[old post from January 2016]
My philosophy professor once reprimanded our class for using "human life" and "human being" interchangeably. "Never use 'human life' when you mean 'human being,'" she said.
It was during her notes of what not to do on our upcoming term papers. I thought this was one of those nit-picky thing teachers sometimes have about the papers they read. A high school English teacher of mine once made it a rule to not use the word "moist" in any speaking or writing in her class. To be fair, it is a terrible sounding word. The "oi" is not the most beautiful sound in the English language.
But for this professor, it seemed that this was not a personal pet-peeve but a major faux pas.
I, along with what seemed like many of my peers in the seminar, were confused by her distinction but brushed it of as a quirk that would be easy enough to follow and moved on to worrying about the 10-page paper's approaching deadline.
Months later and several books in the “masterpieces of Western philosophy" I was confronted with Kant's system of ethics. The 18th-century German philosopher's proposed moral system states that humans should not be used as mere utilities to advance some ulterior goal, but rather should be treated as ends in themselves. In addition to this, his formula for moral decision making is predicated on setting moral precedents.
For example, if you tell a lie are you suggesting that everyone ever alive in the past present and future should tell lies? If the answer is no, then Kant would say, don't tell a lie. But Kant rarely uses the term "human", instead often discussing a "rational being".
As Kant discusses a "rational being", my professor preferred the term "human being". There had to be something more than semantics going on here. Human lives, and human beings, one in the same as far as I was concerned. But I had to think more about this. How could there be a difference between a "human life" and a "human being"? Does not being human and alive or being human and alive make one a "human being"?
The distinction, I believe that my professor may have been making.
A fetus, or even just a fertilized human egg, can only be a human life by definition. By it being a living cell, it is alive, and its species is human (ie, it's not going to become a tree). But not all recognize every human life as human beings. The assumption that only human beings have rights, whereas human life is unrecognized as having rights, makes disposable for preference/convenience/burden-reduction of human beings. Perhaps Kant would not afford rights to non-rational beings: the mentally handicapped or children. These distinctions are ones that I cannot help but find incredibly problematic and ones that marginalize the most vulnerable in our society.
I thought of my grandfather, whose reason is impaired by Alzheimer’s; of my cousin, an excited new mom; of a relative with Down syndrome; of a family friend who mourned the loss of her child after a miscarriage; and of my close friend, herself the product of a crisis pregnancy. I thought of my childhood babysitter’s husband who has been a ward of the state for years now after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
All people–unborn, mentally impaired, or born into underprivileged circumstances or mothers in crisis situations–are human beings because they are human lives. The two terms are interchangeable. To be human and alive is all it should take for someone to care deeply about protecting and preserving life. I see no circumstance (age, religion, financial status, gender/sexual identity, ability, race/ethnicity) as enough to detract from the innate value that every human brings into this world.
I feel a deep responsibility to support these people in my community regardless of their position in life. To strip human lives of rights, especially life, is a problematic act. It assumes that arbitrary criteria can remove value to a human life—not being conceived in the most planned or privileged circumstances, not being able to care for oneself due to mental impairment, or needing extra financial and educational support.