Faith & Reason: The blurs in the background of my story

The globalisation of Western culture - not least its individualism - may ultimately destabilise the value of human life

HOW DO we determine the value of human life? Does it fluctuate like commodity prices: the more persons there are, the less one is worth? Is it guaranteed by the love of a Creator, like a currency pegged to the gold standard? Or does it all depend on how we perceive it?

Two events this week raised this question. On Tuesday, a senior UN official spoke on Newsnight with apparent complacency about the future of the people of East Timor, still entrusted to the "care" of the Indonesian forces that have terrorised them for 25 years. The fate of the 200,000 people already killed seemed to command little sympathy from him, or from the "developed" world that would have to intervene.

On Wednesday in this paper, Alex Duval Smith told the story of two Guinean boys who stowed away in the undercarriage of an airliner and died of cold. Their fate was distressing to contemplate: no matter that their age, their race, indeed all their circumstances, set them apart from most of us, the waste of their lives seemed very shocking.

This disparity in our response is largely a matter of numbers. For two boys we can feel empathy, but not for a whole population. Often, the greater the disaster, the less we react, as our imaginations are defeated by the scale - for which reason, increasingly, journalists ground their reporting of major disasters in the experience of a few representative victims.

But why should our estimation of the value of human life be so governed by our imaginations? The answer, I suspect, lies in part in the pervasive individualism that has become a dominant feature of the culture of the West. By this I mean not just a kind of licensed selfishness but the belief that reality extends no further - is no more - than my experience of it.

For several generations, the decline of religion and the disintegration of community alike have been dulling our sense of ourselves as part of something larger. Whereas other cultures have seen individual lives as episodes or elements within a much greater story - whose subject may be the family, the nation or even the landscape - for us, increasingly, the only story is our own. Instead of seeing my life and death as a small part of the vast scheme of things, I see "the scheme of things" as just an element in my personal story. When that ends, so does everything - which makes an absolute distinction between my life and death and anyone else's.

This perception is subtly encouraged by television and cinema. Soap operas, for example, shrink humankind to a tiny number of people who matter and a large supporting cast of characters who have no past or future beyond their brief appearance in the plot, and no significance outside it.

The big screen immerses us in imagined worlds which observe an obvious hierarchy, from those whose role is merely to walk on (or to walk on and be shot) to those for whom we are invited to feel sympathy (to add some richness to the emotional mix) to the "hero" we identify with, who cannot die, by definition, at least until the credits are about to roll. Perhaps those have always been the ground rules of fiction - but now postmodern culture is dissolving the distinction between reality and fantasy. For some of us, the world outside our heads seems like a giant Imax screen: we know the images it presents are an illusion, it's just that we cannot see the edges.

A further factor is the metaphysical fallout of modern science - or, rather, of the materialism so many scientists promote. If life is no more than a coincidence within an accidental universe, it can have no more meaning than a passing shape in the clouds. At once, a gulf opens up between what I feel about myself (that I matter, that I may indeed be all that matters) and what I am told is the objective truth.

This disjunction is even more extreme if we listen to people such as Richard Dawkins, who maintain that consciousness itself is an illusion. This creates such a chasm between the exterior world and my interior reality that it becomes a moot point whether, when I die, it is I that will cease to exist or the cosmos.

These various factors can both deflate and inflate the value of human life. The prospect of my death horrifies me if I perceive it as the end of everything. If I choose then to enter imaginatively into someone else's world, the thought of their death, too, may appal me. But as for the rest of humankind, who figure as no more than a blur in the background of my story - if they appear on screen at all - their fate means little or nothing.

Of course, most of us are inconsistent in our beliefs and perceptions, and inhabit a strange country between theism, humanism and individualism. Our response to human suffering is a confusion of these world views: we may pray for the dying but talk as if death is final - and then find it hard to differentiate between real people and imaginary ones. At times, we may feel stirred to demand an end to other people's distress - and yet if their pain becomes too much, we can just change channels and make it go away. Ostensibly, as Western culture becomes the global norm, its lofty ideals of democracy and universal rights will raise the value of human life world-wide. Yet what if it is only a belief in a Creator that keeps that value high and relatively stable? How long until the bubble bursts?

Huw Spanner is publisher of `Third Way' magazine

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine