Sunday, May 27, 2018

The sacredness of the individual

There is a deontic prohibition on killing innocent people. But in general I think there is no similar deontic prohibition on destroying communities. For instance, there seems to be no deontic prohibition on a government dissolving a village or a city. Indeed, the reasons the state would need to have for such dissolution would have to be grave, but not outlandishly so. The state could permissibly intentionally dissolve a village or a city to end a war, but could not permissibly intentionally kill an innocent for the same end.

One might think this means that individuals are more valuable than the communities they compose. But we shouldn’t think that in general to be true, either. For instance, if a foreign invader were to threaten to dissolve a city without however killing anyone there, and the citizens could repel the invader at an expected cost of, say, six defenders’ and six attackers’ lives, it would be reasonable for the city to conscript its citizens to repel the invader. Thus the value of the shared life of the citizens is worth sacrificing some individual lives to uphold. But it is still not permissible to intentionally kill these innocent civilians.

I think it’s not that persons are more valuable than the villages and cities they compose, but rather they are sacred.

It is worth noting that where a community is sacred (two potential examples: sacramental marriages; God’s chosen people), there could very plausibly be a deontic prohibition on dissolution.

More and more I think the sacred is an ethical category, not just a theological one.


Martin C said...

It is commonly admitted in realist ethics that a natural virtue of religion exists, and the existence of a "natural sacredness" seems like a corollary of that fact.

Immediately a problem arises: assuming a hypothetical concrete instance of natural religion, sacred things (persons, times, places, items, etc.) would become so only after some positive determination, i.e., a consecration. The question would be: are there things which are sacred by nature?

A sufficiently developed metaphysics could provide the answer. The immortality and spirituality of the human soul are truths achievable by natural reason. So I guess that natural reason could also discover that only the First Cause is a fully proportionate agent for the generation of human life. The sacred nature of marriage in pagan religions could be a sign that some of this was perceived by the ancients.

If natural reason can reach the conclusion that God has to intervene each time human life is generated, then there is a metaphysical ground to affirm that, in some way, every life belongs to God and is, therefore, naturally sacred.

On the other hand, the sacredness of the "polis" is very well attested in ancient religions and could be constitutive of the natural virtue of religion as well. One could try to look for a metaphysical foundation in the primacy of common good over the individual good; it doesn't seem enough at first glance, but it is a start. But in any case, the nature of the polis has changed: modern cities of modern states are not at all a religious reality.

Alexander R Pruss said...

These are all good points, but I am not sure that the concept of the sacred is as tightly tied to religion (even natural) or the divine as your remarks suggest. Some things could be sacred by their very nature and not by relation to God, except in the way that all positive qualities are participations in God.