Quality of life

How do you compare the value of one person’s life to another’s? If two people are about to die, and you can save one, which one should you save? Most of my students last summer assumed that you should save the one whose life is going to have less suffering.

It makes a kind of sense, I suppose. Killing someone is taking away their future. To figure out how much harm you’ve done them, you should figure out how good their future would have been. If someone was going to suffer a lot anyway, they haven’t lost much if they die now.

That is, quality of life can be measured in terms of how little someone suffers.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t think suffering, just by itself, has much to do with quality of life.

If X suffers, and Y does not, then all other things being equal, X’s life must have less net good in it than Y’s. But all other things are never equal in the cases we consider. Suffering comes bundled with very good things, like free will or having a meaningful life or loving others. Rocks don’t suffer but have no life at all. Jesus (for example) suffered tremendously but also presumably had a wonderful “quality of life”.

I said that suffering doesn’t have much to do with quality of life. In fact I think one could even argue that suffering for the right reason tends to be linked to a higher quality of life.

What about people who are being tortured, or who grow up in such horrendous conditions that they have no chance to find any value in life beyond merely surviving? I admit that there may be some cases like that, but my students weren’t focused on those cases. They were saying things like, “suppose this baby will grow up in a poor family – then it might be better off for him not to live at all”.

In class we studied the “the argument from evil”. It runs like this: an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God would not have allowed evil, yet evil exists, and so therefore there must be no such God. We also studied the typical response to this argument, which is to say that the best possible world God could have created would be one with evil in it. Evil exists as the necessary consequence of a greater good. My argument is similar, but applied to individual lives. I claim that some of the lives of highest quality will also have lots of suffering in them.

(My Christian take on this post is over at my personal blog.)

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