I have just begun reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau on recommendation from a friend. The unspoken question that has poignantly struck me thus far, only a few pages in, pertains to the relationship between man, his labour, his property and his worth. My internal feminist calls me to substitute in a gender neutral pronoun extending to the rest of the human race; thus I suppose the question may be rephrased as “What is the value of a human being?”
There is no easy answer to this question. Obviously, it is not how much money one makes or the job which one possesses or how much/what one owns. How much one loves or is loved by others and the extent of this love cannot be quantified or compared. Neither can one’s relative contribution to society be accurately measured. We could say that each human being is created equal and thus each human life has equal measure. Yet then how do we account for the sick and invalid, those who are handicapped or who have developmental disabilities and the impoverished—not to mention the ethical quandary over euthanasia and abortion. Different cultures have over time developed their own strategies, some of which we contemporary, liberal, ‘enlightened’ Westerners express abhorrence over (total rejection of birth control, twin killing, killing of prisoners and/or criminals, sending the elderly off on an ice flow, etc.) yet our own hypocrisy and the divergence between our own words and actions cannot be excused.
I was listening to an episode of This American Life hosted by Ira Glass a short while ago about the experiences of immigrants coming to the U.S., and one point which struck me in particular was the culture shock some expressed over observing homelessness. These immigrants were shocked that people living in such a wealthy country would be so disgraced by their families that they were cast out onto the street. True, many homeless suffer from specific ailments, afflictions or addictions which inhibit their ability to work and support themselves. But how can we, who say all lives are inherently equal, treat others with such disrespect? How often do we judge people for inherent characteristics, for their appearance, their mannerisms, for their decisions, for their shortcomings, etc.? All the time. Even now I am passing judgement on the judges. No one is exempt. It is impossible to treat others equally and live up to our own lofty ideals, owing to inherent flaws in human nature. For all we claim to be rational beings, there is very little correlation between any person’s beliefs and their actions, the latter of which many are carried through with little or no contemplation or cognitive dissonance.