Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ethics and the Dead: Some Thoughts

Another Memorial Day in this republic.

I recently encountered the view that the dead have no rights.  Therefore, goes the argument, it's improper to assert that their rights are somehow violated if some lunatic does things to them like desecrate their graves, or other--even worse--things.  Egyptologists and othe archaeologists, who have been merrily descrating graves for some time now, are generally mentioned in this connection.  If the dead have no rights, it would seem to follow that we have no obligations to them, either.

I'm one who thinks it is proper to honor the dead, and to respect them.  I don't think I'm alone; in fact, I think most humans feel this way, and have felt this way for a very long time.  Does the claim that the dead have no rights then constitute yet another example of certain of us denying or doubting for no clear reason that which most of us don't deny or doubt, coupled with the assertion that there is nothing wrong about doing that which most of us wouldn't do or think of doing?

Perhaps.  But, there is no question that the dead are no longer aware; they can't feel pain; they can't protest; they no longer exist as we do.  There is some difference then between desecrating a grave, for example, and burying someone in one while they are alive.  Certainly the consequences of acts against the dead are different from acts against the living.

So it can be maintained reasonably enough that we don't honor the dead or respect the dead, or refrain from defiling them or their graves, due to some expected consequences to them we find desirable or undesirable or think they would find desirable or undesirable (or don't anymore for the most part, in any case).

There are, though, certain characteristics and acts most of us humans have admired and honored throughout our history, with good reason.  Among these are courage, wisdom, self-sacrifice, duty.  And there is also certain conduct which we have found contemptible and improper throughout our history--conduct which we feel degrades us when we engage in it, which we feel is wrong.  I think such things are involved in explaining why we honor and respect the dead.

Now of course some will ask why we do so, and more specifically why such feelings are appropriate or good.  Well, we've been around for some time now.  We've been interacting with each other and our environment all the time we've been around.  In the course of that interaction most of us have come to value certain conduct and to deplore other conduct.  This all seems undeniable, and even objectively verifiable.  Doesn't the fact that most humans have felt this way and acted this way for such a long time tell us something regarding our nature and what we have found to be a viable way to live among one another over a great period of time?  It would seem more appropriate under the circumstances to respond to those who ask why we do so why they feel there is no basis for us doing so, or why they feel we should do otherwise.  Do they maintain we should act otherwise?  If that's the case, they should explain why they feel that way.  If they can't provide a reasonable explanation, they can't, and we should judge their position accordingly.  If they respond they don't feel we should do otherwise, they're just wondering why we act as we do, and what our justification is for doing so, then wouldn't it seem reasonable to respond as to the first inquiry--well, that's an interesting speculation, here's why I think we do, and then go on with life; as to the second inquiry--why do you feel there must be something more in the way of justification?

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