic back to the questions of equality and morality, and then goes on to day that as much as each of us may abhor violence towards others, he asks how far he would go in order to protect those closest to him. This is challenge, to live the life we believe is right, even when faced with difficult choices. If every life is equal (Janine has a simple exercise that explores this), then torture can never be OK.

In the comments on Janine’s post there’s a question about how age could be a deciding factor in determining if a life could be sacrificed to save others.  In one context, age may be an appropriate reason to sacrifice a life but not in every context. For me, this is one of the most difficult skills that we need as health care professionals…the ability to modify our decision making processes depending on the unique context we find ourselves in. There are no universally correct answers to morally ambiguous situations.

Everyone I’ve read so far has focused on the military use of torture, but what about the other reading that briefly looked at the use of torture (or at least complicity in it’s application and cover up) by medical professionals? Tony has explored this by asking how medical professionals can be involved in torture.

I think that one of the most interesting aspects of Week 4s topic has been the emergence of side topics…conversations that were peripherally associated with torture but which became something else. Discussions about the value of life, morality, equality, moral boundaries, etc. all began happening in the comment threads, which was great to read. I think it really highlighted one of the benefits of a course with weak or flexible boundaries and participant-led discussion.

Finally, I’m going to point you to Chantelle’s blog, where she did a great job in relating the week’s broad topic to the South African context, as well as providing a reflective overview of the posts from Week 4. She opened her first post with this quote and I’m going to end with it:

The argument cannot be that we should not torture because it does not work. The argument must be that we should not torture because it is wrong.

PHT402: Equality and discrimination

This is my third post as a participant in the #pht402 Professional Ethics course. The topic for this week is equality and whether or not we really are equal in a society that discriminates on many levels.

It’s important to understand that equal in this context means equal before the law. No-one is suggesting that we should all be equally thin, smart or wealthy. It simply means that, as far as the law is concerned, we’re all going to be treated equally. Except that we’re not.

I’ve been following the trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin over the past few weeks because I think it highlights how deeply the issue of race and discrimination goes in our global culture. I’m not going to rehash all of the details because that’s been done by many others but I do think that Martin Bashir (see the video below) presents the only facts that really matter.

Trayvon Martin was identified as a person of suspicion because he was black. And the way in which he was portrayed by most of the mainstream media highlights the disturbing way in which a black victim is seen. In South Africa we still see perpetrators who are given heavier sentences when the victim is white. How are we still here? After everything we’ve been trying to do since 1994, how are we still in a place where the colour of your skin not only determines your access to health care, education and social mobility but also how you’re treated after you’ve been murdered.

In the topic presentation for this week, Jay Smooth presented his views on responding to racism. I found a follow up talk that he gave at TEDxHampshireCollege, where he discusses the issue in more depth:

The Constitution promises us that we’re all equal. But we’re not.

Another area where this is blatantly obvious is on the issue of LGBTI rights in South Africa. Even though on paper we’re among the more progressive countries in the world when it comes to “gay rights” (whatever that means), it’s clear that we have a long way to go toward the realisation of those rights. Violence against homosexuals in a country dominated by traditional values continues to be under-reported and unrecognised. Even in the supposedly liberal academic institutions we see evidence of homophobia and hate crimes against those who love members of the same sex. Seriously? Considering the massive problems we face in this country around issues of poverty, corruption and completely dysfunctional education and health systems, people still have the time and energy to worry about who’s sleeping with who.

There is some acknowledgement that this is a problem, with officials in Cape Town receiving special training to deal with hate crimes against gays and lesbians. There is also a recognition that the current legal infrastructure doesn’t isn’t designed to effectively manage the problem, and government is in the process of reviewing the legal process for those accused of hate speech, and xenophobic and homophobic attacks. Our Constitution guarantees all of us the right to be treated with dignity and respect, by virtue of the fact that we’re human. Except some of us seem to think that the colour of your skin or your sexual orientation excludes you from the right to dignity and respect.

OK, so that’s a lot to take in and I’m not going to do an analysis of it. I just wanted to make the point that equality is an ideal that we strive for because it is right for everyone to be treated with dignity and respect. You may not be like me in every way but you are deserving of the same love and respect that I want for myself.