What’s My Worth, in the Big Lifeboat?

Many views of a person’s ‘worth’. In Western culture, the most common  (and increasingly emphasized) concept of worth is ‘wealth’, or ‘riches’. This holds great and long-standing fascination for most people – especially the poor. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was a popular TV series (1984-1995). Why did the smart phone era kill that? It certainly didn’t lessen people’s drive for, and interest in money. And today, the ‘world’s richest people’ are constantly in the news, since the very few at the top have most of Western World Wealth. According to Inequality.org, as of Oct 18, ’21, the top five richest Americans own $70 T, which is about 66% more than all the bottom half of U.S. citizens combined.

In Ancient Greek philosophy, Aristotle and Plato pretty well cover the meaning of Value, or Goodness between them. Aristotle was Plato’s pupil and colleague for 20 years, but they had very different views about what is or has value. The Renaissance painter Raphael depicted his concept of these two in The School of Athens. Plato points upward to the heavens; Aristotle gestures outward to this world. BBC published a wonderful analysis of the iconic painting, on its 500th anniversary, revealing its secret messages.Both Aristotle and Plato sought the highest good, or Goodness Itself. Aristotle says the highest good has three characteristics: it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake. Happiness or good living (eu zên), meets those criteria, sometimes called Eudaimonia. The latter term has nothing to do with supernatural authority as Aristotles uses it. It means,  in effect, living as the Gods live – ‘the good life’.

Plato’s perspective is harder to pin down, because his views changed. The texts I prefer are all from his ‘middle period’. One thing is sure; he added a specifically spiritual element, missing in Aristotle. There is only One Ultimate Good – The Divine (God) – which is the origin of everything. How and whether humans get to know or participate in that Divine One is an issue. The Being and Essence of that God differs from ‘monotheistic’ religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, just as the latter differ from each other, and within their own sects.

In Book VI of The Republic, Plato discussed the Idea of the Good (or ‘Ideal Goodness’) which is Goodness Itself (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα) [See Rep 508e2-3], which I would The Divine. He also wonders whether and how our inner self (our soul) might know or experience the Divine, in an allegory regarding the human soul. It’s a composite picture: a chariot, drawn by 2 winged horses, is guided by a charioteer, who symbolizes human reason. The horses have completely opposite characters. One is high spirited and manageable; the other lustful and ill-tempered. If reason and the good steed win out, the soul is carried to the uppermost reaches of the universe, and can see Goodness Itself, in the Realm of the Gods, for many ages. But given human nature, it eventually sheds those wings, and falls to earth again, until the the same cycle can start again. [See Phaedrus 246a-254e]

Do human lives have absolute or relative value? Although many  quote the common saying, ‘Every life is priceless’, or ‘All lives matter’. In fact, just saying that is glib at best, and often can be taken as insulting or even hypocritical. I can picture someone living in a mansion, with a sign out front saying ‘Black Lives Matter’, hoping to prevent an angry underclass Black, Brown or Homeless person from throwing a rock through the window.

In practice there have always been limits. In ancient Europe there was the idea of ‘blood money’, or paying back – sometimes called the law of retaliation (lex talionis) or ‘an eye for an eye’ in Jewish law, or just ‘getting even’. But what is ‘even’? That depended on who lost what, which was completely skewed by class distinctions. Moreover, it was rejected by Jesus, telling followers to ‘Turn the other Cheek’, ‘Carry the load a second mile’, etc. (Matt 5: 38-42) All of these ideas of how to live justly were made more practical when modern governments chose a dollar amount as the worth of a life, e.g. in insurance claims. The ideal of how to live a moral or spiritual life dropped out of the picture.

By current international standards, a person is worth $50,000, although according to this Time article it’s ‘really’ worth $129,000. Could courts also add funds for ‘reparations’ or ‘pain and  suffering’ to those who had lost a loved one? The sales of businesses often include ‘good will’ value – i.e. how much customers care about the business. Could that eventually apply to how much ‘good will’ value a dead person had while alive? Is this silly speculation or within reasonable expectations? I would say both, as the whole issue is so fraught, in terms of economics, politics, religion, and social conditions.

To further complicate the legal question of worth, in many legal cases, judges are mistaken, or even corrupted. And the existence of laws, even up to the national and international level, doesn’t guarantee just outcomes. Is there a universal law to guide practical choices? In the opinion of some (perhaps most) people today, no such law exists. Others speak of the Laws of God and Man (as in the Declaration of Independence). Philosophers have spoken of absolute standards of right and value (which are the same as truth, and goodness). As noted above, Plato says that God is the source of both. You see the complexity of Worth, Value, or Goodness; they’re all interrelated.

In modern philosophy, there are two main views of what is objectively, absolutely Good – Consequentialist v. Deontologist. These parallel the ancient views of Aristotle and Plato. Consequentialism is represented in different ways by Jeremy Bentham’s idea of Hedonism and by J. S. Mill’s idea of Utility. Deontology – from Greek deon (law) – is most famously presented by Immanuel Kant, especially in the development of his Categorical Imperative (an obligatory, very hard read for all serious philosophy students).

It’s always been a problem to measure happiness. The Australian ethicist Peter Seller takes a pragmatic, secular approach to such questions. Being an atheist, he doesn’t worry about religious views. He says we should ‘Give to the needy until it hurts’ literally. That is, give to the point where any more giving would hamper your ability to take care of yourself, and those who depend on you. Seller belongs to the Consequentialist camp of modern philosophy regarding the concept of worth, value, or in short, What’s Good.

There’s also a difference between ‘first in time’ and ‘first in importance’ that plays into this.  For instance, we all need money before we can care for our family.  But does the end justify means? Bentham and Mill would say yes, but in different ways. So long as happiness is maximized, the action is good. Plato, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant would say no. A thief today might say yes or no, depending on his/ her conscience, religion, education or situation. What would you say?

One problem for the consequentialist, or Utilitarian philosophy was always how to measure happiness. But just 16 years ago (2005) Richard Layard, in an article for Prospect Magazine (London), says Happiness is Back, which claims happiness can now be measured. I’m very skeptical of that claim; I think happiness is mental, not behavioral or biological.

In my ethics classes, I often used the Harvard series on situational ethics, to help students recognize ethical issues, and discuss how they might be resolved. Many very interesting questions and opinions resulted. E.g., Are all people equally valuable? In whose eyes? In the way they are treated by other persons in their own community; or in a different community? Think of the lowest socio-economic classes – Blacks, Browns, the Poor, etc. What are they worth? If we judge by how much concern and attention they get – not very much. A very recent personal experience shocked me, because it related to my own family. They live in an affluent northern suburb of Chicago. An acquaintance of one of my grandchildren went missing. Two other grandchildren, who had attended the same highschool, heard of this and joined in the hunt, putting posters all over the City, including where I live. As it turns out, his body was recovered in Lake Michigan, far from where he’d last been seen. Details are under investigation. I’ll publish the poster, since it certainly wasn’t a private issue. This leads naturally into the topic mentioned in my title.

Lifeboat Ethics I might ask students to imagine a lifeboat on the high seas, dropped from a sinking ship, with no land or rescue in view or reasonably expected. The occupants are a mother with her nursing child, a ship’s navigator, a teenaged young man who is delerious with fever. A very old man whose wife went down with the ship, a business magnate whose company provides jobs and income for thousands of imployees, and finally, let’s add a 50 year old minister with a large congregation and to bring it closer to my intereests, an old ethics professor. The issue was that one occupant of the boat had to be ‘sacrificed’ for the rest; otherwise the boat would sink with all abord.

I was interested in a discussion on Quora about this topic, though some of it seemed petty or pointless. But one commenter caught my interest. Instead of evaluating the alleged relative worth of occupants, this person said the key criterion was how many years of life on earth remained. Obviously, then, old people should leave the boat, either voluntarily or by force. That’s not an answer one could expect in any traditional (e.g. Confucian) society.

Not everyone thinks money brings happiness. American poet Edwin A. Robinson was one. His 4 stanza poem, Richard Cory (1897) expresses this view perfectly. I won’t give any spoilers, so please read the poem here. Robinson lived a lonely life, which saw the Gay Nineties, the Age of Robber Barons, and the financial depression that followed. Some critics thought he viewed life as a prison. Responding to such complaints he said, “The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” I think that language is wonderful, and its spirit is moving. His was an era when people could still express religious opinions without embarrassment or rancor.

It’s All About Love Finally, in my view, ultimately each person has equal value in God’s eyes; i.e., God determines our worth as individuals. How much is that? In one sense, unlimited; in another, limited. Love determines value and the happiness that goes with it – not only God’s love which is infinite, but our own love which is finite. Because he must respect our freedom, he lets us choose. Refuse his love, and live selfish, frustrated and painful lives here and forever; or accept his love, and live kind, free and joyful lives, here and forever.