When Every Life Is Precious
We value individual human lives more every day. That's (mostly) good news.
The modern world is a mess of seeming contradictions. Children have never been safer, yet parents have never been more anxiously overprotective. We have more leeway than ever before to lead free, quirky, customized private lives, yet governments have unprecedented power to inspect and disrupt our most intimate activities. Fewer jets crashed in 2014 than since the advent of commercial air travel, yet CNN switches to wall-to-wall coverage every time a Boeing goes missing.
This collection of seemingly opposed notions actually shares a single throughline, one you can see running all over this special issue on aging. Human beings, as a species, are treating each individual as incredibly precious-much more so than we have in the past. This is a remarkable and transformative development, though it presents challenges and not a small amount of cognitive dissonance, particularly for the more libertarian among us.
Before the advent of modern medicine, birth control, and (in much of the developing world) economic prosperity, men and women produced batches of kids, knowing that some may die but enough would survive to take care of their parents and propagate the family line. Now more than half the world's people, including the 320 million of us in the United States, live in countries where the fertility rate-the average number of births per woman-is below the replacement level of 2.1. Mexican women averaged 7.3 births in 1960; today that number is 2.2. India in the 1970s was widely projected to suffer from mass starvation due to overpopulation; now it is on the verge of sinking below the replacement rate.
We know what happens in economic terms when goods become scarce. Prices and valuations go up, and owners invest more in upkeep and maintenance. The same is now happening with people, with mostly good but sometimes challenging side effects.
Take war. Every day I walk past a memorial in my local park commemorating 187 men from my neighborhood alone who died in World War I. That's only 71 fewer U.S. military deaths than in the entire 1991 Gulf War.
While the staunchest anti-interventionists among us may feel a sense of constant fatigue and dismay, the fact is that there is less war and less war-death than ever. In the year of reason's birth, 1968, more U.S. military personnel died in Vietnam-16,592-than have died in every subsequent American military adventure combined. It is inconceivable that we would tolerate the idea of 36,000 Americans dying in a foreign nation's three-year civil war, as happened on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s. And our reluctance to take on casualties pales in comparison to the reluctance in less-interventionist Western countries.
The downside is that ever higher premiums on life create opportunities to exploit emotional overreactions to discrete incidents. The United States right now is waging a low-intensity war against the Islamic State (ISIS) within Syria in large part because ISIS terrorists beheaded a couple of American hostages.
Governments that do not value the lives of human beings end up treating them like pawns and cannon fodder. It's no accident that many of the most effective opponents of totalitarianism were iconoclastic individualists like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. And yet, as the Russian chess champion-turned-dissident Garry Kasparov reminds us ("Checking Putin," page 48), success in the West has led to a crippling aversion to risk taking. America essentially gave up space exploration for two generations out of an excessive sense of caution.
Valuing human life begins in the mirror, and as Ronald Bailey notes in his cover story ("Eternal Youth for All!," page 22), this is driving a self-interested collection of pioneer thinkers and scientists to tackle the aging process head-on. One anxiety about that, explored in David Goldhill's masterful review of Atul Gawande's book Being Mortal ("Dying and in Denial," page 56), is that older people will just stretch out the dying process in ways that are dehumanizing and expensive. What to do about this conundrum?
"Pervasive change," Goldhill argues, "can only start with recognizing that today's incentives point away from more personalized, more sensitive, and more humane medicine." This is mostly due to the centralized, government-mandated, 800-pound gorilla of Medicare. "Medicare, as our surrogate, has unleashed a torrent of unnecessary care, accidental death, and inattention to the personal needs of the patient." In the rest of the economy, he notes, "we use markets and actual consumers to drive diversity of choice and service. If we want the benefits of personalized care-not just end-of-life care, but all care-we'll need to bring these same incentives into medicine."
Growing valuation of the individual is driving everything from medical innovation to the creation of unofficial currencies (see Andrea Castillo's "Private Money in Virtual Worlds," page 67). But those more fearful of selfishness have reason to cheer, too. Notable skeptic Michael Shermer argues provocatively ("Are We Becoming Morally Smarter?," page 42) that great leaps forward in abstract reasoning are leading not only to better performance on IQ tests (producing the famous "Flynn effect"), but also greater moral empathy for our fellow man and woman.
"Abstract reasoning leads us to consider members of other tribes (nations) as potential trading partners to be respected rather than as potential enemies to be conquered or killed," Shermer writes. We have "improved in our capacity to lump blacks and whites, men and women, straights and gays into the category 'human.'"
Progress on these fronts doesn't always move in a straight line. Understandable outrage over the 9/11 attacks prompted too many Americans to embrace as a counter-weapon the inherently dehumanizing weapon of torture, a moral detour from which we have yet to fully return (see Jacob Sullum's "Torture As an Absolute Wrong," page 14). Then again, as Sara Mayeux notes in "Cruel, Unusual, and Crowded" (page 71), we are on the verge of a long-overdue prison-reform movement in this country attributable directly to the growing sentiment that even convicted criminals are individuals worthy of at least some human dignity.
One of the most moving-but ultimately self-defeating-slogans to come out of last summer's Ferguson mess was "black lives matter." It was an immediately relatable reminder of the value of human life, and the callousness with which some from less-favored classes are treated. But it sadly morphed into a tool of alienation rather than empathy, as when Smith College President Kathleen McCartney felt compelled to walk back her campus-wide reminder that "all lives matter" (italics added). McCartney was right: Conferring individual dignity on every human category is how we arrive more rapidly at a more just and free world.
There's a reason why the enlightened world erupted spontaneously with the slogan "Je suis Charlie" after 12 staffers of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo were assassinated by Islamic fanatics in January. It wasn't because the phrase was technically accurate-if we were all Charlie Hebdo, we'd be a lot braver than we have been until now. But it was an expression of pure human empathy in the face of inhuman slaughter, a demonstration of Enlightenment values in the face of seventh-century atavism.
Valuing human life separates us from poisonous cultures, unfree regimes, and untrammeled sadists. It elevates us from where our own societies were 100 years ago, or even 10. It will lead us down some occasionally absurd and illiberal alleyways: zero-tolerance policies for children, centralized overreactions to tragedy, space programs unwilling to tolerate risks to astronauts. But by valorizing individual worth and latitude, we create a culture where, perhaps for the first time in history, people take seriously the Golden Rule.
Editor in Chief Matt Welch (email@example.com) is the co-host of The Independents on Fox Business Network.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "When Every Life Is Precious".