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Whose Death Matters More?

March 2nd, 2010 - 8:10 pm

I think the first time I grappled with this question was in an undergraduate philosophy course.  The professor was a Yalie, very very smart, and loved to provoke us.  His job, after all.  So one day, when a famous person had died, he said in his flippant way, “obviously this man was much more important than Joe Schmoe down the block, and the society should value him more, and try harder to protect him and tend to him if he’s sick, etc etc.”

And so we debated, in the way of young students.  Who is to say that one man’s life is worth more than another’s?  Maybe Mr Schmoe was a better husband/father than Einstein, where does that go in the balance scales of life?  Yes, we will long remember Einstein, and no one remembers Schmoe except maybe his dear ones, but still…

In a way, there’s nothing to debate, because Einstein had a far greater effect on far more people than Schmoe did.  But one of the great achievements of Western civilization is our conviction that every human life is precious, and that belief underlies the entire Judeo-Christian enterprise.  So, while Einstein will live forever, as they say, Schmoe was endowed with the same fundamental rights, and in that sense Schmoe was as important as Einstein.

So what to do with those who laugh at us, and who despise our love of life?  What of Nazis who murder millions who they judge unworthy or inferior?  What of the Muslim terrorists who tell us that they will destroy Western civilization precisely because we value life while they embrace death, ours and their own?  Do we ignore their threats, and treat them the same way as we treat one another?

I watched “Independence Day” over the weekend, which raises this issue very dramatically.  The aliens arrive and target mankind for annihilation.  We approach them in peace, with an outstretched hand;  they blow us up.  In the end, we have to fight, and a suitably diverse group from around the world defeats the aliens.  But the stars are American:  a black man and a white Jew.  If not for their heroism, all the efforts of all the world’s citizens would have failed.  Keep that thought for a few paragraphs.

It’s easy when the enemies aren’t even human, but in cases of human conflict we invariably take sides.  Mostly we see conflicts as “us vs. them.”  If Schmoe and Einstein were fighting to the death, we’d pick one and root for him.  Right?

Well, not always.  It’s not so simple. Lots of us didn’t take sides in the Iran-Iraq war, for example.  I, for one, rooted for the war.  And what about the cases where terrorists are fighting against a civilized country (even when its degree of “civilization” may be in doubt)?  Do you root for the Chechens or the Russians?  And how do you feel about ethnic terrorism against the Islamic Republic of Iran?

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