Monday, October 21, 2013

The value of life, and mobile phones as 'existential crack'

Today I've a column with the Canberra Times, 'Death penalty at odds with the value we place on life'.

Reflecting on a recent crime in the UK, I'm trying to identify the particular value of life -- the basic worth we attribute to other human beings, regardless of their vice. A sample:
Even criminals, deprived of their privileges, are not supposed to be deprived of their existence altogether (in the UK and Australia, at least). This is also why we have protective custody, because the state expends resources protecting criminals from one another, not because they might be innocent but because their lives are valued formally by the state and those who uphold its laws, if not by many individuals. 
This is a somewhat Kantian belief: another life is not ours to own, use or discard. Each self is an end in itself, and ethics is meaningless if this is not granted. We treat one another, formally at least, as free agents, not as things to be used and discarded. 
This does not mean the punitive system is perfect in Australia or the UK, that prisons do not contribute to crime, or cause physical and psychological illness. More generally, it does not mean that our society is always just. Note how we punish asylum seekers to ''send a message'' to smugglers. This is to say nothing of our exploitation of those abroad such as the cheap labour that keeps profits high and holds off overaccumulation. 
The point is that we still retain some commitment to the value of life, and our punitive laws, however imperfectly framed and applied, formally reflect this commitment. We uphold these laws so that, when acts of human savagery or callousness occur, the state stops us from responding in kind. In this, the law takes for granted our most basic humanity, but our continual commitment to the law demonstrates it.
(Photo: From the program for the silent movie: "Danserindens Kærlighedsdrøm" (DK/US: 1916)


Love and other distractions at the Pantheon
I was also on ABC Radio National's 'Life Matters' today, doing my usual 'Modern Dilemmas' gig.

Today we spoke about mobile phone etiquette and distraction. One 'Turned Off' is sick of her friends giving their phones more attention than one another.

I gave a brief definition of distraction -- from my book -- and explained two reasons why friends might choose gadgets over intimacy: addition and flight from life.

Sally and I then gave some remedies: Sally's -- courtesy of her adult children -- is a doozy.

You can listen here.

(Photo: lazlo-photo)

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