Saturday January 29, 2022

Value of life

June 18, 2021

Thomas Hobbes, author of ‘Leviathan’, was a 17th century political philosopher. His case rested on how miserable life could be in the absence of a state.

Hobbes asserted that without a leader and a social contract, people would only have a “continual fear and danger of violent death”. He argued that “Where there is no common power there is no law; where no law, no injustice”. This, Hobbes theorized, left no room for morality because everything was somehow justifiable.

Teachers shape generations; this in turn determines the fate of a nation. One such teacher, Dr Zahir Shah, was murdered in Karachi over what has been declared a botched robbery. The late Dr Shah was awarded the Dawood Gold medal and the Quaid-e-Azam Scholarship for his doctorate which he did in 1981 from the University of Southern California after an MS from MIT. He came back to Pakistan and was serving as director of the Usman Institute of Technology, a premier institute imparting electrical engineering and computer science education. He remained CEO Cambridge Advisors Network and was co-chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum, promoting entrepreneurship in Pakistan.

Aftab Ahmad, a resident of Kanganpur, Kasur, was a lecturer at Government Dayal Singh College. A self-made person, during jobs he earned his MEd from AIOU, MPhil from GCU Lahore and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of California with publications on nano-engineering. Living in a rented house near Chungi Amar Sidhu, he was on his way to college on a bike when a kite string ran around his neck, snuffing out this extremely precious life on the spot.

The exemplary lives and tragic end of the two men epitomize the plight of those who are the true sons of their motherland. They could have opted for any place on the globe to have fulfilling lives; but their soul could only be satiated by serving Pakistan. All human lives are sacred – yet, the loss of such precious lives in an agonizingly senseless manner tears one apart. It also highlights the stark contradictions of our self-espoused morality where for a fistful of money or momentary pleasure we callously delve into what can and does have fatal consequences for others.

Nations, spearheaded by their leaders the world over, have gone about diligently and honestly seeking ways and means to better their collective lives. Groucho Marx’s satirical key to a ‘successful’ life was: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you have got it made”. Our unfettered military and political rulers had it made; the impoverished masses fought for survival.

Two of the most crucial imperatives ordained to any government towards its citizens are the role of protector and provider. It is duty bound to ensure that the people live and go about their daily lives without threat or fear for their lives and belongings. As a provider, it has to ensure enabling circumstances for quality education, health and economically productive lives.

Since 1850, the standard for measuring poverty in the US has been researched continuously. It was in 1965 that the US officially adopted a standard developed by Mollie Orshansky, an economist. This model, followed to date, ensures the well-being of American citizens by computing the relationship between the size of a family, its annual pre-tax income and the annual cost of nutritious food.

A stark contrast to our safety and security regarding health, food, and public transport, a New York Times report highlighted the efforts to upgrade the US regulatory system by assessing the value of human life. The US Environmental Protection Agency set a single American’s life at $9.1 million, the Food and Drug Administration at $7.9 million and the Transportation Department at $6 million.

The value that is placed on human lives in the US can be well gauged from the Berkley Global Product Recall. A few from a long list is the Takata (faulty) Automotive Air Bag Recall costing the company $24 billion. Volkswagen’s Diesel Engine Recall cost $18.3 billion because the car maker was cheating on diesel emissions tests. Volkswagen had to recall 11 million vehicles around the world. Merck’s Vioxx Recall cost $8.9 billion because Vioxx, touted as a revolutionary drug for arthritis pain, increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Something as mundane as a car foot mat would cost Toyota $3.2 billion as it was forced to recall 8.1 million vehicles due to the potential of the gas pedal getting stuck in the mat and causing unintended acceleration leading to accidents. Most of the recalls are voluntary; if not, the government enforces the same with penalties. This value system is what builds and strengthens a nation, not one which has a ready justification for loss of lives in crimes or accidents -- human life reduced to a mere statistic.

For our self-anointed generations of monarchical ‘qaideen’, Idi Amin, the former Ugandan president, was alleged to have been responsible for the death of 500,000 of his people. This did not deter him from proclaiming himself “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in general and Uganda in particular”.

Shorn of principles, rife with lust of self-enrichment and power, our governance was always what Ambrose Bierce satirically defines in The Devil’s Dictionary as “strife of interests masquerading as principles”. One can only hope that Prime Minister Imran Khan, heir to a truly Hobbesian Pakistan, proves that the one and only crucible of leadership is the value he places in the lives of the people he leads.

The writer is a freelance contributor.