The sanctity of life as a sacred value

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The doctrine of the sanctity of life has traditionally been characterised as a Judeo-Christian doctrine that has it that bodily human life is an intrinsic good and that it is always impermissible to kill an innocent human. Abortion and euthanasia are often assumed to violate the doctrine. The doctrine is usually understood as being derived from religious dogma and, as such, not amenable to debate. I show that this characterisation of the doctrine is problematic in a number of ways, and I go on to rethink the doctrine. In doing so I follow in the footsteps of Ronald Dworkin, who offered a characterisation of the doctrine in his 1993 Life's Dominion, drawing on a conceptualisation of sacredness that is radically different from standard ones and not dependent on religious dogma. I'll argue that although Dworkin's efforts have much to recommend, his conceptualisation of sacredness is inadequate. Dworkin attempted to reconceptualise sacredness ‘from the armchair’. Here I explain how sacred values are thought of in anthropology and psychology and argue that the sanctity of human life should be understood in the same way. I'll explain how doing so allows us to resolve a number of conceptual problems that bedevil standard characterisations of the doctrine of the sanctity of life. I'll also consider the possibility of a compromise over the sanctity of human life, and as a consequence, compromise over the permissibility of abortion and euthanasia. I'll argue that such compromise is possible, albeit difficult to achieve.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Sep 2022


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