This is another attempt to address the issue of the sanctity of life in the context of proposed changes to the law on assisted dying. An earlier post is here.

The trouble with assisted dying is that the arguments on both sides are convincing. On the one hand more and more people are being artificially kept alive against their wishes, simply because the technology is available and nobody feels qualified to say it should not be used. Without the technology, nature would have been more merciful.

On the other hand, who is to decide it is time for someone to die? The doctor? But is it purely a matter of medical expertise? Or the patient? He or she may have passed the stage of informed reflection, or at least maybe nobody is sure. Or the relatives? They may have vested interests. Whoever is entrusted with the right to say it is time for someone to die, danger lurks. We know we are crossing a significant boundary, entering creepy territory. It is as though every answer is a wrong answer.

When we face a dilemma like this it is worth taking a step back and asking whether we have a blind spot. Are we all accepting presuppositions which need to be challenged? Is the dilemma a product of the way our society thinks? This is the first of three articles, each of which will address one blind spot. This one is on the sanctity of life. The others will be on the spookiness of death and the cult of technology.

Historians and theologians have often noted the early Christian Church’s role in promoting the sanctity of life. Normal attitudes in the Roman Empire would seem shocking today. Not just abortions but exposure of unwanted babies was very common. It was taken for granted that roadside beggars would starve to death. Watching gladiators fight each other to death was popular entertainment.

The theological background allowed it. The pagan gods represented different lifestyles and thus related to different people. Neither any one god nor the gods in concert were responsible for humanity as a whole or even Roman citizens as a whole. Christianity, universalising the god of Judaism, offered a deity who cares for each individual regardless of status or nationality.

The sanctity of life is now a central belief of most societies. Usually we are not sure what we mean by it. One thing we can say with confidence is that life is in a category of its own because it is the precondition of all our experiences. Beyond that, perhaps ‘the sanctity of life’ just means we are entering that murky territory where our understanding fails so we need to tread with care.

Our uncertainties leave wiggle room. In the 1980s I conducted a study of theologians’ arguments about the ethics of killing. Consistency lay in political affiliation rather than theological argument: theologians could adapt biblical texts, claims about the status of life, deontological principles and consequentialist assessments to reach the desired conclusions. Those most willing to kill in the cases of war and capital punishment characteristically had the strongest objections to abortion, suicide and euthanasia, and vice versa. To take a much analysed example, the official Roman Catholic position stated that it is always gravely sinful directly to kill an innocent person. This was interpreted in such a way that dropping a nuclear bomb could be morally permissible but euthanasia never was. None of this is surprising, but it warns us to check whether our beliefs about the sanctity of life are even consistent with each other.

Puzzles surround the beginning of life. Assuming we have no existence before conception or after death, if you had not been born you would have had no existence so nothing at all would have been sacred, or even meaningful, for you. You, like most people, are probably pleased that your parents did not have an abortion when you were being expected. Nevertheless your parents conceived you at a specific time on a specific day. If they had conceived five minutes earlier a different sperm cell would have reached the egg. You would never have been born. Somebody else might have been born instead. There was no obligation on your parents to conceive you rather than the other person. The planet is not big enough to bring to birth all the possible babies. Nature, which makes life with its sanctity possible, wastes most of it. If we waste a few more, the world’s population is still going up.

It is considerations like this that convince people that there must be more to life than a set of 7 billion individuals, arbitrarily selected out of an incomparably greater number of possible people, living 70 or 90 years and then being snuffed out for ever. Perhaps ‘we’ will have an afterlife in another realm, or we are souls inhabiting different bodies at different times, or we are part of each other in some way we cannot now see.

We are not given enough evidence. What we do know is the apparent contradiction: life is sacred, and most of it gets wasted. The sanctity of life baffles us. On other questions lack of understanding often drives us to intense research; in this case it frightens us off.

Usually our society is over-confident that our science enables us to know exactly what is happening. When we focus on individual life and death issues our confidence crumbles. The gut feeling that we are entering dangerous territory, a gut feeling which in pre-scientific societies would have kicked in far more often – to warn against eating pork, or growing food on holy land, or committing forbidden sex acts – still exists when facing the prospect of deciding to end a person’s life.