Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Moral Worth

ER got me thinking. Again. How do we determine the relative worth of any human life at any given time?

Is the perpetrator of a horrific crime of less intrinsic worth than those of his or her victims? As a practical matter - and I do not mean this lightly - it might be necessary to kill another human being to prevent the deaths of others. Does this mean, however, that this killing is morally justifiable? Does it lessen the burden of responsibility that exists upon the one who kills the perpetrator?

Sometime between the fall of 1993 and spring of 1994 (it had to be then, because I saw it when we lived in Washington), Lisa and I watched an NBC Nightline special on Jeffrey Dahmer. Journalists and producers had managed to piece together a portrait of this cannibalistic serial killer, from his earliest murder as a troubled eighteen year old until his self-confessed multiple slayings and incarceration, and the end result for me was to transform my own view of him from some kind of fiend in to a sad, troubled man whose life might have been different had those closest to him acted on his pleas for help. He may have spent many years institutionalized as a potential danger to himself and others, but his victims would still be alive, as would he. Somehow, the more I learned about Dahmer, the more human he became, the more explicable became his crimes, and the more compassion I felt for him.

I mentioned in comments over at ER's post that a young woman I once knew sat up with Ted Bundy's mother the night he was executed. It took a long time for the meaning of that to sink in, but sink in it did. These men who committed these horrible crimes were, for all they were disturbed, even deranged, still men - in Bundy's case with a mother who had to live with the fact that her son had done horrible things to countless women, over and over again, on a compulsion that drove him even as he knew the authorities were closing in. The short version of all this is that I no longer think of such individuals as "monsters", a term that at once dehumanizes them and elevates my own moral standing, and distances their actions from any set of actions I could possibly perform. They are human beings. Their crimes are within the realm of possibility for any human being, for all that they are evil.

I do not believe there is any moral calculus that can determine the absolute value of any human life, even in the midst of a horror such as a church shooting, or a serial killer in the midst of destroying a human life. I think we are all convicted by the example of the Amish actively forgiving the young man who killed several students at one of their schools. Yet, it is inarguable that it might be necessary, in the heat of the moment, to destroy the life of one person to save the lives of others. Should we, however, surrender to this practical necessity and call it a moral act?

I do not have an answer to this question; I honestly doubt there is an answer to it.

Virtual Tin Cup

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