A New Approach to the Ethics of Life: The 'Will to Live' in Lieu of Traditionalists' Notion of Natural/Rational and Progressives' Autonomy/Consciousness

Marvin Lim


April 4, 2014

This Article proposes a novel approach to the ethics of life. Universally, people agree that human life is of paramount value. Despite the universality of this intuition – or perhaps precisely because of it – the ethics of life and death have inspired passionate debate and disagreement throughout the ages. Equally as interesting as debates within particular spheres of ethics – abortion, assisted suicide, capital punishment, self-defense, and the responsibility to protect, among others – is how traditionalists and progressives diverge in their life ethics across these various spheres. Based on ideas of “natural” law, the “rationality” of biology, and “inherent” dignity, traditionalists are fiercely opposed to abortion and assisted suicide under most, if not all circumstances. However, they are far more ambivalent – if not fiercely in favor of – broad use of capital punishment and deadly force for self-defense. In contrast, based on ideas of “autonomy,” “consciousness,” and “quality of life,” progressives tend to adhere to the exact opposite viewpoints.

This Article argues that neither set of principles is truly convincing – or completely consistent – when applied to resolve ethical questions across these divergent contexts. Seeking to address the problems presented by these divergent sets of principles, this Article proposes an entirely different approach to the ethics of life: this ethic should revolve around the concept of the “will to live.” This represents the idea that the most powerful driving force of human life is our primal instinct and “will” to survive, exist, and live as human beings – pursuits that, in turn, comprise life’s most fundamental, basic purpose. And, drawing on both biology and philosophy, this Article will show that this “will” need not exist from the moment of conception, nor until complete biological necrosis of the body.

Centering the life ethic around this concept has two advantages. First, across the various contexts, this concept best captures our most powerful intuitions about why we actually value human life, and at times death – that is, even better than do arguments that human life possesses inherent dignity and “potentiality” arising from our biology’s rational nature, or that human life derives its value from a person’s capacity for autonomy and consciousness. Second, this concept avoids the problems intrinsic to the traditional life ethic, as well as those intrinsic to a more progressive one. Regarding the former, this proposed approach avoids a central paradox embedded within the traditional ethic: that people possess an inherent dignity arising from natural, rational biology, but still can somehow lose their dignity and potentiality through their exercise of free will, in turn justifying their being killed. In doing so, this approach also avoids the need to make debatable distinctions between “innocence” and “guilt,” and between different grades of “intent” in killing – distinctions that the traditional ethic has to make in order to resolve its paradox. Regarding the latter, this proposed approach avoids the main criticism of an autonomy and consciousness-based life ethic: that it treats a human being as merely an “object” or a “means” to achieving certain purposes or experiences. Instead, the will-to-live does treat the human being as a subject and end unto itself – the end being simply to live as humans do.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 123

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Date posted: April 7, 2014 ; Last revised: May 10, 2014

Suggested Citation

Lim, Marvin, A New Approach to the Ethics of Life: The 'Will to Live' in Lieu of Traditionalists' Notion of Natural/Rational and Progressives' Autonomy/Consciousness (April 4, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2420406 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2420406

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Marvin Lim (Contact Author)
Independent ( email )
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