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.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-08-16

  • Pepsi spill causes sticky mess in science blogging ecosystem http://bit.ly/8XiQ3N #
  • Just started reading “Unseen academicals”. I love Terry Pratchett #
  • Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal. I teach professional ethics in practice, and I agree with this http://bit.ly/b37kfw #
  • Mobile Phone Learning on the Move in Africa. http://bit.ly/aVpdV3 #
  • Juxio – combine image and text into visual streams. Could be useful for creating small learning resources http://bit.ly/9Vgswz #
  • Comparing Books & E-Books. I’m still not sure where I stand http://bit.ly/9lOtGv #
  • @tony_emerge nice to see I’m not the only 1 still up 🙂 was good to chat at the colloquium on Friday #
  • Do New Tools = New Learning? I don’t think using new tools automatically maps to new learning http://bit.ly/9x4ST6 #
  • What You Need To Know About Data Portability http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=53116 #
  • Social networking and loneliness. See this in some of my students…the pressure of living for an audience http://bit.ly/d1HQOM #
  • @ianuct Wow, I’d love to have a look at how you do it. Maybe I can meet up with u sometime during the week? Do you have the desktop version? in reply to ianuct #
  • @ianuct What are you thoughts on #Prezi I’ve played with it but actually find the lack of linearity hard to work with in reply to ianuct #
  • Thank you. RT @ianuct: Drew the keynote “Experiences in personal learning”. Find a balance between consuming & sharing http://bit.ly/92CwDd #
  • Battery getting low, so in case phone dies before the end…thank you #Maties for awesome #TEDxStellenbosch #
  • Weird…they handed out #vuvuzelas during intermission at #TEDxStellenbosch & are surprised that people are blowing them? #
  • @jpbosman hey man, how come you’re not at #TEDxStellenbosch Thought this would be the sort of thing you’re interested in #
  • @geekrebel where are you? #
  • Vegetarian meals only at #TEDxStellenbosch I’m not a vegetarian but…what a great idea when promoting sustainability #
  • #TEDxStellenbosch We’re moving from an era of “me”, to an era of “we”. Similar ideas in education with social learning #
  • Comment from earlier speaker at #TEDxStellenbosch “Africa isn’t poor, we just don’t have a lot of money” #
  • @geekrebel Thanks for organising access, #Skyrove doing an awesome job again 🙂 #
  • @elodiek I’m going back to obz so can help you guys out if you still looking (i know henk) #
  • @geekrebel I just got here and am 1 of those 4 🙂 I’m right at the back and can’t see any screens #
  • At #TEDxStellenbosch so impressed with setup, thank you #Skyrove for wireless, always appreciated #
  • Just got home from #ipex had a good 2 days, learnt a lot. Leaving in an hour for #TEDxStellenbosch (http://tedxstellenbosch.org/) #
  • Spent most of yesterday marking tests & assignments, same again today…sigh #