Exposition Of Wicks Concept Of Human Right And Value To Life

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Human right to life is the most fundamental of all human rights. In her book, The Right to Life and Conflicting Interests, Wicks (2010: 1), begins by noting that ‘the life on earth is diverse and abundant. From simple bacteria and virus through to the more complex mammals, it has survived global catastrophes and mass extinction. Life has endured.’ In her conception of the right to life, however, Wicks’ concern is not on the diversity of life on earth but the ‘special ethical protection accorded to human life’ (Schweitzer 1929). Thus, Wicks think that our starting point to understand the issue of the right to life, is addressing a preliminary question: ‘What makes human life special in a world where life abounds and if the ethical code should revere human life, we can begin to consider whether, and if so why protect it (Wicks 2010: 2). To address this question, Wicks draws thoughts from distinct sources (religious belief, philosophical thoughts and international law) to explain by setting forth in careful and elaborate detail her understanding of human right to life.

Religious Belief

The contribution made by religion to the development of a concept of the moral right to life cannot be ignored. It has been argued that ‘all of the great religious traditions share a universal dissatisfaction with the world as it is and a determination to make it better by addressing the meaning of human life, the worth and dignity of all persons, and, consequently, the duty toward those who suffer’ (Lauren 2003: 5). Perhaps, a good starting point for consideration of this issue according to Wicks (2003: 23) is a look at the Judaeo-Christian tradition both the Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Torah. The narratives from the Old Testament (mainly the book of Genesis) shares the notion of the origin of humanity and leaves no doubt that human life is a peculiar value and should be treated as such. For example, the first command from God to Adan and Eve regarding the tree of knowledge; ‘on the day you eat from it you shall surely die’ (Gen 2: 17). Furthermore, it is in the same book God punishes Cain for murdering his brother Abel. Nevertheless, this raises the question of how, at this early stage in human history, Cain can be expected to know that taking human life is prohibited by God.

Novak (2007:37) argues that ‘the answer seems to be that Cain and Abel were both expected to be aware of the fact that they had been created in the image of God. As such, an assault on the image is identical to an assault on the one whose image has been assaulted.’ Genesis 9:6 makes this point more explicit where it is stated that ‘whoever sheds human blood by humans shall his blood be shed because in the image of God he made humankind.’ This has been described as an early expression of the now infamous equation of ‘a life for a life’ (Ex 21:23; Lev 24:18). This severe punishment for killing another human being serves both to highlight the value placed upon human life in both the Old Testament and the Torah, as well as to imply that some killings are justified (Wicks 2010:23). Novak (2007:36) argues that the pronouncement in the context of the book of Genesis 2:17, is not merely an issue of punishment fitting the crime, but the killing of human life is an assault on God in whose image humankind is made. This is a fundamental principle both in Genesis and in the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

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Modern Christianity also continues to assert a similar principle as of fundamental value. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II declares that ‘Man’s life comes from God, it is his gift, his image and imprint, a sharing in his breadth of life. God, therefore, is the sole Lord of this life: man cannot do with it as he wills. The sacredness of life has its foundation in God and his creative activity, for God made man in his own image’ (EV 39). As implied by John Paul II, in conjunction with the concept that God created humans in his image, this belief affirms the concept of God as the giver of life. Novak (2007: 124) regards this as solid scriptural support for the position that God alone has the right to take back the breath of any of his human creatures because God alone directly gave it or placed it in the human body.

The value placed upon human life in Judeo-Christian tradition is not exceptional because other major religions of the world share a belief in the value of life (Wicks 2010: 22-26). In Islam, many verses of the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad acknowledge the ‘sanctity of human life, enjoin its protection and prohibit its arbitrary deprivation’ (Baderin 2003: 67). The sanctity of life in Islamic thought is regarded as having a divinely ordained purpose and destiny. The Qur’an states that ‘from God we are and to God is our return’ (Qur’an 2: 156). The taking of life is expressly prohibited elsewhere in the Qur’an: ‘take not life which God has made sacred, except for just cause’ (Qur’an 5: 32). Each of these statements of the prohibition on the taking of life incorporates a wide exception where the taking of life is justified. Baderin justifies that this limited protection for life is reflected in the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights (CDHRI) which is the response of Islamic states to the UDHRI and reveals a reconciliation between Muslim values and individual rights. Article 2 states that ‘life is God-given gift and the right to life is guaranteed to every human being. Individuals, societies and states have to safeguard this right against any violation’ (CDHRI 1990).

In Hinduism, preserving and promoting human life, in particular by procreating, is regarded as the central aspect of dharma and thus is the duty of each Hindu (Wicks 2010:27). The religion advocates respect for all life although the caste system facilitates discrimination and may undermine the idea that all human life is equal. The Sikhism also places a high value on human life, while Buddhism places the value of life at the core of its philosophy, although it emphasises respect for all living things rather than just human life. The reverence of life in Buddhism is related to the concept of karma. As Morgan (2007:63) explains, ‘taking a life is thought to be morally harmful to those who make the decision and brings negative karma.’ However, Morgan emphasises that each case is taken on its merits and that the intention of the person taking a life will be relevant. There is always some Karmic responsibility for the taking of life, but it is balanced by good intentions. This view means that moral absolutes are rear in Buddhist thinking (Ibid 88-89). This brief investigation of the value placed upon human life in the major religious traditions demonstrates that religion has contributed greatly to the protections afforded to human life.

Philosophical Thoughts

It is now useful to consider the philosophical foundations for a right to life stemming from some famous philosophers. In his five dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno and Phaedo, Plato (2002:42) highlights that the Socrates begins reflecting the issue dominant in religious thinking about the value of life, namely that our lives are a gift from gods; ‘the gods are our guardians and … men are one of their possessions… perhaps then, put in this way, it is not unreasonable that one should not kill before a god had indicated some necessity to do so, like the necessity now put upon us.’ Socrates at least according to Plato made clear that he did not regard death as the end but goes further and regards life as mere preparation for the afterlife.

In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant (2002:428) argues that man is an end in himself and should never be treated as means to an end. Kant applies this rule to us persons because our nature already marks us out as ends in ourselves. He further explains that this imposes a limit on all arbitrary treatment of persons. ‘Persons, therefore, are not merely subjective ends, that is things whose existence is in itself an end such that in its place we can put no other end to which they should serve simply as means’ (ibid 428). This idea of the human as end in itself has consequences not only for the way we treat others but also for the way we treat ourselves. Looking at more recent attempt to analyse the value of human life, Wicks affirms Dworkin’s understanding of the sanctity of life against the backdrop of the heated debates on abortion and Euthanasia.

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