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' magazineReuse content