How do we value a life?

May 28, 2020 by

By Martin Down, CEN:

Let’s start at the beginning. We obviously value a human life more than we value the life of an animal or an insect. I cheerfully swat a mosquito or a fly, and most of us cheerfully eat meat, at the cost of the life of a cow or a chicken. An Animal Rights activist might say that a cow or a chicken has as much right to life as I do. But if it were a matter of saving the life of a child or a dog in a house fire, most people, even Animal Rights activists, would save the child before the dog: the child’s life is of more value than the dog’s.

God loves all his creatures, but “you are worth more than many sparrows.” But where does this stop. We live too close to the Holocaust in Germany to forget that a similar differentiation was then made between the lives of some human beings and others. As a deduction from social Darwinism, the Nazis believed that the lives of one group of humans, the Aryan master race, were of more value than the lives of other groups of humans, the Jews or the Gypsies, or people with mental or physical defects. The latter could be sent to the gas-chambers or worked to death. Such racial differentiation was not new or peculiar to Nazi Germany.

The institution of black slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries was justified on the grounds that some were an inferior race, whose lives were less valuable than those of whites. Today, our culture is horrified by the idea of such discrimination. The whole Human Rights movement exists to assert that the lives of all human beings are of equal value, regardless of colour, race, sex, or age. Yet we still do recognize that some lives have more value than others.

The supporters of Dignitas in Switzerland say that some lives are no longer worth living at all, and that if a life comes to that point, a person should have the right to be humanely killed. Dignitas is only a tip of an iceberg. Many people campaign for the legalisation of assisted suicide. Public objections mainly concerns the danger of opening the door to the [i] involuntary killing of such sick or suffering people. We all recognise in this context that, sometimes, people reach a point where they feel that life is not worth living, a point at which they would be glad to die.

Advance Decision

There is another course that we can follow as individuals, as we contemplate such a situation. We can make an Advance Decision. My wife and I have both signed documents stating that, if we have a terminal illness nearing the end of its course, or if we are unconscious and unlikely to regain consciousness, or if we are severely and permanently mentally impaired, then we do not wish to be resuscitated; we do not wish to be tube fed; and we do not wish to be ventilated. In a word, we do not want our lives to be artificially prolonged, but would prefer to be allowed to die naturally. For many people in our 21st century hedonistic society, such considerations as these about the value of life are unthinkable.

But this does not help in making good decisions, either personal or political, in the context of the present coronavirus crisis. There is a different value to life in different circumstances of age and health. Here is a graph, produced by the government’s ONS. It shows deaths in April (the peak of the present epidemic) per 100,000 of the population, analysed by age (and sex).

It shows that for all practical purposes, there were no deaths of people under 50 (i.e. less than 3 deaths per 100,000), and after that, very a small number of deaths even up to age 65, (ie amongst all those of working age). We can assume that coronavirus infects equally people of all ages, but the consequences of infection obviously vary enormously for different age groups. Children rarely show any symptoms of infection at all. Adults of working age suffer different degrees of illness, depending to some extent on whether they have pre-existing medical conditions. But according to the ONS graph, almost no one in these age groups dies. Deaths from Covid 19 are almost entirely amongst people over 65, many of whom, obviously, are by then suffering from other health problems, mental or physical.

In the light of this, was it really a good idea to shut down the whole country, to mortgage the economy, to stop the children from going to school, to prevent half the population going to work, and to put an end to all social life and worship, just to protect the lives of the old and vulnerable, who could have been sheltered in any case? When the epidemic began of course, no government knew how the disease would spread or who would be particularly vulnerable.

But with hindsight, perhaps Sweden chose a better way. To put it bluntly, we have extended the lives of some of the oldest by a few months or a few years, at the cost of interrupting the education of the youngest, the livelihoods of man people of working age, damaging the mental health of many, postponing the treatment of other life-threatening illnesses, and shattering the nation’s economy, with unknown consequences for decades to come.

Because the virus has taken this specific course and killed, above all, the oldest among us, particular concern has focused on those in Care Homes. In some areas half the deaths have been of those in such Care Homes. The high death rates there are at least partly the result of a decision in mid-March, to empty the hospitals of the elderly in order to make room for Covid patients.

Those who were discharged were not tested for Covid, so some were sent to Care Homes carrying the infection. That was obviously, with hindsight, another poor decision. In the confined environment of a Care Home the disease quickly spread. Lock-down in Care Homes then meant that residents had to be segregated in their own rooms, cut off from contact, not only from each other, but also from their own family and friends: in a word, solitary confinement. A woman trying to get her mother out of a Care Home in lockdown wrote, “I feel that she is going to die (not of Covid, but of sheer loneliness) and she’ll go to her grave not seeing her family or feeling our love. I understand that Care Homes are keeping vulnerable people safe, but what’s better: quality or quantity of life?”

Quality or quantity

It is a question to consider: which is of more value, quality or quantity of life? But we also need to consider the question of quantity. Going back to the house fire: if you had to choose between saving the life of a 15-year-old and the life of an 85-year-old, which would you choose? And if you chose the 15-yearold, I think the 85-year-old would agree with you. When we arrive at an advanced age in a Care Home or even in our own homes, most of life’s experiences and opportunities are, for better or worse, behind us: growing up, education, sex, marriage, career, children, active retirement with holidays, golf or whatever. What does the future hold? Not much. Days sitting in an armchair, with the television on in the background, visits perhaps from our children, or grandchildren, all of whom live busy lives, contact with friends perhaps in the Home or outside – and death.

This is not to disparage the care that we receive in old age, or the love that we still feel for those who are near and dear to us, and the love they still feel for us. But it is to question how much we should grieve when such lives finally come to an end. Of course we all grieve for ourselves when our parents or grandparents or others close to us die; we miss them and mourn their loss. But should we grieve for them? My own father spent his last couple of years in a Care Home, with Parkinson’s disease and the effects of a stroke. In the end he died peacefully of bronchialpneumonia.

“The old man’s friend,” one of the nurses said to me. It was so. The real problem is not coronavirus, but that we have not come to terms with our mortality. We do not live with death as an everyday reality, as even our grandparents did. The World Wars, as well as common diseases like TB and even ‘flu, meant that death could strike the family at any time and at any age. When death occurred it was more often in the home, rather than hidden away in hospital or Care Home. The body would then rest in the front room until the funeral, where relations and friends would pay a visit to say goodbye.


Today death is a stranger, and when it occurs, instead of having a period of mourning afterwards, we sweep it under the carpet as quickly as possible, in order not to embarrass ourselves and others with this reminder of our mortality. But this means that we are unable to make good decisions in the face of death either personally or politically.

These attitudes also mean, most catastrophically of all, that we never address the question of what lies after death. Even in church we have rarely preached about life after death, or the hope of the world to come. (As a preacher myself, I confess to many years of such neglect.) But we are never going to be able to make good decisions concerning matters of life and death, until we have faced up to this question and answered it: is death the end or not? At which point we can at last address the question with which we began, in the light of the Gospel: how do we value a life?

The answer in the Gospel is very simple: to God the value of each and every human life, regardless of colour, race, sex, or age, is such that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. God understands, even if we do not, that, through our own sin, we are all condemned to die. He values each of us so highly that his Son Jesus was willing to die in our place, as a sacrifice for our sin, so that we might live with him forever, in a world redeemed and saved by his love.

This is our ultimate personal decision: to repent of our sin, to believe in Jesus, to accept the sacrifice that he made for us, and to live from now on, guided by his Holy Spirit, as children of our heavenly Father, and followers of his beloved Son. This makes all the difference to how we approach both life and death. We need no longer fear death, at any age, as others do who have no hope. We can make good decisions for ourselves, if not for others, about the value of the continuation of life in this world, knowing that for us, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Martin Down is the author of The Christian Hope, Rehoboth Media 2016

Read here (£) (reprinted with permission)

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