This node is a response to a comment I recently heard that 'it is better to be dead
than seriously wounded'. Leaving aside the comment's context, I wanted to explore this topic further. Maybe I should state my own opinion on this matter here too, before the impatient ones give me an instant downvote: I do not agree with this statement
myself. I do, however, try to examine both sides of the argument, and those who wish to know why I have come to my conclusion should read on.
The above statement could be read in either of two ways. First, that it would be better for the ‘seriously wounded’ to be dead than to live as a permanently disabled person, disadvantaged as he or she would be in a world of ‘normal’ people, unable to do most – if not all – physical work, and needing the help of others at every turn: even if he could get this help, he would feel so useless and dependent that his life would be so miserable as to be not worth living. Second, that someone with a serious physical handicap would be a drain on society and should be ‘put down’ – he would be unable to contribute anything himself, so there is no need to keep him alive at such great expense, especially when there are others with curable diseases in need of medical resources.
Arguably, a person’s happiness depends on his life having a purpose, a goal to work towards. He is happy when he is making progress towards that goal, and he has hope for its future attainment. When he is wounded, his hope of ever reaching his goal may be shattered, and his life loses direction. Some choose to follow a different goal, and follow a new direction. Others cannot be deterred from their original purpose and merely see their disability as a new challenge to be overcome. Take, for example, the actor, Christopher Reeve, who, after a riding accident, was paralysed from the neck down. Until his death he never lost hope, nor did he give up trying to regain control of his body, and believed firmly that he would eventually live a normal life. He had made astounding progress since his accident, at least partly aided by his incredible positive attitude.
There are people throughout history who would most likely be unheard of if it were not for a serious injury at some point in their lives. Clement Attlee probably would never have become Prime Minister if he had not been badly wounded while serving in the war, subsequently deciding on a career in politics. Had he died instead, he certainly would not be very famous. Paul Wittgenstein was also injured in World War I, and lost his right hand, going on to be a world-famous left-handed pianist. Many composers such as Scriabin, Ravel and Prokofiev wrote pieces for him to perform, which heightened the fame of composers and player alike.
There are similarities with people born with various defects such as missing limbs, and for many diseases that cause paralysis or call for amputations. The main difference between these cases and those of wounds is, of course, that the wounded person has experienced life as a healthy person and therefore can compare his current state with the memory of that of before. Many choose to forget that part of their previous lives by moving on and changing, but many bear their disability and incorporate it into themselves; it becomes part of who they are.
I shall now explore the second interpretation of the statement being discussed, something that can be read as cruel and self-interested. It also follows Herbert Spencer's survival of the fittest maxim, used to summarise Darwin's Theory of Evolution which says that, in the wide world, a creature that is seriously injured is, as far as the rest of its species is concerned, better off dead. If it fights for life and is strong enough to win, at least for long enough to be able to produce offspring, it will pass its ‘strong’ genes on. If it dies, the others of its species will have less competition for food, water, mates and so on. It makes sense for animals not to help each other. And yet humans, on the whole, do.
The fact is that humans, by virtue of their sentience and ability to construct artificial environments, have grown to be different from all other animals. We have central heating, beds, blankets, medicine and bandages, even ice on demand. We also, and just as importantly, have means of living that do not rely on total physical wellbeing. It is possible to live to be eighty years old as a professor, artist, priest or any number of professions that do not involve running for one’s life from predators.
Since Hippocrates, many doctors have been bound by oath to try always to preserve life. Only in extreme and rare circumstances does the human moral instinct go against this oath: euthanasia has been legalised in some countries as an ethical and considerate alternative to needlessly prolonging a life of pain due to terminal illnesses.
In general, the code that most humans follow is that of ‘treat others as you would wish to be treated were you in their place’. Suffering a ‘serious wound’ need not be akin to the terminal illness’ untreatable march toward death, nor the closing of all windows of opportunity. It is possible to lead a happy life in today’s society even having lost a limb, and, ultimately, one’s life is what one makes of it.