A human life: what’s it worth?

Saturday 8 October, 6.00pm until 7.30pm, sphères bar, buch & bühne, Hardturmstrasse 66 CH-8005, Zürich, Switzerland

The debate will be in English.

Tickets: 15.- CHF / 10.- CHF available here.

From the ‘pro-life’ movement to abortion rights campaigners, from animal rights activists to those lobbying for legal euthanasia, everybody shares a view that life is sacred. But there are big disagreements as to what kind of life is sacred, and when it begins – and ceases - to matter. This argument has had particular potency in relation to the beginning of life. Debates rage about abortion, from whether it is right to abort an embryo at all, to the stage of foetal development – 12 weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks, full term – at which abortion becomes unacceptable. In recent years, end-of-life issues such as assisted suicide have also raised some pressing and sensitive questions.

The questions become even more vexed when we move beyond medical definitions and into contemporary political issues. The assassination of Osama Bin Laden and the complicity of Western governments in the use of torture in the War on Terror have once again raised questions over whether it can ever be justified to kill or maim in order to save many. At the same time, campaigns against animal experimentation and growing attempts to protect apes through designating them certain ‘rights’ raises the discussion of what makes human life distinct from biological existence and how we negotiate that difference.

Central to notions of personhood is the question of autonomy: people’s ability to decide what is best for them, in the context of their own bodies. Some argue that legal and cultural proscriptions against euthanasia undermine this autonomy, and treat individuals as less than human by forcing them to continue with a life not worth living. On the other hand, it is argued that accepting the notion that death can be actively sought risks endorsing the view that life is expendable; that legal euthanasia is a slippery slope to greater evils and a question of who might decide the value of your life.

How do we draw the line over how to value life in an age where many would agree that a woman should at least have some access to abortion, and that everyone should be able to choose when to end theirs? What does it mean to describe life as ‘sacred’ in a secular and modern world? Does it even make sense to talk of ‘the soul’ today?

Pfarrer Andreas Cabalzar
founder, "Erlenbacher Scheidungsmännerhaus", Zeit-Haus.ch

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Silvan Luley
part-time working member, Dignitas

Tarek Naguib
PhD candidate in law, University of Fribourg; researcher, specialist department Égalité Handicap

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Produced by
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
Recommended readings
Death plea case rejected by judge

A High Court Judge has ruled that a brain-damaged woman should not be allowed to die, in what is being seen as a landmark case.

BBC News, 28 September 2011

It's a depressing sign of the times that the 'right to die' has become such a cause célèbre

These days, the only time you hear the word “autonomy” said with any vigour, with heartfelt oomph, is in relation to assisted suicide. In every other area of life, the idea of moral autonomy has taken a beating in recent years.

Brendan O'Neill, Telegraph, 30 August 2011

How DIGNITAS works

On what philosophical principles are the activities of this organisation based?

DIGNITAS, June 2010

Death Becomes Him

Ludwig Minelli, a lawyer and self-described humanitarian, helps people kill themselves. Last summer, he invited me to a party inaugurating the Blue Oasis, the latest in a series of properties he has converted into makeshift death houses for the purposes of Dignitas, an organization he founded in 1998.

Bruce Falconer, Atlantic Magazine, March 2010

The Myth of Sisyphus

'The struggle itself...is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.'

Albert Camus, Penguin, 25 August 2005

On the Shortness of Life

'The life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.'

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Loeb Classical Library, 1932

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