From one perspective, morality is about the value we attach to every single human life. That value has little to do with life itself, void of humanity, of the human mind. Many people, myself among them, leave instructions to their families that will allow them to die rather than be kept alive but unwitting.
The moral value of every life derives from its treasure of accumulated experiences: the different things we learn, the different people we love, the feelings and perceptions we sometimes share but mostly hide from others, the physical suffering endured, the pleasures enjoyed, the solitary perspective of each of us peering out on the world and its manifold objects, the thoughts and emotions with which we connect to that world and to each other to form a community, a culture, a human context extending beyong our place and time.
We are not really “unique,” in the way my kids’ teacher proclaims each of her students to be. We are very much alike, sharing similar bodies and internal machinery. It is for this reason that we Americans can know every human life has a kind of majesty about it, a high purpose we signal with the inadequate phrase, “the pursuit of happiness.”
The death count from the great tsunami that cut through Southeast Asia like a knife on the day after Christmas 2004 stands at 140,000. That is a meaningless cipher. The professional talking heads, driven by the usual compound of human motives, have nonetheless tried to provide it with meaning. Some have blamed God and demanded an explanation from Him. Other have tried to explain on His behalf. The basest have seen in the catastrophe an opportunity to score political points, usually against America. These pronouncements too are sound and fury, and signify nothing.
Television and the newspapers have focused on the suffering of the survivors. That is proper and right. Life belongs to the living. I saw one man (on CNN, I believe) who had lost his wife and four children, and was staring at a photo album of his family that had inexplicably survived the flood. The family was dead, the photos survived, and the father needed the photographic images as a token of what was lost, much as CNN used the father as a token.
But the disaster was not about the grief of the survivors, any more than it was about huge numbers of dead people. Is the moral value of one life less than that of 140,000? A meaningless question. By cutting short the life of each individual person — man or woman, babe or octogenarian — by aborting that person’s flight into the future — a trip to a place unknown and mysterious — the tsunami destroyed treasure beyond counting, and left scarred the fabric of time itself.
Each of the dead will never know or feel what, in time, they would have known and felt. A child in that photo album held by the uncomprehending father might have, in time, experienced the loftiest emotions, or become a Mozart or a Michelangelo, or a good mother aging into a grandmother worshipped by her grandchildren, or wrestled with great pain with dignity or with panic, or laughed and made others laugh, or enjoyed a single poetic moment that redeemed a prosaic life.
We don’t know. We will never know. But we know the human potentialities of the child in the photograph, once a living mystery, are now revealed as null. The child is dead. That is irrevocable.
Can meaning be found in such an event? My interest is in morality; the search for meaning I leave to others. I suppose that the religiously inclined will find solace in their faith. Secularists, if rigorous and honest, will find nothing in the incident that adds to the meaninglessness of a perplexing universe.
Does morality enter the picture at all? I think it does. From a different perspective, morality is about the human confrontation with evil, and the tsunami, while a natural force, has worked great evil. How are we to face this evil? Not a question for a moment, but for an entire way of life.
The Stoics of antiquity, who believed in the inexorability of fate, and portrayed fate as a bringer of pain and loss, recommended an attitude of apatheia or acceptance. Fatalism was the only cure for a fatal world. We Americans rebel against such advice. Morality for us must be an active force; our optimism demands the triumph over evil. The great American Stoics were Emerson and Thoreau, who infused a weary doctrine of resignation with American restlessness, rebelliousness, and belief in a better future.
The Stoics predicated their beliefs on the notion that nature and reason were one and the same. That will not do here. It’s the sheer unreason of the loss that must be accommodated morally. I don’t have the answer, though I stand with American optimism. One can’t build a moral system around the possibility of catastrophic events. One can’t dedicate a life to the avoidance of pain. The pursuit of happiness is the American quest, and to that end Stoic resignation seems worse than useless.
But Emersonian sunniness seems monstrously shallow. Two propositions for future consideration:
To be free, we must learn to live a certain way, to embrace an optimistic morality that expands the circle of freedom with right behavior.
To live this way, we must learn to die.