Seems the death of Kobe Bryant has stirred our sense of indignation and human suffering in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the death of Robin Williams. Then, as now, people were divided between the notoriety of these individuals and the hard reality that the anonymous suffering with mental illness and tragedies are not given a second thought, and don’t seem to occupy the news and social media feeds. I’ve written about Robin Williams (https://ellypiro.wordpress.com/2018/05/20/find-your-truth/) but then I was not as concerned by the conquest of those disparaged at the attention that this man had drawn and the disingenuousness of said sentiments when so many others of no notoriety suffer everyday.
I think the underling concerns are of keen insight and speak to moral underpinnings that occupy us all. The suggestion seems to be that all human suffering is of equal value, that the lives of the famous, rich, accomplished, successful are no more valuable than the lives of any human being, be they poor, destitute, average, of no special talent and so on. Discrimination is the culprit when great(er) consideration and attention is given to the loss and/or suffering of the rich/accomplished than to the poor/unaccomplished.
I doubt that notoriety all by itself is sufficient to determine the value of LIVED LIFE (i.e. one can be well know for a host of reasons; some bad, some good, and some ridiculous) but I wonder whether we are all being explicitly truthful when we make this universal claim regarding the unconditional value of all human life. When presented with considering whether the life of the “Bill Clintons,” “Martin Luther Kings,” or “Steve Jobs” of the world are more valuable than the lives of the “homeless” and/or “poor,” we would all certainly yell out: ABSOLUTELY NOT! How indignant to suggest such a thing!
Yet, this does not seem to be consistent with the manner in which we meaningfully organize our lives. After all, if it were true we certainly would not raise our children to aspire to certain kinds of lives, life styles, pursuits and activities. Indeed, I’d submit that none of us are innocent to the act of assessing and comparing lives. Clearly, we all value a life of health, happiness, fulfillment of potential, surrounded by family and friends who love us more than one where any one of these is absent. We may want to challenge some of these, but ultimately there is no way to avoid the judgment of value that is inadvertently implicated in the activity of living. Clearly, the life of a drug addict is not the one I should wish upon anyone. We may also want to challenge the way these considerations translate socio-politically. For instance, we may object to certain individuals (by good fortune, hard work, or both) of wealth and political influence seeking privileged treatment and/or access to public services (healthcare, expedite documents, etc.). The value of certain lives then, is quite distinct from saying “regardless of the kinds of lives one lives, the interests of all human beings should be given equal consideration….or something along these lines (the choice expression is utilitarian and I’m no utilitarian…apologies). But what has this to do with the death and the notoriety surrounding Kobe Bryant?
Those who are indignant accuse those expressing their sorrow as neglecting the death of the other passengers and their families’ loss. Some seek to broaden the issue to consider worldwide suffering which, they claim, “no one” (at least not those expressing their sorrow for this basketball player’s death) seems “too” concerned with. Honestly, I don’t know that that is true….the same people that have posted about this death seem to also post about the atrocities in Syria, the death toll in Gaza, the multiple raging civil wars in Africa, the brutal treatment of nonhuman animals, the poverty epidemic of India and more.
Again, and this is in part why I originally thought it best to remain quiet, what is it that everyone else, we (for I include myself) are actually doing to appease the suffering of anyone!!!!?? Is there not just a little hypocrisy in this? If I am a person affluence, power, etc., should I not seek to alleviate the suffering of the anonymous innocent adults and children around the world rather than just talk about it and castigate others whom I presume are not? Should I not restructure my life to use my influence (monetary and otherwise) to alleviate such suffering? Peter Singer (utilitarianism is not my moral framework, but still…) initiated a campaign called “Effective Altruism” (see his TedTalk here: https://www.ted.com/…/peter_singer_the_why_and_how_of_effec…) that challenges us to live differently (eg. one student decided to study finance because it was what would bring him a surplus of earnings that he could give to the poor; others choose medicine or law, and seek more humble life styles, to afford themselves the time to work for free for the poor and destitute, etc.) and reconsider the meaning of “charity” and “duty”.
I would also like to share that my gut reaction to all the attention that Kobe’s death drew was: “What ever has this man done other than play basketball (BASKETBALL!!! IT’S JUST A SPORT AFTER ALL. I MEAN IT’S NOT LIKE HE FOUND THE CURE FOR CANCER!!?? RIGHT??!) and get paid damn well for it?! Why should I care when so many others who remain anonymous are suffering in this world? Why should I grieve for him beyond what one would grieve for the tragic loss of any life? I find myself indignant not so much because people are expressing their sorrow of this man’s tragic loss, but how it plays out in the manner in which this does translate socio-politically with regards to the structures that come to organize civil life. Still, it is hierarchical, still it is patriarchal, still it tips its hat to instrumentalism, still it is soulless, still it is ego-driven, still it is one of convenience.
Going back to the manner in which we value lived lives, there are the more aretic (from the Greek αρετή, dating back to early Greek Philosophy but more explicitly and systematically with Aristotle and the Stoics) variety that one might consider. For instance, Kobe is admirable for the sheer excellence he brought to the game, in the same way that a medical researcher can be admired for discovering the vaccine for a coronavirus virus. But this is admirable not just for the results brought to bear, but for all of those traits of character, or virtues, that such people often possess. Courage, discipline, focused attention, commitment, resilience, strength, temperance, generosity, honesty, respect. But alas it is not only the “socially accomplished” that are possessed of such virtues! For what of the courage and strength of an addict who has struggled her way into being clean? What of the strength and sense of justice of a mob member who resists killing an innocent? Admirable? But alas, what also of Kobe’s alleged rape? What of the life style and affiliations of the mob member? And what of the medical researcher’s vile treatment of her staff? We are all fallible, limited beings; no one is ever going to be wholly virtuous and it is perhaps as unlikely that anyone shall be wholly vicious.