Euthanasia and Intrinsic Value of Life

Andrew Buhrmann

Life in itself has no specific value to us, other than as the way we can have experiences, and these experiences are what we find to be valuable. Humans do not put the value of life into the physical state of mere aliveness, but give it value through its ability to allow for experiences. Life, as a set of experiences that are good, is what has value, and our capacity to have them is the intrinsic value of life.

Our values of life come from our environment. The heaviest influences are our contacts in our daily life and the culture and society we live within. We as humans also have a certain sense of human community, and with few exceptions, put human life above and separate from all other life. This separation gives our common definition of life an intrinsic value, but it is only from being able to feel alive and enjoy experiences that we have come to give human life any additional value. The value of life, therefore, is one that is not derived from our ability to exist physically, but to exist in the human experience and be a part of experiences that are themselves considered desirable or good.

Life gains its intrinsic value from the ability to experience, and this value is not reducible to the physical, but the physical contains the potential for these experiences. The term physical is particularly broad here, because it would be false and discriminatory to try to contain physical capability as any standard, or to even estimate how experiences can come from it, because the possibilities here are endless. When the physical sense is tied to the notion of quality of life, it disregards what has been found to be valuable in experience. The quality of life as used to describe a person's physical status is an attempt to place value on a person's physical being. When value is attempted to be placed on something other than what we find valuable, it is not likely productive. The intrinsic value of a life is then exclusively linked to experiences.

Apply the idea of life's intrinsic value to euthanasia; it would seem that the potential for life that comes from a working body, which for now will consist of, at a minimum, a brain that functions enough to pump blood or even a body mostly sustained by machines but has a pulse. The working definition here should be considered broad enough to include those in persistent vegetative states, severely retarded, suicidal or in need of machines to support biological function.

When a person is in a persistent vegetative state, has a body that functions only based on lower brain function, and is potentially in poor physical shape, his quality of life will likely come into question. What quality of life means here is that he is potentially in pain, has minimal body functions (he may in fact have no cognitive, vascular, pulmonary or digestive functions at all) and very little chance of recovery. The quality of life argument appeals to our strong emotional attachment to the definition of life as experience. By definition of being alive, this person has at least some brain function and can continue to show basic vital signs, and is therefore a living being. The push to terminate this life comes from our perception that the conditions of this person's state of being do not measure up to what others believe a life should be. If a good quality of life includes having loved ones, being financially stable, and having the basic human needs met (e.g. food, shelter), then does this require us to consider the termination of a diamond miner, who works hard all day and does not have adequate food, clothing, water and shelter and may not have any family at all? No one would argue that, but there are no efforts made to improve his life's quality. If this person is not living at the level considered desirable, then why is he less of a candidate? He has a certain potential to have the good set of experiences because he has a working body, but also no real opportunity to get to these valued experiences. He may have the potential to live a better quality level, but he is also not likely to. This means that our normal quality of life definition is not universal enough to be considered a standard.

Likely the appeal to our emotions that occurs from looking at the quality of a person's life is similar to our use of life's intrinsic value. Our reaction to each point of view comes from two general responses; one tells us a human life is valuable, and also that there is a certain standard at which life is considered to be of a good quality. This conflict is at the heart of mercy killing; robbing potential could produce as bad of a situation as a poor quality of existence. The level of quality cannot be made into a universal standard, nor is it succinct enough to be a measuring point. The ways in which a person can have experiences are endless and should be, so we cannot define, constrict, and confine them to a specific quality standard, which is commonly used in the quality of life argument. As an argument, the quality of life position cannot hold that a person must have a certain specific quality of life. Of course, one can reduce this to an example where the patient has many years of comatose existence, has no real chance of recovery, and even if recovery occurs, may have become too physically deteriorated to continue physically, therefore having a poor quality of life and being a candidate for euthanasia. This is refuted because we allow any level of physical being to dictate what our perception of this life's value might be. It comes forward only because we have an ability to see and have a sense of the physical matters here, which then in effect obscure our vision of the experiential side. If this were used, then it would go against our definition that a life is valuable based on experience, not physical status.

So it follows now that life does not derive value from the physical being, but physical being is used as a standard where evidence of life can be found. Because we can show life through physical means, it becomes our measuring point. We could use this as a basis to say "yes" or "no" when it comes to mercy killing, but that would ignore the experience of the patient. The argument against euthanasia from evidence of physical life has a strong appeal because we have a sense of it, but it does not follow in our understanding of what is valuable.

Showing evidence of experience and mental states is much more difficult, however, regardless of how much or how little knowledge we can have of it, the experiences are the valued set here. This offers then, the protection of a life, which is defined here as a set of experiences, which are occurring beyond any physical existence. This protection is based on the potential for experience without the direct knowledge of experience, that is that our limited knowledge only prevents us from being able to evidence mental experience as easily as physical status, but does not mean our value of experience is diminished any amount.

Our value of life and how it develops into the intrinsic value we assign to human life comes from how we value experiences. Positive experience is held as desirable and is separate from our physical being. Because we have a separation and have assigned that value to the experiential side, physical status is not an acceptable point for determining euthanasia. To do so goes against our inclination that value is derived from the experiences of life.