There is no worthless life before God, because God holds life itself to be valuable. Because God is the Creator, Preserver, and Redeemer of life, even the poorest life before God becomes a valuable life. … Where, other than in God, should the measure for the ultimate worth of a life lie? In the subjective affirmation of life? If so, then many a genius would be surpassed by an idiot. In the judgment of the community? If so, then it would soon be evident that judgment about socially valuable or worthless life would be abandoned to the need of the moment and therefore to arbitrary action, and that now this group and now that group of people would fall victim to extermination. The distinction between valuable and worthless life sooner or later destroys life itself.
Bonhoeffer in Ethics. I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately. The idea of what grounds the value of a person, of a life, is in the air more and more as different technological and cultural developments push the question forward. Reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History, earlier this year, and learning about the frontiers of genetic science and the hopes attached to it by some in the field, was sobering (I’m thinking especially of the idea of editing genomes i.e. in a fetus, to eliminate or encourage particular traits). It feels like we haven’t learned the most fundamental lesson from the disasters of early and mid-twentieth century eugenics. Some of the possible paths for gene therapy/editing being explored make it seem as though early twentieth century eugenics was a flawed project because the criteria and methods were abhorrent. The slogan seems to be: 21st century gene therapy, just don’t be a Nazi about it! But, the criteria or the methods used to eliminate “worthless” aspects of humanity and pursue “progress” aren’t the fundamental problem. It’s the whole project. The early twentieth century proponents of eugenics thought they were acting for the improvement of humanity. The lesson that needs to be learned (but we seem unable to grasp with all our technological power) is that a human being cannot and should not be making a judgment of the worth of another person’s humanity (and I don’t see how the prospect of editing genomes avoids the need for such a judgment). It’s a question beyond our capacity to answer and failure to realize this limit will result, as Bonhoeffer says, in destruction.