The Humanist Dilemma: Give Me Liberty, or…

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Dying for a Cause: It’s difficult to read a newspaper without coming across a report of someone dying for a belief, whether it’s suicide bombers, self-immolating protesters, or people being killed by others for sticking to their own principles instead of accepting those of their attackers. While it’s a bit easier to understand why people who believe they’re carrying out their god’s will would be willing to die for it and collect a heavenly reward, should humanists or others who don’t believe in an afterlife or supreme being make the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs (or non-beliefs)?

If I Have Only One Life, I’m Not Sure I’m Ready To Die For It

Dear Not Ready,

That’s an extremely deep question that warrants more than the topical treatment possible in the length of this column. I would never presume to suggest that any idea or cause warrants the sacrifice of life (one’s own or someone else’s). But I would also argue that some, in highly specific circumstances, would be worthy. People who don’t believe in a personal afterlife may feel a strong responsibility to those who continue to live after us or who aren’t yet born, just as most of us acknowledge the huge debts we owe to people who lived before us—particularly those who, throughout the ages, risked their lives to defend people or ideals from oppression or annihilation. Some may prefer death to living an unbearably compromised life.

Although individuals who choose to die rather than abandon their positions can be an inspiration and example for others—both their contemporaries and future generations—many go unremarked or are soon forgotten. And then there are those who manage to live another day, when perhaps they can assert their convictions from a position of greater strength and effectiveness. Would Nelson Mandela have accomplished as much if he’d been killed opposing apartheid, before he languished in prison for what was meant to have been the rest of his life, and then emerged to become the president of his country? Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t intentionally die for civil rights, but he recognized that what he was doing was extremely likely to make him a martyr. Although his death amplified his mission, what might he have accomplished if he’d remained alive to continue it?

Which is the greater good? Refusing to give in, upon pain of death? Or biding one’s time for an opportunity to prevail—knowing things might actually become worse because people are willing to tolerate a terrible situation rather than fight back? And what if it turns out your cause wasn’t worth dying for after all? (Come to think of it, what exactly would you die for?) How many things have you firmly believed in the past that you no longer feel strongly about, or even agree with, now?

It may come down to whether individuals are willing to live in the world—or live with themselves—accepting the conditions that would allow them to remain alive, and the uncertain consequences of either choice. The question may seem simple, but the answer is not.