A thumb pressed against two fingers, and the lean figure of Dr Cruces, head tutor [at the Assassin's School], looming over the startled boys.

"We do not murder," he said. It was a soft voice; the doctor never raised his voice, but he had a way of giving it the pitch and spin that could make it be heard through a hurricane.

"We do not execute. We do not massacre. We never, you may be very certain, we never torture. We have no truck with crimes of passion or hatred or pointless gain. We do not do it for a delight in inhumation, or to feed some secret inner need, or for petty advantage, or for some cause or belief; I tell you, gentlemen, that all these reasons are in the highest degree suspect. Look into the face of a man who will kill you for a belief and your nostrils will snuff up the scent of abomination. Hear a speech declaring a holy war and, I assure you, your ears should catch the clink of evil's scales and the dragging of its monstrous tail over the purity of the language.

"No, we do it for the money.

And, because we above all must know the value of a human life, we do it for a great deal of money.

There can be few cleaner motives, so shorn of all pretense.

Nil mortifi, sine lucre. Remember. No killing without payment."

He paused for a moment.

"And always give a receipt," he added.

-- from "Pyramids" by Terry Pratchett

The above exerpt got me thinking about something last night. The sixth of the Ten Commandments is often misread as "Thou shalt not kill", when in actuality it's translated as "Thou shalt not murder", a significant difference. Killing a criminal in the Hebrew judicial system was not just permissible, it was demanded; so was the waging of war and the killing of enemies on behalf of Yahweh's people. And these attitudes are carried on today, when a legal death sentence or the killing of enemy soldiers on a battlefield is allowed without the punishments reserved for murderers and serial killers.

What is the value of a human life, then? What does it take to make taking a human life legal, or permissible, or conscionable? For the assassins, it's the knowledge that it's just a job; for a military general or a hangman, it's very much the same. They don't kill out of malice or loathing, but they do it on behalf of another party -- the legal system, the national interest, the paying client. They kill for something greater than themselves -- a government, a court, a god. That greater thing has placed a value on the human life before them, and the man then becomes a tool, a living weapon carrying out a sentence given by another.

Adolf Eichmann notwithstanding, it has always been sanctionable to kill another person, as long as you're just following orders or fulfilling the obligations of the law.

There are exceptions in this multicultural world, of course. But I speak as a member of Western civilization, whose mores dominate the world today, whose democratic ideals have been exported to nation after nation across the planet, and with them their central ethics. Killing, we believe, should only be permitted when the greater good demands it. But where does that greater good lie?

Should we follow a religious leader who announces a jihad against another? Or are we expected to second-guess that leader and judge that law against those recorded in the holy books that preceded him?

Should we always be willing to kill if our government asks it of us, as in World War II? Or should we test their rallying cry against our own conscience, as many did during the fighting in Vietnam?

Should we stand by our governors when they stand up for the death penalty? Or should we do everything possible to ensure that possibly-flawed sentences of execution are never carried out?

Should we kill only when it agrees with our conscience?

Or is it enough to just kill for the money?

Since the beginnings of civilization, one of the important measures of a culture has been the value that the members and leaders of that culture place on a human life. As we progress into areas of scientific knowledge that have never been revealed before, we have begun to delve into the actual mechanisms that underpin the life and health of the human organism. At this stage of scientific advances, the possibilities inherent in the knowledge we have gained begin to spill over into the public arena and become topics of often controversial debate.

The real underlying issue with the controversy over issues such as human cloning, abortion, birth-control, euthanasia, eugenics, and other issues that deal with human life or with purposefully altering or ending the life of a human being is the issue of the value and uniqueness of humanity. There are views both religious and secular, but the divisions are actually not clearly defined by either.

Religion and Humanity

In most of the major religions, the human being holds a special place above and separate from the animal kingdom, although this is not a universal tenet of all religions. There are religions that equate the lives of animals with the lives of humans, and those who hold the value of human life above any other consideration. The most easily accessible illustration of the more common view of the uniqueness of the human being in religion comes from the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs:

In Genesis, the account of creation seems to indicate three levels of creation when it comes to organisms - simple organisms, soulish organisms], and one organism with a spirit - mankind.

The account of the fifth day in Genesis relates the creation of birds and sea creatures. This day also contains one of the three uses of the Hebrew verb bara for creation, indicating that the animals created had some new property not already existing, in other words a new thing was created, rather than simply being revealed, as would have been the case had the word haya been used. This does not refer to the physical aspects of the animals, but to some new character they possessed. The Hebrew word for the general type of animal created in this account is nephesh, which doesn’t apply to every living thing, rather it applies to "vital" animals, or those that are "soulish", exhibiting the attributes of mind, will, and emotion.

The sixth day account shows the third use of the word bara for creation, indicating that another new property was created when mankind was formed. The word 'asa, meaning "to make form existing materials was also used to refer to man's creation.

From the context, and usage of different forms of the Hebrew words for creation, it can be inferred that mankind was considered to possess a property that no other creature possessed. The Judeo-Christian view is that this unique quality is the eternal spirit said to be possessed by humans alone.

Author's Note: The preceeding is excerpted from an exegetical study of the book of Genesis I composed a few years ago. As I have given me specific authorization to reprint and revise my comments, I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing myself.

Secularism and Humanity

In the secular view, the idea of human uniqueness or dignity is generally more varied and disparate, based in large part on how much the view relies on natural law - the belief that there exists an underlying right and wrong not based on individual belief systems. Those views that lean heavily on the idea of natural law tend to oppose ideas that place humans on the same level as other organisms, be they as repulsive as cannibalism, or as seemingly benign as cloning or genetic manipulation. At the far other end of the spectrum, those who disdain any objective truth such as natural law tend to see no problem with euthanasia, infanticide in the case of genetic diseases or birth defects, or even eugenics. Most average people would likely fall somewhere in-between the extreme views on either end of this continuum.

Conclusion

In short, this is not so simple as a religion vs. secularism issue. The spectrum of belief on the value of human life has a wide range in both the religious and secular arenas. Rather, the views of an individual or culture on these issues rely on the fundamental beliefs that each of us holds as individuals about the value and uniqueness of human life. Thus it is an issue that is fair, reasonable, and appropriate to discuss as a political and cultural issue, and not as one that pits religious against secularism

Afterward: If this article seems familiar, it is because it was added to a node later consumed by Klaproth. At the behest of the editors, who kindly encouraged me, I have reworked the article to be less specific to the prior node, and reposted it.

When I took Intro to Economics, we had an interesting lecture on this subject. I'm not sure how much I agree with it, but the professor offered an equation useful in calculating, or at least approximating the value of a human life.

Quite simple, really: just multiply the amount of money per person we're willing to spend to prevent a certain risk to a life by the odds against that risk happening to any one particular person. If people are willing to spend that much, then a life is at least that valuable. If not, it is less. Rather cold, but useful to those who can easily stomach such.

Current figures estimate that value at roughly $10,000,000, depending on the social awareness of the risk and the tendency to fear it for potentially irrational reasons.

See also How precious can human life be? There are six billion people on the planet!

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