Many problems of bioethics revolve around the value of life. Many bioethicists accept the Judeo-Christian view that human life and human life only has great intrinsic value. As a corollary it is taken that anything thing that is both alive and human possesses a right to respect and continued life.
These assumptions are powerful and pervasive, but go against the intuition of many people. The assumption that human life has great value and is even sacred would lead one to assume that it is proper to create as much human life as possible, but only a few people actually believe this. The prevalence of contraception and encouragement of abstinence belies an underlying belief that perhaps not every human life is of great value simply because it is possible for it to exist.
Similarly, rights are not granted uniformly to all that are human and alive, although many pretend that they are. When consciousness ceases to exist or fails to begin in living human tissue, many people will regard this being as perhaps being worthy of dignified treatment, but the idea that it is of the same value of all other human life is not represented through everyday actions of most people.
Concern for the “right to die” is some circumstances also implies a rejection of the view that life is sacred in all cases. Alternative views of the value of life can be useful in resolving the apparent contradiction between the actions many people take and their declared respect for life and individual rights. Not all people see life as sacred and valuable. The first noble truth of Buddhism, for example, is that life is suffering. We seek continued existence as a result of desire, which intensifies our suffering. Life becomes valuable, then, because it fulfills a desire which is itself irrational. Other views see life as the inevitable consequence of physical laws or nature. The fact that humans exist and desire life is a brute fact that is morally significant only because of the suffering generated by the desire for life.
We may recognize that life is valuable for reasons that are not metaphysical. A pre-embryonic collection of cells may be of great moral significance to a certain man who is hoping, with a bit of desperation, to become a father and see his child before he succumbs to a life-threatening disease himself. For this man, these human cells are not morally significant because they are endowed with rights and dignity at their first creation. He is not concerned with the metaphysical status of the cells. He is concerned, instead, with their ontological status. They exist and he wants them to survive because he is interested in their continued existence. In this case, we may feel morally obliged to take great measures to ensure the survival of these cells because they mean so much to this hopeful father. We are concerned for this father and he is concerned for his progeny. The moral commitment arises from concrete human relationships.
For similar reasons, non-human life may become of great moral concern to us. Police officers who have worked with service animals for many years will often refer to a deceased animal as a “partner” and such animals sometimes receive funerals and memorials. Few would claim that service animals are accorded respect and value because of the sanctity of life.
In both the cases I’ve given above, it can be claimed that the duties accorded to life are indirect duties to the ones who care about the life. While that is true, the moral commitment could arise from a direct concern for a life. An individual may value her own life because she enjoys being alive and wants to continue her existence. Her own concern for her life makes her life something of value. Our of a concern to reduce her suffering at the thought that her life may not be preserved, medical professionals will devote themselves to preserving her life.
In such cases as outlined above, it is compassion, sympathy, empathy, or care that creates moral demands for the preservation of life. This view of the value of life will not appease the demanding vitalist, but it may be accepted by many people from different faiths and philosophical backgrounds. It helps us reconcile the strong drive to preserve and extend life with our belief that some people have a right to die, that some non-human life deserves extraordinary care and respect, and the view that some human cells are precious while others are less precious.