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In Support of Human Exceptionalism: Atlanta Journal-Constitution Pundit Tells Hard Truth About Unique Importance of Human Life

Posted Dec 23 2008 9:15pm
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman has written a difficult but, I think, important column on the distinction between the moral value of a beloved dog coming to the end of its life and those of human beings. Any pet owner can only have great empathy for the grief Bookman is experiencing. We should also honor his moral clarity. From his column:

He's just a dog, you tell yourself. Yet somehow, that utterly rational thought doesn't fend off the choking sensation in your throat as the vet delivers the news.

Just a dog?

He's just the dog who was young and playful back when your kids were young and playful, a dog who grew up as the family grew up, and who, in the last few years, began to turn gray just as you have. He's just a dog who has always looked more fierce than he really is, which is just what you want in a family pet. He's just a dog who insists on climbing upstairs every night in pain to sleep at the foot of your bed, loyal even in his arthritic old age. Just a dog? No, no way.

But in the end, yes.
I am choking up. I don't think the word "just" needs to be applied. Dogs (and, of course, cats) become cherished and deeply loved members of families. But Bookman's larger point is right on; that we properly treat even the most beloved and cherished pet differently than we do people:
With a dog's life at stake, you can think through the problem in terms of cost and benefit. With a human being, it would be inconceivable. [Me: I wish.] And that's not because an insurance company or other third party would pay most of the bill.

No, you don't ask the price because with a human life at stake, it wouldn't matter. You already know that whatever the cost, you're going to do everything possible to pay it
[snip]

There's another difference as well. Because of Jackie's status as "just a dog," we'll be able to intervene to make sure he does not suffer needlessly in the days ahead. It's an assurance that we cannot offer each other as human beings--the same profound respect for human life that ensures we do not deny medical care to loved ones also makes it taboo to accelerate the process of death. [Me: I wish.][snip]

We're also still divided about whether health care ought to be a basic human right in this country. Personally, I think the case is settled. Once you accept the innate dignity of human life, then morally you cannot decide to provide basic care to some but deny it to others on grounds of cost. You can't, in other words, apply the same value to a human being as to a pet.
I heard about this column because Bookman brought up the Terri Schiavo case and wrote that Terri was "brain dead," which she clearly wasn't. But I don't think he meant it perniciously or to dehumanize her, as others have when similarly mischaracterized her condition. And indeed, he acknowledges that the fight about her was ultimately over her intrinsic worth as a human being. I also think he is wrong that 30-50% of all health care costs are spent in the last 6 months of life. I believe the proper figure is closer to 10%, with the higher figure applying to Medicare. And we do give everyone in this country the right to certain levels of health care--as in emergency situations--the controversy is over the extent of the right to access and how to provide and pay for it.

But overall, his point in the column is that human beings should not be valued based on utilitarian considerations and that we should not be "put down" like animals are precisely because of the higher value we place on human life.

Good for Bookman. There is too little of such pro-human exceptionalism moral clarity in the media these days. Unfortunately, his belief that utilitarianism and euthanasia mentality will not be applied against people is way behind the times.
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