Life Is Not Precious: I Am Because We Are

By Max Servetar //

Katherine wrote a beautiful account of the majesty of living. By taking up the counter, I do not wish to diminish the wonder of humanity. Frolicking through fields, spending time with loved ones, and pursuing passions bring unquantifiable joys. Human life is mysterious and fantastic. Nor do I seek to argue the value of any life over another. Instead, by answering no to the question “Is life precious?”, I hope to interrogate what is implicit in the notion that “life is precious” and show why it leads us astray. Katherine proposed that our experience with the ineffable grandeur of existence makes life precious. However, through African communitarian philosophy’s notion of personhood, I argue one’s connection to a community makes life intelligible and meaningful. Communal life precedes and makes possible individual life. Thus, life is not itself precious. Rather, the community imbues it with value.

Humans do not exist outside of communities. A rather trite statement, but African communitarian philosophy deploys it in a transformative manner. John Mbiti summarized radical communitarianism as the belief that “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” “I” follows “we.” Per Ifeanyi Menkiti, the community holds primacy over the individual ontologically, morally, and epistemologically: ontologically, insofar as the individual necessarily arises from the community; morally, insofar as concern for the wellbeing of the community takes precedence; epistemologically, insofar as the language and categories that the individual utilizes originate in the community. 

Communitarianism requires an expansive understanding of community. It is not merely a combination of people. Rather, the community is a whole unto itself including creatures, land, beliefs, ancestors, structures, and people. Since the worth of human life is derived from the community, people must work to preserve the community to further themselves. Fundamental care for the environment and others must be present. Humans cannot thrive when our environments and institutions are in disrepair. Natural disasters, pandemics, and economic collapses wreak havoc on our lives, reminding us of our fragile place within a larger whole. If we take life as precious through the consideration of the individual, it allows for a diminished appreciation of the ecological or social whole. I fear such harm has already come to pass: emphasis on individual consumption and satisfaction to sate the machine of capital has driven us to the brink of climate disaster.

Given those conditions, an individual only achieves personhood within the community. Radical communitarians argue one does not become a person solely by being born. One must integrate themselves by upholding their duties to the collective. Responsibility to the community comes before any other moral obligations. That might sound extreme, however, I think the last year shows how the individual can only thrive as long as the whole is healthy. The global pandemic we have all suffered through has made it abundantly clear that our well-being depends on the health of the community. When deciding whether to follow health and safety protocols, a person’s decision has consequences that ripple out to the community. One cannot approach the situation as an isolated actor. 

African communitarianism’s epistemic principles further illustrate how life is not precious in isolation. One would lack the necessary linguistic or conceptual apparatus to even form a notion of personhood or value outside of the community: to believe life is precious one must always already be in a community. This is akin to Durkheim’s argument for communal categories in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life; our conceptual operations for making sense of the world depend upon meanings that operate within a group. A person cannot begin to consider life, let alone whether it is precious, without being connected to a community. The communal categories of thought precede the questions Katherine posed. Our connection to a larger whole makes it possible to engage with the ineffable grandeur of existence.A communal conception of life reveals that life itself is not precious. Treating the individual as inherently precious places people ontologically prior to the community. Such a belief entails that humans have self-subsisting value separate from nature, from other people. That position allows humans to separate from and devalue the community while prioritizing the individual. Claiming that “life is precious” centers the individual as the locus of value. Doing so ignores the reality of the individual as a product of a community. Humans cannot be taken as isolated beings nor as the originators of value. Rather, people realize themselves in the community. We find meaning and purpose within the webs of connections that make up life.

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