Is Life REALLY Intrinsically Valuable? A Jewish Approach Daniel Eisenberg, MD
An old man lies unconscious in his bed, near death, apparently feeling no pain. A young woman has remained in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years and as far as we can tell, she has no demonstrable interaction with her environment. In both cases, Jewish law would assert that the lives in question have great value, in fact infinite value.
But how can we ever say that that life is infinitely valuable when other forces modulate our approach to protecting life? Abortion is not always forbidden, nor is there a halachic requirement to always institute measures to prolong life. Does this not imply that there are limits to the “infinite” value of life?
To answer the question of whether life is intrinsically and infinitely valuable, we must first establish from what perspective we ask the question. Intrinsic value implies a self-contained worth, not dependent on any other source. Infinite value implies worth that cannot be diminished by any other condition. Judaism accepts these premises by insisting that life is intrinsically valuable because the Torah teaches that man was created in the image of G-d. The value of man flows from his similarity to G-d Himself. The essence of man is G-dly, and therefore valuable. Unlike the secular perspective, which asserts that consciousness is the source of life’s value, the Jewish perspective asserts that life is considered a gift with intrinsic worth independent of cognitive function. What is the logical basis for Judaism’s assertion?
To understand Judaism’s unusual claim, we must first ask: for whom is life valuable? The comatose patient in a persistent vegetative state, unable to interact with her world, lacking consciousness and any interaction with her surroundings, cannot “feel” the value of her life. If her life is valuable, it is not to her. Those surrounding the comatose patient appear to receive no value from her; her continued life may be a financial and emotional strain/burden on her family. So for whom is her life valuable?
Her life may be of value only to G-d. But her value to G-d is more than just as another prized creation. Judaism instructs us that the prime reason that the world exists is so that we may do mitzvos, including acts of kindness towards each other. While the comatose patient cannot do kindness herself, she may be the cause or source of others doing kindness. The presence of the critically ill patient may result in others acting compassionately towards each other or towards her, such as bikor cholim (sitting with the comatose patient), tzeddakah (a communal effort to raise funds for the patient’s care) and gemilus chesed (community involvement in helping the family of the patient). If so, then we can readily see that the ill person’s life is truly valuable, as she is increasing mitzvos in the world.
While the increased mitzvah fulfillment may not always be apparent to us, we will never know the impact the ill person is having on others. Perhaps as a result of the patient’s illness, someone begins praying with more concentration or someone else undertakes to be more scrupulous in mitzvah observance. If we accept this view of the unconscious patient, then we must realize that while she is completely devoid of cognitive function, she accrues benefit to herself (as the source of mitzvah observance) and others (through the merit they earn doing more mitzvos).
Now that we understand for whom the patient’s life is valuable, it naturally follows why her life is so valuable. Since through increased mitzvah observance she adds infinite value to herself and others, her life itself is of particular value to G-d and therefore of infinite value. Because the mitzvos that are performed are intrinsically valuable, the patient’s life is therefore intrinsically valuable.
But if life is always so valuable, why doesn’t halacha require that every treatment be employed to prolong every life? Ethics is always the clash of great truths, each of which is independently valid. The fact that the Torah grants a degree of autonomy does not in any way detract from the sanctity or value of every life. For example, the Torah may allow a terminally ill patient in intractible pain to refuse treatment that will only prolong his agony, but that will neither cure his disease nor ease his pain. But this halachic ruling does not erode the value of the patient’s life, it only helps to define the limits of autonomy that an individual enjoys in Torah law (see Doctor knows best?).
The Torah also teaches us the proper conduct when prolongation of multiple infinitely priceless lives come into conflict. Since the Torah deals with all facets of life, the halacha teaches rules of precedence for triage, rationing, and allocation of scarce resources, and abortion when the mother’s life is in danger (see Abortion in Jewish law). Aborting a fetus to save the life of the mother does not detract from the value of the fetus, it only teaches us the proper conduct when two independently valid ethical values collide.
When two lives are in danger and only one can be saved, halacha does give us guidance regarding which one to save. Jewish law does instruct us which one of two drowning people to save or which one of two deathly ill patients to cure with our single dose of medicine. But while it teaches us that at times we may choose to save one life over another (as long as we do not do anything to hasten the death of the person we cannot save), it does not detract from the worth of each human life. Exactly how the rules of triage function is left for a future article.
So, in the end, we recognize that Judaism respects human life for its own sake, regardless of the cognitive state of the sick individual. Our belief in the intrinsic value of human life flows from the G-dly spark in all of us, not from our utilitarian value to others. Still, the Torah recognizes that conflicts can arise when more than one person is in danger, and in such cases, provides us with guidance.