The value of human life and bioethics: A philosophical assessment

Liselotte A Chamberlain, Marquette University


This study examines questions which lie at the heart of the ongoing debate about the value of human life. The issue is central to most bioethical dilemmas, and especially to those which arise from ongoing advancements in medical technology. Disagreement and confusion over the value and the definition of human life has precipitated the acceleration of debate on these issues in the professional literature. After an introductory chapter, the study begins, in Chapter II, by attempting to eliminate the ambiguity of the term "human life" by defining its different meanings relevant to this topic. Two concepts are defined, namely, "biological life" (defined as the presence of metabolism on a sufficiently high level of the organism as a whole) and "personal life" (indicated by the presence of the capacity for self-consciousness). This is followed by a discussion about valid criteria for indicating the presence of life, e.g., cardio-pulmonary function, whole-brain function, and neocortical function. Arguments supporting the validity of both cardio-pulmonary function and whole-brain function as criteria for identifying the presence of metabolism sufficient for life are presented. Chapter III discusses values, emphasizing the importance of the subject/object relationship in value situations. It is argued that human values and value judgments arise in situations where man's pursuit of his perfection brings him into relations with those things which promise fulfillment of his needs--arising from his human nature--and can contribute to his perfection. Chapter IV considers actual value assessments of human life in the meanings previously identified. The study concludes that personal life is an intrinsic and final, but incalculable value. Biological life, however, is a contributory and relational value to the life of the person. Mere biological life function, without relations to a "self," i.e., lacking relational value, is considered according to its relations to other subjects which, generally, places it among extrinsic values. Concluding discussions in Chapter V focus on the issues of autonomy in life-and-death decisions, our attitudes toward suffering, the relationship between suffering and a person's concept of meaning of life, respect for all life, and the interrelatedness of all life pointing to a common purpose for mankind.

Recommended Citation

Chamberlain, Liselotte A, "The value of human life and bioethics: A philosophical assessment" (1992). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9227119.