Priceless

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

You are ordered to shoot all but one of the five in front of you: Adolf Hitler, Peter Sutcliffe, Idi Amin, Chairman Mao, your beloved dog. Who do you spare? Who is more valuable? Why? Is a dog ever worth more than a human? If so, then who slaughtered less people? Who was less evil? What then is evil? How should you compute this value judgement?

It’s not as if all value judgements are wholly conscious determinations. A woman will turn down most men – those men thus deemed by her less worthy. Evolution is propelled by value assessments. Natural selection determines that some individuals have traits better suited to a particular environment than others.

To my son I am more valuable than his friend’s father. To my mother I am more valuable than my neighbour’s son. Is there any way of escaping the fact that value judgements about our fellow human beings are commonplace and subjective; that we base key decisions on such judgements daily?

So who would you throw the lifebuoy to? Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris? Owen Jones or Paul Mason? Your mother or your sister? 1 It is obvious that saving someone who you know, be they family or friend, is someone more likely to help you in turn, and so preserving your family or friends is to your own advantage, thus, to some degree, an act of selfishness.

Former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption on Sunday telling a brave stage 4 cancer patient, 39-year-old Deborah James, that her life is ‘less valuable’ was both callous and reasonable. Given the momentum of the current pandemic it is not unfeasible to imagine a doctor in intensive care deciding to allocate limited ventilator resources to a normally fit adult rather than a clinically extremely vulnerable adult. Just as in a house fire it might be a parent’s choice to scoop up their youngest babies first then to return later with empty arms for their toddler.2

The reality is that such value judgements can only be made logically individually against the backcloth of the particular circumstance to which the protagonists have become victim. Timescale also plays a part – such decisions can sometimes be confused by the allowance of mere split seconds.

All lives have value, the question is judging relative value when tough decisions have to be made.

In times of war there are brutal decisions needed where Churchill’s attack on Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940 is one example. Part of Operation Catapult, a British plan to neutralise or destroy French ships to prevent them falling into German hands in the aftermath of the Allied defeat in the Battle of France, the British bombardment of the base killed 1,297 French servicemen, sank a battleship and damaged five other ships. Strategic judgement and mathematics won the day. Imagine the damage the Germans could have caused with those ships. Over a thousand French servicemen were judged a necessary sacrifice to the Allied cause.

The pandemic reduces the value judgement to a simple life or death choice.

On Sunday Deborah James replied to Lord Sumption:

“Who are you to put a value on life? In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.”

Deborah James refers here to intrinsic human value whereby each human life is equal. Without delving deep into humanistic and secular values, her standpoint is valuable and backed up by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, crises create resource paucity that forces cold picks – that was the angle Lord Sumption meant to come in on, but he was clearly caught out by the live TV and videolink conditions and his usual eloquence deserted him. So he clarified later what he meant to say:

“I thought she was responding to my earlier comments about older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected. If [Ms James] has misinterpreted that then I can only apologise to her as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable. Sometimes on videolinks it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying.”

One can only feel pity for Deborah James. Lord Sumption’s remarks came across as heartless and uncaring. Nonetheless, what he meant is unfortunately sound and real.

As for the choice above of who to spare, I would unhesitatingly choose my dog. Intrinsically humans are never worth more than other humans but there’s a caveat. It is only viable to make a complete determination when people are dead, particularly after enough time has elapsed for history to judge their contributions. My love and respect for my late, beloved dog is greater than any love or respect I could ever hold for any of those inhuman butchers. Although he was a mere dog, his positive contributions judged after his death trump theirs after their deaths. Therefore, zero sum, survival is his – every which way the sums are calculated.

Notes:

  1. See Richard Dawkins and the Selfish Gene Theory. Basically, in this situation, according to the theory, you will be more inclined to save whoever is closest to you genetically. You share 50% of your genes with both your mother and your sister, making a straight choice, on pure selfish gene theory grounds, impossible. So, in that case you might decide to refine your strategy in that whoever has the most life left to live and has the possibility of contributing further to your own gene pool and which you share with both mother and sister (i.e your sister might have more children in the future who will also share genes with you. In any case your sister might be rearing children already, all of whom share genes with you). In this case you would save your sister and sacrifice your mother, whose own genetic and child rearing contribution has ended.
  2. During the Soviet blockade of Ukraine which caused the deliberately induced famine and death of millions of Ukrainians, there was widespread cannibalism. There are credible stories of mothers who murdered their youngest child in order to feed the others. If this story is true, then the older siblings would be more likely to survive than the baby in normal circumstances, and so this is why the mothers killed the youngest. At the best of times, mortality in the first year or two of life is always highest, until old age is reached.