The rationale for stating that it would be wrong to kill an individual is easy to state: any individual’s actions may contribute to the objective of supporting Life’s continued evolution, thus each life is valuable and should be preserved. Killing an individual prevents that individual from contributing (discounting the body’s store of nutrients and energy that inevitably recycle and do contribute). However, this seemingly simple premise hides a few surprises, the first stemming from how we define an individual.
Two separate cells, the sperm and ovum, before joining to form a zygote do not constitute an individual. They each contain part of the potential to form an individual, but they have not yet become an individual. Our new morality would therefore likely state that there is nothing “wrong” in killing these cells. And life routinely does exactly that—our bodies produce many more sperm and ova than are needed or used.
An embryo, then a fetus before birth, is also a “potential” individual, not yet able to contribute directly to Life’s evolution (although it may very well be inspiration for some of the contributions made by its parents). Thus, our rational new religion would probably rule that it is not wrong to kill developing embryos at any stage.
This may be its rational declaration, but human emotions would most often have it otherwise. Few parents would want to harm or kill their children-to-be. It would feel emotionally wrong to do so.
Our new religion may even come to the same conclusion about killing infants, as well as those individuals that no longer possess the ability to contribute, by arguing along the following lines.
Newborns are potential individuals, not individuals as we typically understand fully developed adults to be. Newly born babies exist as separate beings, having wonderfully formed bodies but relatively empty minds. Empty, that is, of most of the stored memories, links and thoughts that will rapidly form to produce an individual in its own right. Our new rational religion would likely not call a physical body, mostly empty of mind, an individual, and would probably not state that it is “wrong” to kill such an entity. But, of course, we do state that it is wrong.
We denounce killing newborns for emotional, cultural, and legal reasons. It feels wrong to kill children of any age, and the law in recognition of this usually declares that newborns become individuals at birth. Clearly we will continue to state that killing newborns is wrong, but it is possible that our new religion may not actually state that it is “morally wrong” to do so (for instance, if “potential to contribute” is given minimal weight by the religion’s developers).
A similar argument applies to the way we regard mature individuals. In the grand view of Life’s endeavour, the individual is everything and nothing. It is everything while it is contributing to Life’s journey; it is nothing when it has made its contribution. During our lifetime, we all, knowingly or unknowingly, strive to support Life’s journey. We all do our best to learn, to grow, to create, to procreate, to feel that we are living a productive and meaningful life. These are innate behaviours that are carried out daily—part and parcel of being a living entity. We may even accept them as responsibilities. But, as we end our days, with our physical and mental powers deteriorating, we become free of this duty to contribute. Our new moral code is likely to state that at this stage, those who so choose have every right to seek death when they are ready for it, be it self-awarded or assisted.
The same contention might well apply when a person’s brain becomes damaged or debilitated by disease or accident. As long as there is the slightest chance that the individual will recover, to be able to contribute once more, then our new moral system would probably rule that it is wrong to kill or to sanction suicide for that individual. But this ruling could change as conditions worsen, as death becomes imminent, or as living becomes unbearably painful. For such individuals who will never be further able to contribute, our new religion would probably state that euthanasia is not morally wrong. However, as we may know, even under such circumstances it is next to impossible to kill someone we love. Our emotions (quite apart from our laws) make it very hard to hasten their death. But our new religion would now possibly offer consolation, not condemnation, were we to do so.
Using similar arguments, our new religion would probably tell us that it is irrational to simply declare abortion or euthanasia wrong, and also that there are times when we may morally allow compassion to rule.
Thus we begin to see that morality would likely differ from what it is now. Our new religion would clearly separate rational, emotional and legal arguments, allowing us to frankly examine the contribution each makes. It would open the way for our old, sometimes simplistic, sometimes cruel, laws to be reconsidered, and perhaps, if thought necessary, eventually modified. (Indeed, its construction would force us to reassess our understanding of what it is to be a thinking human).
On the surface, our new religion may seem hard and cold, ruling by logic first, and only allowing emotions to be considered second. But our proposed religion must be so constructed because the universe is so constructed, and because life evolves in obedience to the laws of physics that govern and define the universe and all its contents. While animal behaviour is largely emotionally governed—animalistic—because it has no other option, humans have gained the ability to be objective. Humans, in following their minds’ attempts to think rationally, also try to behave rationally, and the two foremost dimensions of humanity, emotion and logic, are often at war in the effort. Our new religion, if developed rationally, should allow us to separate, then balance, emotion and reason, giving us tools to assess both before making any decision. We would no longer be commanded by dogma, emotions or beliefs, but by logical rationality. Surely, this is what our modern minds are asking us to institute when they react against the occasional religious (or parental, legal, employment, or other) requirement that seems irrational.
There are other “wrongs” to reconsider, for instance, the rationale for stating that birth control is morally wrong. If circumstances dictate that additional progeny will harm, rather than help, Life’s continued evolution on this planet, then birth control would necessarily be considered by our new religion sensible and “right.” What value to Life would there be in saturating an overpopulated environment with individuals if nothing remains for them but an arduous search for nutrients and niches where precious few are to be found? When would such individuals ever find the time, or develop the ability, to contribute? Of course, there will always be many outstanding individuals who will do exactly that in any population. Perhaps one percent, or, say, five, would surmount their disadvantageous surrounding conditions. Birth control, some might contend, would have denied Life their contributions. But that argument ignores the possibility that, if this world was less densely and more equitably populated, then a great many more than one or five percent would be in a position to contribute. Of course, it is not simply a matter of quantity, it is more one of quality. But, again, there are many more opportunities for quality to emerge in an educated and liberated environment than there are in a poverty-stricken or hopelessly overcrowded one.
(The overwhelming need for world population controls is one of the implications of a report written by Mathis Wackernagel et al. This report discusses the compilation and findings of human “ecological footprint” statistics [the planetary acreage needed to sustain human life at its current rate of resource usage]. Two of its findings are particularly relevant to this discussion. First, that humans, on average, expend thirty per cent more than nature is able to sustain (and this figure is increasing rather than decreasing). And, second, that the resources of five more Earths would be needed for everyone to live at the average current North American rate. Clearly, the majority can never live as North Americans now live. But all could, should they so desire, were there fewer for the planet to nourish. One billion people is about this planet’s limit, if the North American way of life is universally accorded. However, the world’s population is currently over six billion, and could reach ten billion in thirty years.)
Another issue to contemplate is capital punishment. As above, the criteria used to weigh the merits of this practice would need to be reconsidered. Under the rationality of our new religion, anyone able to “contribute” should be allowed to live. While we may want retribution for heinous crimes committed, this is an emotional, not reasoned, reaction. However, if an individual was clearly unable to “contribute,” if serial killing (for example) was his or her sole motivating interest, then there may be no rational reason (nor religious, for our religion would be rational) to let that individual continue living. The problem then, as always, becomes one of judging whether or not enough is known to be certain about the true state of affairs.
Our proposed new religion tells us why individuals are important—because each individual has the potential to make a difference. He or she can uncover new facts, find new linkages and applications, discover new meanings, and perhaps augment Life’s ability to control. This is why each and every individual matters. Embryos and fetuses before birth cannot contribute in this manner, infants in their first few months, and some individuals, perhaps in the closing days of their life or if criminally insane, cannot contribute. In these circumstances our new religion would likely tell us that killing is not morally wrong (although it is unlikely to decree that it is morally right). Our new doctrine would probably conclude that such individuals are of no relevance as they are and offer no guidance at all. (This, at least, would free us from religious censure if we choose to follow the dictates of our emotions.)
- Just as every other DNA-containing cell does, if cloning is included in our considerations.
- There may be numerous reasons why an abortion might be logically wise. Examples include: when the developing fetus puts the mother at risk (the mother is contributing to Life, and so takes priority over a non-contributing fetus); when the fetus is abnormal to the point that it could not survive birth; or when conditions mean that a baby could not be fed or maintained, and so on. (The last example suggests that some pre-existing external factors are wrong.) Abortion, then, may not be a mortal sin in our developing system of morality (although actually having an abortion might well be emotionally impossible).
- To obtain the report, “Ecological Footprints of Nations,” see http://www.ecouncil.ac.cr/rio/focus/report/english/footprint.
- For a statistical calculation of current and projected future world population numbers (as well as past figures), visit the website http://www.ibiblio.org/lunarbin/worldpop.
- This may soon cease to be a problem, if MRI screening is used to examine the brains of people suspected of having knowledge about criminal activities.