Incommensurable Truths

Many years ago I heard a (very Jewish) law-school dean lecturing a class on the recovery of damages, or some related topic. One fresh young thing objected that what he was actually talking about was placing a monetary value on human life. "If you ever become a lawyer," the dean replied, "you will be doing this all the time. It's something lawyers do which not only can't be avoided, but is necessary for society to function, and always has been."

That struck me as true, and I've never forgotten it. When a society can no longer make decisions about what people are worth, about how much it is willing to pay from its collective resources to preserve life, it becomes insane and can no longer function. People who talk about the infinite worth of a human life in a context that is in any way connected to the disbursement of funds are indulging in a metabasis eis allo genos—a category mistake, for although this value assessment is philosophically or theologically true, it is practically false. In terms of the operations of the cosmos, each of us has our worth, and it is not infinite.

We make the same decision in miniature when we, for example, debate in our own minds whether we were fond enough of someone to spend hundreds of dollars of family savings to attend his funeral in another state, and why we feel at least a little bad when we decide against it—or when we, with a myriad of worthy causes before us, have to decide which to donate to and from which to withhold our resources. The fund-raisers are very good at exploiting this idea that if we don't send money (a surrogate for the self), "people will die" or "people will go to a Christless eternity." One must practice telling them to go to hell themselves.

I have spent a good amount of time trying to save the sanity of the tender-hearted who are wracked by guilt, diabolically (and with homicidal intent) accused as they are of the ungodly abandonment of their needy neighbors because they are not devoting their lives and resources to those who need them. In this I face the nearly impossible task of convincing them that mature participation in the life of this world includes the necessity of resisting the temptation to a heteronomous charity that would make us better than God. Instead, we must participate as best we can in the kind of hard, life-and-death decisions that God makes constantly—which we find difficult if not impossible to understand, and which bring us to a threshold at which we cross either to worship or to curse him.

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor.

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