The value of a life in “The Bridge”

Following my previous post, which dealt with boundaries we draw when considering moral issues, and attempted to problematise where we draw some of those boundaries, I watched an episode of “The Bridge” which brought up some linked thoughts.

I hasten to say that I don’t usually enjoy having to read films and TV programmes (the series is in Swedish and Danish with subtitles), particularly when the language is close enough to my own to keep making me think that if I listened just a bit harder I would understand it (I live in a part of England with a lot of dialect and accent influence from Scandinavia), but I got sucked in by a somewhat bizarre start point (which got more bizarre before the end of the first episode) and by the interplay of two detectives with hugely different characters, one of whom is “a bit diferent”.

In that episode, the background is that an apparently socially conscious serial killer has kidnapped a bus full of schoolchildren and has promised to let them go, but on the condition that buildings belonging to five companies all of whom profit from child labour (in effect, slavery) are burned (slightly complicated by the fact that the perpetrator has identified them only by what they sell…). This becoming public, various people duly go and commit arson, and there’s a nailbiting finish as there’s a fire at a chocolate factory moments before the deadline runs out, and the box saying “chocolate” winks out; in the newspaper offices where this is being watched, a cheer goes up – and the viewer is inclined to cheer with them.

The thing is, even in that episode, you have to think that the background is that everyone dealing with those companies has been contributing to child slavery; why is it that five schoolchildren of the same nationality have to be in danger of dying in order to focus people’s minds on the destruction of the lives of many more children in other countries? Why do we think that very significant acts of arson against private property should be celebrated, and do we think that those five children’s lives are worth enough to justify this criminal behaviour? Why especially as, in order to save a little money ourselves, we have been buying from the slave-labour companies?

Earlier episodes, in fact, highlighted the lack of concern of many people to the death of several homeless people, an immigrant and the ambivalence of the slow, public death of a very violent robber and bully by the draining of his blood.

One cannot avoid thinking that there’s huge concern about five children, but very little about those homeless people, an immigrant and the violent guy. We may, perhaps, say that all life is sacred, but we act as if children are more valuable than adults as long as those adults are people we don’t identify with or who aren’t of specific economic benefit to us (there’s an issue in a later episode about how a rich guy who has killed someone by drunk driving has got away with it, for instance). We act as if the mere fact of the life of a child is valuable, but the quality of the lives of a greater number of children is not.

In fact, we seem to think that children, including the unborn, have infinite value (as long as they’re fairly much like us), but adults have a specific financial value, and those who are socially marginal have little or none. At least, we do outside the realm of the UK courts, where the value of a human life is routinely assessed based largely on earning potential; this tends to result in fairly low figures for infants, whose earning potential cannot be assessed. Things are somewhat different in the US courts, where damages are assessed by juries; I’ve occasionally suggested that as the value of a life is incalculable, the States puts a mind-blowingly high value on it, while the UK basically says it has no value in and of itself, just what it can be predicted to provide for others in the future.

In fact, things are different in a lot of other places and cultures, from the far lower amounts which some systems allocate to any lives to those which are still operating (if not notionally, then on a cultural level)  according to the kind of rules which operated in Biblical times, when children were basically of no value at all until they’d reached the age of a month and were a possession of their father thereafter until some arbitrary age when they were decreed adult (if male) or married off (if female) – or even those of still earlier times when unwanted children were just discarded, exposed to the elements and the local wildlife which was in those days generally entirely capable of eating a baby or three.

We also seem to have an elevated view of the character of children – “innocents” is the watchword there. I don’t think this is due to Jesus’ statements in Matt. 19:14 or Matt. 18:3, either; both were largely ignored in the notionally Christian western Europe until at the earliest the early 19th century. However, psychological studies seem to demonstrate that the very young are fundamentally sociopathic narcissists, who think only of self (once they form the idea that “self” is not continuous with the rest of the world) and are born manipulative; my own observation of children doesn’t disagree. Only later do a sizeable proportion become socialised and fit to be regarded, in my eyes, as fully human. Some, of course, avoid this socialisation and become criminals or company executives.

We then proceed to have a confused idea of when to promote people to having full adult responsibility. Not infrequently, we allow teenagers to fight for us, but not to drink alcohol or smoke tobacco; ages of consent for sex vary vastly depending on what country you are in, as do ages of legal liability for criminal offences and ages when the punishment of offenders is upgraded to “adult”. In this week’s Global Christian perspectives, Elgin Hushbeck bemoaned the fact that we allow teenagers freedom without responsibility, but we also impute some of them with responsibility without freedom. It is hardly surprising that many of them seem confused as to what they actually are!

It seems to me that we are operating by taboo when we so protect the very young, a taboo which I think was born of Victorian sentimentality (which, on the good side, also ended child labour). We are not operating logically, nor are we operating out of the Christian value of valuing life irrespective of its utility to society or conformity with social norms. What motivates us is taboo, prejudice and, sometimes, xenophobia. This really will not do.

Personally, I think this is an area in which we have to make hard moral choices, as indeed some of the cast of “The Bridge” are presented with. We could say that the mere existence of human life is a good so great that anything else should be sacrificed in comparison. In that case, we would also, in order to be rational, have to forswear capital punishment, war and lethal force in self-defence or even law enforcement. I suggest that rationality would also demand that we then also collectively provide for every human life within our society to at least a basic level, say level 2 (so that both physiological and safety needs are provided for everyone); maybe even level 3, providing also for love and belonging. The mere presence of life, it seems to me, is not sufficient when that life is going to be, as Thomas Hobbes put it “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Alternatively, we can attempt the extremely difficult task faced by the courts in cases of civil actions for wrongful death, and value every life as dispassionately as we can. And if we do this, as the experience of the courts shows, the very young and the very old have very little value.

What price the busload of children under that paradigm?


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