The thing is, so is the cancer ridden biddy arguing with him right. It’s just that they’re both right in different logical realms:
A former Supreme Court justice has been criticised after telling a woman with stage 4 cancer that her life was “less valuable” than others during a televised debate on coronavirus lockdowns.
Lord Sumption made his comments while appearing as a guest on The Big Questions, which was broadcast on BBC One on Sunday morning.
The programme, hosted by Nicky Campbell, aimed to debate the question: “Is lockdown punishing too many for the greater good?”
During the show, Lord Sumption, who sat on the Supreme Court from 2012 to 2018, argued against lockdown measures for everyone, saying older and vulnerable people could isolate themselves “if they want to”.
He said he did not accept that “all lives are of equal value”, adding: “My children’s and my grandchildren’s life is worth much more than mine because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead.”
Deborah James, another guest on the programme, who has stage 4 bowel cancer, said: “With all due respect, Lord Sumption, I’m the person who you say their life is not valuable. I live with metastatic bowel cancer.”
Lord Sumption then interrupted her to say: “I didn’t say it wasn’t valuable, I said it was less valuable.”
Ms James continued: “My response to that would be, who are you to question and put a value on life? In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. I feel very, very strongly about that.”
She added: “All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is that people are living.”
Prof Calum Semple, another guest, said he “strongly” disagreed with Lord Sumption’s comments. The University of Liverpool academic said: “The value of life doesn’t change at the age of 70.”
The life being lived is of course valuable to the person living it. The suicide rate tells us that not all that many people disagree. So, therefore, all lives are valuable and there’s no switch that says they’re not at age 70.
This is also the entire basis of such things as civil liberty and so on. All people have equal value simply by being people. But, as one or another egghead pointed out some time ago, this only applies to negative rights. Those that are, if we like, public goods in that they exist for all without extra costs being involved in the extension to any one or one more person. So free speech applies to all, the genius, the cretin and even Owen Jones. The right to property to the Duke and the dustman. And so on.
There is that other world though, that one of positive rights. To education, to housing, to, as here, health care. In which we face a callous universe filled with scarcity. We cannot proffer all to all that is, some may have and some may not.
This is not a function of socialist or capitalist, nor good nor bad, it’s just a fact. We cannot all have infinite health care. No single one of us can in fact have infinite health care while there’s no obvious limit upon the amount of free speech that can be shared around (prudential limits like incitement are prudential, not because of scarcity).
This being the area where Lord Sumption is correct. In a world of scarcity we do have to have relative values, rankings, in order to work out who gets how much of this limited supply of whatever. Which is what the NHS already does. That £30,000 a year for a QUALY is exactly that, it’s an insistence that resources are scarce and we must deploy them where they buy us the most. The flip side of that being that this life here, which is shorter, is worth less than this one over here, which is longer.
And, yes, while the age of 70 isn’t a switch here it is indeed a waystation on that path from vast societal effort to save the sickly babbie to the Liverpool Pathway of an ice chip and a twist of the morphine pump.
This all should be simple enough, clearly, but then all too many people fail to grasp that distinction between positive and negative rights, right?