Would you die for me?
Think about it a little. I was watching a film in which the line ‘I love you more than life itself’ was used, and it got me thinking: how valuable is my life? Obviously to an objective observer it’s pretty much worthless, a tiny speck in the roiling timeline of the universe. On the other side of the coin (that is, from my perspective) it’s pretty valuable – with the caveat that if I die, I don’t mind particularly as I lack the required awareness. If I look out of the window now and see the trees in the breeze and the sunlight-dappled leaves I think that life is priceless, a fleeting moment of beauty and emotion and vitality in an infinity where everything else is dead and frozen, where icy, hurricane-ridden planets circle endlessly around slowly fading stars until time itself ends. My life, your life, is a vibrant spark in the eternity of cold and that, surely, is more important than anything. From our point of view, we are the only record-keepers in the universe and without consciousness of some description, what is the point? The most expansive vista is wasted if nothing ever sees it, lives in it, dies in it. Priceless.
There we have it, then. The value of your life, my life, is dependent on a point of view. What, then, of the lives of people you don’t know? Someone in the world has died – no; a child, somewhere in the world has died – while you have been reading this post, and you haven’t batted an eyelid. How valuable was their life, to you? We all know about the famines and floods but we sit here, in our comfortable homes, and let it go on. Perhaps we send some money so someone else will fix it, but that’s it. How much money? £5? £10? You just put a price on a human life.
That brings us neatly around to the third point of view – the pure evolutionary one. My life is more important than yours, than anyone’s, because me and my genes will go forward and to hell with anyone or anything else. I will scramble ceaselessly to the top of the pile, not caring upon what or who I am stepping on to make it there, and if you can’t or won’t keep up then it’s not even a pity – just less competition. I like to think that civilisation moderates this, makes us more caring and sympathetic to the plights of others, but ultimately I think a lot of people look out for number 1 above everyone else.
So, would you give your life for me? I was driving down a country lane some years ago, when I came upon a runner jogging in the other direction. Suddenly a car came up behind them, and I was forced to brake – not hard, there was no risk, but I distinctly remember that I’d already made the decision to hit the other car if that’s what it came to. This was not a logical thought regarding the relative resilience of cars and humans. Instead, I can only describe it as politeness. The runner was not at fault so she would take priority – in a slightly different situation I would have ploughed through a central reservation into oncoming traffic to protect her life. In an instant I’d have thrown my life away for that of a complete stranger, and the strength of that feeling is what made this completely-ordinary scene on a winding tree-lined lane so memorable.
Thing is, the human mind is relentlessly optimistic about it’s own survival. Ploughing through a central reservation into oncoming traffic? Running into a burning building? Yeah, it’s risky, but I’ll probably survive. No? What do you mean, no? I would do both of the above, to protect someone’s life. There is a chance I’d make it and that is enough. The question is really in the event of a certain exchange: I would not die for an unknown child in Africa, would not be put to death and have them live. I could try and justify it – my medical training means I could save more lives than that one, yes? My family, friends, girlfriend would be distraught, it would be horrendous for them, I couldn’t inflict that on them. Yes, justifications and excuses to try and hide the fact that ultimately I would choose to live and for another human being to die.
It is not set in stone – I would die so that Partner in Climb could live, I would die for my sister; I would not die for my parents – not because I am unwilling, but because I know it is not what they would want for me. There are people who I wouldn’t give my life for because I know that they would never forgive me and that the burden of guilt would ruin their lives, and people that I would because they have all the world before them Thing is, who am I to make that choice? I am certain about my parents, that they would far rather die than have me die, but for anyone else? Ultimately, I would have to give my life for them because it is not my decision to make. I can’t take that responsibility. Can you?
I want you to imagine a room. In the room is a television screen, and on the screen is me. You cannot talk to me, or anyone else. Under the screen are two buttons. If you press the red button, I die and you live. If you press the yellow button, you die and I live. What do you do?*
*You can play this through with a random stranger instead, but I think it’s more difficult with the direct approach.