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Kyle Eller: Is life sacred or just utilitarian?

National newspapers in the days leading up to Christmas have run many stories about families and especially the children of men and women who died in the attacks on Sept. 11. There are so, so many of them.

National newspapers in the days leading up to Christmas have run many stories about families and especially the children of men and women who died in the attacks on Sept. 11. There are so, so many of them.
And sifting through our top 10 stories meant re-reading what things were like a few months ago, something many of us have already numbed ourselves to.
Reflecting on this and on the season has left me thinking a lot about what life means. And I mean "life" literally, not in the vague sense of how to live.
There are many views on existence and meaning of life, the most profound of topics, but they tend to boil down to two. One side is labeled "utilitarian." It's an oversimplification, but a utilitarian view of life basically means things, including life, have value based on how useful they are to the rest of us. Although most people don't usually 'fess right up to that belief, it lurks behind many of our decisions.
The other side, typically but not necessarily associated with religious belief in a broad sense, is that life is sacred -- that it has its own intrinsic value, useful or not.
This view is common to many religions. In the Judeo-Christian faiths, humans at least are viewed as children of God, and most varieties teach that God loves all of them. Quakers believe something similar -- a light of God or "that of God" infuses us all. Buddhists and Taoists have similar, although more complicated understandings, often extended beyond human life. The first Buddhist precept is not taking life.
And of course many Native American religions hold the view that all creation is sacred.
However, a religious persuasion is not required: Technology has advanced to the point that we can clone, or almost clone, people. We've already done it with other animals. But that's working with pretty advanced materials we had little to do with. Scientists still can't create life, and they aren't close to it. Dr. Joe Scientist doesn't lean over to Igor and say, "Bring me some einsteinium, a bit of boron and some salt peter. While you're at it, grab the jumper cables and we'll start up the new guy."
Being reluctant to destroy or even mess much with the universe's biggest mystery is pragmatic when you come right down to it.
Then there's the philosophical side. Each life sort of holds an entire universe. We have a real question about whether objective truth exists at all, and it's almost certain we've never experienced it if it does. All our experiences, our beliefs, our "knowledge" is filtered through past experiences, our own limitations, our pre-existing notions, our parents' attitudes, our culture. The outside universe we see is in a sense largely an internal creation.
So paradoxically, depending on your point of view, each life is utterly unimportant in the vast scale of the universe and yet of all-consuming importance in that an entire universe comes to an end when that life ceases. Both sacred and utilitarian, one might argue, but no deity required.
If most of us endorse the "sacred" view of life in our heart of hearts, our actions don't always reflect it.
Reliable estimates of civilian war casualties are always hard to come by, but I've heard one estimate as high as 3,500 in Afghanistan, eerily approaching the casualty figures on Sept. 11. When we say 3,500 innocent dead is an acceptable price for revenge or bringing terrorists to justice or even security, we are making a utilitarian calculation.
When we say a million starved Iraqi people is an acceptable price for cheap oil, or for keeping Saddam Hussein in check, we're doing the same.
When we consider the killing of a million unborn children a year by abortion an acceptable tactic in pursuing equal rights for women, it's a utilitarian view -- especially poignant around a holiday that celebrates the birth of a child to a poor, unwed mother.
When we enact, support or ignore policies that will lead to poverty, we take a utilitarian view, and also when we execute criminals, set speed limits, determine regulations on emission of toxic chemicals.
We might debate the utilitarian issues of non-human life, whether it's killing animals for food or knocking down old-growth forests for golf courses or spraying pesticides on the lawn.
Even a deadly act of self-defense is in some sense utilitarian. We all draw our line somewhere.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of the famous sermon St. Francis gave one Christmas. In it, he said the following:
"This time (with the birth of the Christ child) God has revealed the very depths of His being. In him there is not only power, sovereignty, knowledge and majesty, there is also infinite innocence, childhood and tenderness. ... Hard-hearted men have no use for God's humanity and tenderness. It is a reproach for them. They don't understand it. They don't even see it. They keep imagining that true greatness lies in domination and power. ... True greatness, the only true greatness, my brothers and sisters, is to be filled with true love ...."
In an eloquent metaphor, he said Herod's servants have been carrying out their mission of death ever since that first Christmas, looking to crush that tenderness. That reproach.
But he urged trusting that the seemingly weak will win in the end -- an idealist to be sure.
That's a position I'm willing to advocate, and one worth considering this sadder holiday season. How can we, in our imperfections, in complex situations we don't fully comprehend, shelter that spark of light within us, feed it? How can we come to see the sacredness of life a bit more clearly?
Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at 723-1207 or kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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