I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica for the past few months (warning: some spoilers ahead), and generally deeply enjoying the show, particularly President Roslin. Until a few episodes ago when President Roslin decided to ban abortion on the fleet because they needed more babies for the continuation of the human species. People kept dying, and they needed a new generation to replace those who were dead. Thus, in order to save the human race, babies were necessary and abortions were bad.
You can probably guess that I was not impressed with this train of logic. At the crux of the issue is whether or not the continuation of the human species is a positive thing in and of itself. Is it a good thing for human beings to exist? If so, are there additional elements to those lives that make them valuable or is it valuable simply to be alive? Is it possible for negative elements of a life to outweigh the simple value of being alive?
Let’s start with why life itself might be a good thing. Some people would suggest that any life, not simply human life, is always good. We should never kill because life is the most basic thing any creature has. Life is the basis for all other goods. Unfortunately, that doesn’t imply that life by itself is good, but rather that it’s an instrumental good for other things. Another possibility is that humans in particular are uniquely capable of consciousness and awareness in a way that is positive in the universe. Humans are the only species we know of that recognizes and revels in the beauty of the universe, that builds off of the beauty we see in the universe. As Einstein said, “Humans are the universe becoming aware of itself.” There is certainly something poetic about that sentiment, but is it actually a value to be aware? Does consciousness add something to the universe?
It seems entirely possible that if consciousness were inherently a good thing, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be human. There are other creatures out there that are self aware, and it’s entirely possible that there are beings we don’t know of that appreciate the beauty of the world in a way even deeper than we do. Consciousness wouldn’t have to be human in order to be a good thing. But it also doesn’t necessarily make sense that witnessing the world is always good. We often witness horrible things. Wouldn’t we require a world of beauty in order for human appreciation and witness to be of value? Human appreciation of the universe certainly seems to be dependent on the quality of the human lives.
Another possibility is that humans are unique in their ability to be moral, and that the goodness of humanity is a positive in the universe. It’s probably true that human beings doing good things adds some value to the universe, but when we start taking away basic rights from each other it would appear that we’ve pretty well undermined that value. A final possibility is that humans are better than other races because we’re human. The only real arguments I’ve seen for this are religious in nature, and thus don’t hold much water.
But in addition to the lack of reasons that life itself has value, there are some good reasons that life requires some basic rights in order to have value. If we start removing rights and the ability for people to freely seek out the good life, simply being alive (surviving) without thriving is a painful experience. It’s easy to imagine situations in which death would be preferable, and in which some people do in fact attempt or succeed at suicide in order to escape the situation. Certain illnesses, torture, or oppression might fall into this category. Obviously there are some people who would prefer to be alive no matter what, but these situations suggest that for many people, life in and of itself isn’t the most important thing. It suggests that there are circumstances in which living is negative.
This seems to be where we get the idea of basic human rights: these are the things that make life worth living. There is some debate over what would constitute a basic human right, but when we start stripping people of what we believe are rights for the sake of keeping our species alive, we are not only ignoring the fact that the universe can and perhaps should continue on without us quite successfully, but we are also degrading what our species could be simply for the sake of remaining around. On a smaller level, this is on par with a race compromising their ideals and beliefs in order to continue as a race…and while I don’t think banning abortion makes you Hitler, doing it for the sake of continuing the species certainly puts you on a spectrum that’s on par with all the other people who make bad choices in order to maintain an in group.
So what are the things that we shouldn’t compromise simply to keep ourselves safer and our race stronger? These are obviously contentious, but I’d posit a few basics like bodily autonomy, freedom of speech, freedom to organize, freedom of religion…some people might add freedom to own arms, or freedom to own property. It’s a much larger conversation to decide what constitutes the basic qualities of a livable human life, one that is not filled with pain and misery, but regardless of what we see as the basic rights, we should be willing to protect those over our species life in order to keep our species the best possible version of humanity we can. The species is not a living thing that deserves our respect and care. It is simply an organization of other lives, and those individual lives should always be prioritized.
Of course there’s a balance: there are situations where we might have to make some sacrifices in order to save more people. The trolley problem isn’t an insane question. But in this case, Roslin took away a right without a clear positive consequence. The babies not aborted won’t necessarily save the human race, and saving the human race is not necessarily the best thing ever. When we compromise things, we should have a clear image of the good that’s coming out of that compromise rather than a general idea that more people is better.