Skip to Content

Life’s Perfection in Brief Measures

As I oscillate between teaching my current courses on biomedical and environmental ethics, I often find myself torn in conflicting directions by the ethical principles at play. While exploring medical ethics, the paramount importance of honoring the intrinsic worth of human life is underscored. Conversely, in my environmental ethics lectures, the shift away from anthropocentrism towards a holistic perspective that situates humans as integral components of a broader biological community is emphasized. The notion of human exceptionalism appears to be the linchpin of ethical healthcare practices and, paradoxically, the root of ecological challenges we face.

This ethical quandary has preoccupied my thoughts for an extended period. My foray into the realm of ethics commenced two decades ago during my undergraduate years at the University of Chicago, where I stumbled upon a seminar titled “The Posthuman and the Death of Nature,” taught by William Schweiker. This course juxtaposed bioethical viewpoints advocating for the unique dignity and status of human beings with environmentalist concerns questioning these assertions of humanity’s distinctiveness. None of the readings we delved into provided a definitive resolution to this tension, leaving me grappling with ambiguity.

Over the course of the intervening twenty years, my perspectives on this issue have undergone significant evolution, with a pivotal shift occurring – perhaps clichéd, yet profound – upon becoming a parent. While acknowledging that parenthood is not a prerequisite for grasping the value of human life, the birth of my twin sons five years ago catalyzed a profound transformation in my outlook. They illuminated for me the essence of affirming the singular dignity of human life that environmentalism inherently requires.

A vivid recollection lingers of the moment I realized that although two of us entered the hospital, four of us emerged. The beings I brought home on that nerve-wracking journey were not mere entities of concern but rather new individuals, new focal points of will and consciousness. While they were yet to engage with us meaningfully for months, the familial dynamic underwent a seismic shift instantaneously. Cradling my sons, I was struck by the entirety of what I held – the profound realization that the beings entrusted to me were unequivocally human. The inherent sublimity, inviolability, and irrevocable humanity embodied by my boys were palpable from the onset.

Tragically, we have friends who experienced the loss of a child during childbirth, arriving at the hospital as a family of three and departing as two. The child they held had already departed. Their sorrow extended beyond the loss of their son’s future, encompassing the irreplaceable absence of the beautiful and miraculous human being that was.

Plato posits that the form of the good is eternal, suggesting that its permanence is integral to its perfection. While this notion holds merit, Aristotle’s assertion that longevity does not inherently enhance goodness resonates with me – a lengthy existence does not inherently augment quality. It is evident to me that the reverence demanded by human life transcends time, eschewing notions of growth, decay, abundance, or scarcity. Whether characterized as eternal or as encapsulated within a singular moment, the essence that commands our reverence in a human life is timeless.

While my conviction regarding the value of even fleeting human life has solidified, I am less perturbed by the notion that acknowledging humanity’s distinctive dignity poses a conundrum for environmental ethics. Firstly, I contend that reverence is not a finite resource; acknowledging the sanctity of human life need not impede our appreciation for the splendor of animals and ecosystems. Secondly, I find environmentalist apprehensions regarding anthropocentrism to be misplaced. Our concerns often veer towards egocentrism or ethnocentrism, seldom truly centering on anthropos, on humanity itself. It is evident that we have yet to embrace true anthropocentrism, to anchor our moral outlook on humanity; how then can we transcend it? If our value systems authentically prioritized humanity – beyond ourselves and our immediate circles – it would inevitably encompass the biosphere that sustains us.

Moreover, I am convinced that recognizing humanity’s unique status is not merely compatible with environmentalism but rather essential to its ethos. If the sublimity of human life lies in its completeness, independent of temporal extension, this paradigm shift is precisely what our planet necessitates.

Drawing from Wendell Berry’s treatise “Quantity vs. Form,” our societal fixation on prolonging life medically and ceaseless pursuit of material gain are symptomatic of a shared affliction – the inability to envision our lives as whole entities. Instead of perceiving human life as possessing inherent completeness, we tend to view it as a linear trajectory. A circle denotes closure, appreciable for its holistic integrity, whereas a line lacks a natural conclusion, quantifiable solely by its length. Our ceaseless quests for prolonged life, increased wealth, and heightened productivity from finite resources stem from a deficiency in grasping the concept of enough. As per Berry’s analysis, we are condemned to lives as fragments, eternally unfinished, insatiable in our desires.

The prospect of human expansion appears boundless, barring catastrophic repercussions, unless as individuals and a society, we cultivate contentment. True contentment necessitates an ideal beyond mere accumulation: transcending the thirst for more power, possessions, or longevity. A pervasive sense of incompleteness is untenable for a fulfilling existence. If we reduce human life to mere capabilities, achievements, or the pursuit of pleasure while evading pain, viewing death and aging as adversaries to be vanquished at any cost, contentment remains elusive. When values are quantified, the allure of excess perpetually beckons. Yet, for a species endowed with near-infinite capabilities to satisfy its desires, this perpetual discontentment heralds inevitable catastrophe.

Berry’s insights suggest that environmentalists need not fret over assertions of the transcendent value of fleeting human moments. It is our capacity to perceive a singular moment as fundamentally enough that can counterbalance our insatiable appetite for more.

I do not refute the notion that lives can be prematurely truncated, often departing too soon. A life that concludes gracefully remains a thing of beauty, and the forfeiture of this possibility constitutes a tragedy. I firmly believe that our ability to acknowledge the unique sufficiency and significance of even a solitary moment of human life grants us the potential to perceive every life as complete and whole. Devoid of this capacity to perceive life in its entirety, we consign ourselves – and our progeny – to a future marred by discontent, avarice, and environmental degradation.

As Ben Johnson eloquently articulates in “The Noble Nature”:

“It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sere:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night—
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.”