It is obvious that, for almost all of us, human life is a value. This is a very abstract statement with very little in the way of specifics. The virtue of a properly constructed abstraction or concept, is that if it is done well, it will unify all relevant items in one bucket, which allows us to inspect everything, item by item until the entire range of such items have been exhaustively covered. This is useful in constructing a comprehensive theory, one that never fails, because all things have been accounted for. Many have scorned such abstractions as been vacuous, but they are wrong.
It is true that many would-be comprehensive abstractions or “theories” have been foisted upon humanity by fools, fanatics, and finaglers, but this does not mean abstractions have no use. What we need is the knowledge of how to construct, use, and evaluate such abstractions. I will not go into this, but the vital background on this is to be found in Rand’s magisterial “Introduction To Objectivist Epistemology.” That work is the go-to reference on the nature, origin, and use of concepts. Let me now get back to ethics.
What do I mean when I say human life is a value? I think we must construct this broad abstraction starting from concretes. Let us begin this inquiry by examining infancy.
Infants very quickly understand that they have a mother and that their mother is of very great value. From the day they are born, their source of food, warmth, and other comforts come from their mother. At first, they do not know the source is a person or that even they themselves are persons. Over time, they can identify their source of benefits as a person called mother. They also have experience of themselves being hungry or satiated, cold or warm, and comfortable or uncomfortable. They also have the experience of happiness and unhappiness, even if it is only for the moment. Given, this experience, they can become anticipatory or apprehensive about the immediate future.
One further aspect of mother-infant interaction is verbal interactions like giggling and cooing, babbling and talking that go on between them. Singing also enters the picture. Furthermore, the childish games of peekaboo, itsy-bitsy spider, and other such games give mental stimulation to the child so they can anticipate intellectual pleasure from their mother.
From all this, it is not surprising that the child anticipates the arrival of their mother, should the mother step away. The sight and sound of mother, can cause the child to smile in appreciation. As time wears on, the child’s extended behavior reflects the growing attachment and appreciation of mother we must call love. In many cases, but not always, the evolution of love for the mother is paralleled by love of father. In many other cases, love of father simply comes a bit later, due to work and so forth.
In most cases, we can simply say that children love their parents, that the parents are in fact huge bundles of valuable material and spiritual values. Although there can be some rivalry, the same considerations apply to siblings. Of course the extended family, if it is available, often follow this pattern, from grandparents to aunt, uncles, and cousins. Very often, the child will value parents more than siblings, immediate family more than the extended family, family more than friends, and friends more than acquaintances. This is the common experience. This valuing of family and friends is in fact loving them, with only the intensity varying between the individuals involved.
Acquaintances are in a distinct class of individuals which can include those we like, those we dislike, and those about which we have no particular reaction. Let us address only acquaintances we like at this point. What does it mean that we like an acquaintance? In most cases, this means that there is something about that acquaintance we find likable. Now, for the moment, I am leaving aside physical attractiveness which may be important in its own right, but is irrelevant to my inquiry.
What, then, makes someone likable to us? Typically, what we like is some indications that the person has a value or ability to pursue some value that we find valuable in the sense of being interesting or a common value with us. This is an indicator of character. This like we have for an acquaintance might also include some pleasurable interaction that we have had with the individual, such as humorous banter. We can see by inspection that this liking we have for the individual is, in fact, a sort of attenuated love.
By the same token, we can see how increasing sharing of values, interests, and interactions can begin to build to and then cross the line to become friendship. Friendship extends from ordinary to extraordinary and that might include romantic love, which is a vast sharing of nearly everything. The intricacies of friendly interaction and romance is not my current focus, but, instead, the broader issue of human life in general is the current focus. This broader focus goes to what I term abstract love.
What do I mean by “abstract love?” So far, we have been examining specific affection for specific individuals in our lives, but our human experience of love is actually broader than that. I was once told that to say that one love mankind is absurd on its face because no one can love an abstraction. Let us determine if there is any truth to be found about this issue, one way or the other. The term abstract, again, means conceptual, which is opposed to the sheerly concrete.
Have we ever encountered a group of things we be said to love, even if we have already not encountered them? On a material level, we often say things like “I love spaghetti.” What this statement means to the speaker is that they have enjoyed eating spaghetti in the past a sufficient number of times such that they believe they would enjoy eating spaghetti in the future an indefinite number of times. Examined epistemologically, the dish of spaghetti sitting on my table would be a concrete of the class, or concept, or abstraction of spaghetti. The class of spaghetti includes all the spaghetti that ever was and ever will be. If I say “I love spaghetti” I am not saying I love the concept of spaghetti, but rather an indefinite number of concretes of spaghetti dishes I will encounter in my gustatory life. This is an instance of my term “abstract love” because my enjoyment or love is about an indefinite class characterized by a concept, to wit, the dish called “spaghetti.” Now, let us change our context radically to address people.
Suppose someone said “I love children.” If the person worked in an organization to help children and not only worked hard, but contributed much of their own salary to help children, we would be likely to consider this statement a true and laudable summary of the person’s values. We would be justified in saying that someone who loved children would even love them before they met the children. As such, then, the statement “I love children” is a statement about the class of “children” and would be another example of my term “abstract love.” The existence over time of innumerable children’s charities attests to the reality of this type of abstract love. In fact, for the donors to such charities, this is truly abstract because,in many cases, the donors will never meet the benefited children and can never even hope to meet them. This is truly abstract, and, I submit, truly noble love. But I have more.
We may love many types of human beings. Not only children, but also heroes, producers, protectors, artists, and an infinite number of other types. If we conclude that there are so many types to love that it is easier to say that we simply love mankind, we are acknowledging that mankind has value to us, that human life and individual lives matter. The implications and application of this perspective, I leave to another post.