The measure of a life

"Some lives are better than others," I say, trying to get my students to think about the ancient philosophical question, "How shall we live?" I normally get a mixed response. In an age when we popularly value "the uniqueness of every individual," and "equality," that some lives might be better than others seems counter intuitive. So we have a discussion. The life of a first grade teacher—someone who has devoted her life to caring for little children—is better than the life of a child abuser—someone who has brought untold pain and suffering to children—I suggest. My students, in the end, tend to agree. Though it still leaves some with nagging doubts. Who are we to judge someone else (though we frequently do, and sometimes necessarily so)? How do we know that our version of "better than" is the right version? It's a long and complex task to peel away the layers and complexities of how we make moral judgments.
In a short blog, let me boil it down to values—in philosophy the subject is called axiology. Values come and go, and at different times some values have a higher priority than others, but most cultures and traditions have a set of core values shared in common. Values evolve too. I think we get better at values, building on what has gone before. Our value of equality, for instance, is far more developed today than, say, three hundred years ago,
A good life, at any particular time, is a life that lives and demonstrates the values we hold most dear.
The first grade teacher demonstrates the values we hold about the importance of young lives and their education. The child abuser tramples on our values of respect, bodily integrity, and not causing harm. So, according to our values, the school teacher lives a better life. Other things being equal, our traditions tell us that to live a better life is more valuable than living a worse life.
Jesus told a story to demonstrate that a life a greed is a worse life. A rich man produced so much that he had to pull down his barns to build bigger ones to store all his stuff. The rich man told himself, "Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry." But God said to the rich man that this very night his life would be demanded of him and what then would happen to all his stuff?
Like many of these ancient stories it's designed to make us pause and think. I don't count myself rich (though I know I am by many global standards), but with my various pension schemes I'm hoping that in retirement I might be able to "relax, eat, drink and be merry." But who knows. And that's the point of the story. A better life would not be about hoarding stuff for the future, but a life serving the common good, spreading some love and peace ... or something like that.
It's probably my age, but I religiously watched both the Republican and Democratic national Conventions. (Apparently, it's what the over 55s do, according to an article I read in the Washington Post.) Both conventions finished late each night, and now I am tired. But I learned a lot about the possible future directions of the USA (and for good or ill the rest of the world). Some of it made me laugh, some made me angry, some made me proud to be an American citizen, and some not, some brought me to tears.
I was most deeply moved by the short speech of Mr. Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier, Captain Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq, saving the lives of his comrades. It was a courageous speech, filled with emotion. Mrs. Ghazala Khan stood silently with her husband, clearly still distraught over the death of her son. She later spoke of how difficult it was to maintain composure with the picture of their son behind them.
Toward the end of his speech, speaking about sacrifice for the greater good, Mr. Khan addressed directly Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump. "You have sacrificed nothing and no one."
Behind Mr. Khan's remarks is the value that a life of sacrifice for others is a better life than a life of self-serving.
I have pondered Mr. Khan's words much over the last few days. Though I have been a pacifist for thirty years, and think we go to war far too often and far too quickly, I have always admired those who serve in the military and put their lives at risk. Though Mr. Khan's words were addressed to Mr. Trump, I took them for myself. What have I sacrificed for the good of others? How would my life match up against Captain Khan's?
"How shall we live?" asked the ancient philosophers. An answer we come back to again and again, is that a life lived in service of others is a good life. Are some lives are better than others? I think so.
Today, I honor Mr. and Mrs. Khan, their son Captain Kahn, and the sacrifice that they have made for the common good.
+Ab. Andy