The paragraphs on Sanctity of Life usually consist of a few biblical quotations, a reference to Natural Law and a mention of the doctrine of double effect and before you know it you are into the list of objections from Darwin, Singer and others.
Quality of Life usually gets far more coverage. Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse, mary Anne Warren and possibly Judith Jarvis Thomson’s wonderful story of the unconscious violinist. (If you don’t know that story – read it. Good in the abortion debate!)
This really underestimates what most scholars think of when we begin to talk about sanctity of life. One of the problems you may face is that you have arrived in the Philosophy and Ethics class as a result of Religious Studies. And of course “sanctity” is a religious word. But what does the word mean? “special, set apart… set apart for or by God?” But supposing people don’t believe in God? Does this mean that they don’t think that human life is special or even set apart? In reality of course they do and unless one comes up with a different term, the idea of “sanctity of life” does have meaning for them.
Let’s consider a few objects
My favourite chair
My faithful old dog
My favourite Auntie Dolly
My chair has been with me for many years. I have a sentimental attachment to it. When it falls apart I take it to be mended. I could spend money on it and have it reupholstered. Each week it is dusted. It is a valued possession. One day, I suspect, when I see a more comfortable one, I will dispose of it or maybe even chop bits of it up for firewood. The chair is valuable to me. It is a commodity, a possession. It is disposable and I will not feel guilty when eventually I throw it away.
My faithful old dog is called Herbert. He is loyal, good with children, faithful, alert and attentive in his own sweet way when the postman calls or when I have visitors. (His job is to bark on those occasions). Unlike the chair he makes demands on my time (walkies) and my pocket (food…vets bills), but he is a good listener and never criticizes me. Despite what Peter Singer thinks, my relationship with my dog is not the same as my relationship with another human being. (If it were they could probably lock me up for it). One day I fear Herbert will become very old and if he is in serious pain, I will, reluctantly, ask the vet to put him down. While I will miss him terribly when this happens, I will not experience guilt
My favourite auntie is Dolly. She is a great character, fearfully independent and has a razor sharp intellect. Despite being well into her 90s she has a zest for life and an interest in all things new. I enjoy going to have tea with her. She tells me interesting bits of gossip and asks me about what I am doing. Even if she became ill and infirmed, I could not suggest to her that we could either throw her away or have her put down! My relationship with her is very different from my relationship with my favourite chair and my relationship with Herbert.
It is this different relationship that we have with other humans which constitutes the set apartness or sanctity of life.
Human life is not replaceable in the way that a chair or a dog is. When a child dies, the parents do not immediately console themselves by thinking – “we could always get a replacement.” The life that has gone is a tragedy, a great sadness, unlike anything else.
Human life has intrinsic or inherent value. It is not one value among others. Usually we think that human life has incomparable value.
There is a richness to human life that we do not find in possessions and we do not find in dogs, cats or other pets.
Humans fall in love, they play games, they create games, they can speculate or reflect. Humans have experiences which they can evaluate and sensations of joy, shame, guilt, pleasure and pain. They laugh or groan at jokes. They deliberate before making decisions. Above all they make autonomous decisions about irrelevant details in life, whether to go on a binge or join weightwatchers.
These are some of the things that only humans do. It makes them special, sets them apart. I believe these demonstrate sanctity of life.