Equality is one of the major social and political issues around the world and has been since the late 18th century when a handful of upstart countries decided that feudal systems of landed gentry and enforced caste systems needed to be overthrown. Those early demands for equality changed the world, but there was one problem: they weren’t equal. People of color were valued less than the European Caucasians who were running everything. Indigenous people were considered disposable. Women? Forget it, they hardly had any value at all.
That attitudes have changed since those days is good, but let’s not overlook for a minute how much of a struggle was required to establish those changes and how much those same people groups continue to struggle to maintain tenuous equality that is threatened constantly by those who maliciously believe in white supremacy. How we value human life is under constant attack and, as the world progresses, it is likely to get worse, not better, unless we start talking about it now at a pedestrian level, not academic.
Part of the challenge is that we don’t realize how often the value of life is at the epicenter of our thoughts, actions, and conversations. When I look at some of the articles on my reading list this week, the titles tend to bury the lede in this regard. The Atlantic has “Nora Ephron’s Rules For Middle Aged Happiness.” Author Deborah Copaken explores the value of a uterus and a friend. Slate asks, “When Will It Get Too Hot For The Human Body to Survive?” Matthew Lewis considers that as one heat record after another falls, hundreds of people are unable to survive the high temperatures. Spoiler alert, there’s a link between the value of the environment and human life. The Guardian is on the list twice, once with the story of how a 71-year-old woman changed her life, and ostensibly the value of that life, by lifting weights, and again with the dark story of how “Three Americans Create Enough Carbon Emissions To Kill One Person.” Whose life doesn’t matter in that scenario? Vice jumped into the conversation with an article on how workers are quitting jobs that fail to sufficiently value their work, and their lives.
One of the most disturbing articles this week, evoking emotions from compassion and grief to fear and distress, comes from the San Francisco Chronicle’s “The Jessica Simulation: Love and loss in the age of A.I.” How does it change the value of a person’s life if we can simulate what they might have said months, even years after they’ve died? Producers of a documentary on the life of famed chef Anthony Bourdain came under fire when it was revealed they’d used artificial intelligence to duplicate his voice, causing it to sound as though he were reading letters that, in real life, he’d never read. At least, not out loud. What value do we have after we’re dead? What is the value of our own voice?
We’re having these conversations, we’ve been having these conversations, without consciously realizing that at the essence of all these topics we’re questioning the value of life—ours, our friends, neighbors, celebrities, and that politician we don’t like, whoever it might be. The topic is a big one, more than I can address in one brief moment, so let’s look at some of the high-level stuff first.
Life is this… and that
Let’s start with how we’re defining life. Mind you, how we define life is different than how we define the meaning of life, which is a never-ending search that most likely has no answer outside one’s individual preferences. Beyond the biological elements that serve as the construction materials for life, which some consider a basic part of nature, there is the consideration of how life functions, the role of consciousness, order versus disorder on a molecular level, and where and how did it all start, among other topics.
I distinctly remember an instance where my 16-year-old self was confronted by those questions of life’s origin and, in ignorance, asking, “Why does it matter? Life exists, we are living, and arguing over details we cannot change or influence only distracts from actually living that life.” Never mind that the same 16-year-old would have happily spent hours debating the impact of nationalism on the compositions of Liszt and Chopin had there been a soul in the entire state of Oklahoma willing to have that conversation. We tend to not give much thought to the question of life until our own is threatened or impacted.
One of the important aspects of this conversation is how our definition of life impacts how we value life. If we wish to adhere to Aristotle’s philosophy that life is animation, an inescapable product of nature, then one might consider whether there is any difference in value between my life and that of Frankie, the smashed-face wheezer kitty sitting on my desk wondering why I’m not sleeping like all the other creatures in this house. We are both natural beings and even though we function in distinctly different ways, with unique intent and purpose, if we are neither more than products of nature, then the basic value of our lives might be considered identical.
Should one tend to follow the argument of Descartes that life is purely mechanistic, then one must consider whether humans have any greater value than that of a clock or an automobile. Is the value of our lives dependent on our functionality in either a physical or social sense? Descartes postulated that even one’s emotions, “passions, memory, and imagination” are simply the result of “the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs (Treatise on Man).” As such, it might stand to reason in some minds that as my body stops producing sufficient insulin, affecting the mechanical function of various body parts, my value decreases. In this way of thinking, disease changes one’s value as it upsets the operation of the machine.
Immanuel Kant defined life in terms of self-organization, that it is our rationality, our intelligence, and the ability to exercise both, that gives definition and substance to our existence. Kant also postulated that animals could have rights just as humans have rights, though, perhaps, not identical rights. I’ve asked Frankie and he thinks he has a right to lick at the butter on my bread, raising the question of whether I am somehow impeding on his life by denying him the ability to exercise his rationality. Kant’s philosophy also opens discussions for how the value of one life is influenced by that of others and the communal responsibility one has for maintaining not just the individual organization but the corporate being as well. If you’re wondering how that applies to anything, think in terms of vaccination and the impact of one’s decision whether or not to get jabbed.
Of course, there are hundreds of variations in how one defines life. Toss in Schrödinger and Darwin and Hobbes and the whole topic gets so convoluted that my head hurts thinking about it. Still, the topic is important as we stand on the cusp of what could be humanity’s next great step of evolution, one that could upset the balance of everything we currently believe.
Masks, Vax, and my rights
The reason the philosophical definitions of life matter is because those discussions ultimately influence the decisions we make. Take, for example, the news story this week that restaurants owned by Union Square Hospitality Group now require both staff and guests to show proof of vaccination against Covid-19 beginning after Labor Day. CEO Danny Meyer, whose organizational skills in managing restaurants are held up as an example of excellence, has decided that the lives of vaccinated people, those who made a rational, intelligent decision to get the shot, are greater than that of potentially contagious unvaccinated customers. One might argue that those who refuse to get the widely available shots are demonstrating a lack of rationality and intelligence, but then one is concluding a definition of rational and intelligent that may or may not be accurate.
By contrast, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order this past week forbidding Florida schools from requiring students or staff to wear masks. One might argue that the governor is placing the esoteric value of personal freedom above the actual value of healthy lives. Does personal freedom matter, does any personal right or privilege hold any bearing, if the exercise of that right or privilege potentially results in the extermination or mitigation of life, whether themselves or others?
The United States is not alone in arguing the value of the individual versus the corporate. Western thought and philosophy have long centered, almost exclusively, on the concept of a dominant self while Eastern philosophies emphasized the value of community and one’s participation in and contribution to the greater good. The problem of requiring vaccinations, or any other type of mandate, stems from an essential conflict in the valuations of self versus community. If the greater value belongs to self, then such mandates might be considered immoral and unethical. However, if the greater value, especially from a public health perspective, exists with the community, then mandates to protect the health of that community are essential to maintaining the value of the community.
That such valuations of life are not absolute in one direction or another is frustrating. Regardless of one’s opinion, we all want to be right. We desire the affirmation of large groups of our peers agreeing with our valuation of life and the situations surrounding it. Without that affirmation, we begin to question whether our valuation is correct or valid. If our valuation is not valid, then by extension our entire perspective of life might be drawn into question. Emotion and a lack of reason go on the attack at this point. If our opinion is severely out of line with our perception of our peers and especially our closest friend, then we might consider not only our opinion but our value to be decreased.
Hold on, it gets worse.
Organic or digitally enhanced?
A few months ago, when Elon Musk announced that one of his companies, Neuralink, was working on a chip that would one day be implanted in the brain and improve cognitive function, there were more than a few skeptics if for no other reason than the fact that the billionaire investor has overstated capabilities of one of his companies more than a few times in the past. Despite having shown a video of a monkey seeming to play video games with just his mind, skeptics abounded and the consensus was that it would be years before the FDA would approve any actual human trials.
Then, this past week, a significantly smaller company, Synchron, did what Neuralink has not yet been able to do: get FDA approval to begin human trials. There are six people involved in the initial tests. The primary reason the Synchron device achieved such status ahead of the well-funded Neuralink is largely that its process of inserting the chip is significantly less invasive. The procedure is quite similar to putting in a stint, which is almost commonplace.
Neuralink, for its part, announced a couple of days later that they were receiving another $205 million in funding, but when a smaller company can do more on less, one has to assume the bloated billionaire-backed company may be slowed by its own weight and less competitive than Musk would like to believe.
What we can be certain of is that there are now more people paying attention to this field of research than there was this time last week. The implications are significant across almost every area of business, government, and medicine. For business, it holds the opportunity to increase knowledge for highly skilled positions without waiting for years of training. For medicine, it offers the potential to diagnose and cure neurological diseases without any further surgical procedures and a greater understanding of the brain’s relationship to the body.
For governments, though, the technology is potentially a weapon, the ability to build highly efficient, obedient, and loyal armies programmed to kill without all those messy emotions getting in the way. A few people with implants moving into a neighborhood, vocally supporting the current government or regime could sway elections and public opinion on political matters, keeping a party or a dictator in power for decades.
And as all these changes occur, some obvious others, perhaps, not so much, another shift takes place. Like the division between those who are vaccinated and those who are not, the population becomes divided, and this time, perhaps not by choice. Getting the implant may not be a matter of personal choice but one of being chosen, a position of privilege, subject to the whims and biases of those providing the chips. Either way, there is an inevitable division and with such a division comes a change in how we value life. Which is greater, the purely organic brain or the one enhanced and stimulated by science? Which holds greater benefit to society, the economy, and the greater good of the world? Do the rights of one exceed the rights of the other?
We likely have little more than a decade before such questions become pertinent. How we handle the question of valuation, differences between vaxed and unvaxed people, sets the stage for how we are likely to respond to chipped versus unchipped brains. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that humans have a horrible track record of devaluing those they consider inferior. If brain implants are positioned as being necessary for public health, then those who refuse, like those who are unvaccinated, would likely be devalued.
The transition is just beginning and the questions don’t get any easier.
No answers, only more questions
For this week, we end with the following questions:
- How do you define life? Not just any life, but your life? Is it strictly an inescapable biological function forced on you at birth, or are you something more, a cohesive and more or less organized combination of desires and influences, reason and intelligence? Define life first for yourself before looking outward.
- What is the value of your life as you have defined it? Do you possess economic benefit to yourself, your family, or society? Is your value connected to things you know or skills you have? Or is there an intrinsic value in the simple fact that by existing, you create benefits you might not recognize?
- Is the value of your life in any way dependent upon the value you place on other lives? Are you willing to exclude yourself as an independent source who holds benefit apart from the whole? Or is it only through social interaction and participation that the value of your existence becomes apparent?
There is a lot to unwrap in these discussions as we drill down into the meat of what it all means. I know that Frankie considers my thought process too slow and my writing too involved and time-consuming. He has left my desk and curled up in a cupboard on top of my clean clothes. From his perspective, he is adding value by letting me derive a measure of happiness from his company and his ability to provide illustrations to my points. From my perspective, I’m happy to have a lint brush. The inanimate lint brush has value.
We’re just getting started and as my desire to sit around reading is interrupted by things like kids returning to school, laundry needing to be done, photographs needing to be processed, and meals to be prepared, I cannot promise that I will have new articles ready every week. Still, I hope you stay with me, interact, answer the questions as best you can. Let me know what you’re thinking. Together, we’ll move forward.
We Need Your Help
We’ve hit a snag and desperately need your help more than ever. Specifically, sending charles back to school isn’t going smoothly as his request for financial aid was declined. That means if he goes back to school, everything has to come out of his own pocket. Everything. Total cost: about $7,000 per semester at least for the first two semesters. After that, we’ll have to re-evaluate. That’s not going to happen on what little charles makes.
We’ve changed donation methods, for now, to hopefully make it a little easier and more transparent. You can pay directly through PayPal using either a credit card or your own PayPal account. With this new delay, charles’ target for starting classes is now Fall ‘22. That gives us roughly a year to come up with the funds. If you listen to these podcasts, if you enjoy what charles writes, perhaps you see the value in donating, maybe even on a monthly basis rather than trying to do a lot all at once.
We would also appreciate you helping us spread the word about these podcasts. charles puts a lot of work into each one and annoys the family to no small end when he’s recording them. Growing our audience increases the opportunity to meet our goals.
Whether you donate today or not, thank you for listening and/or reading. We appreciate you being here.