Hardly anything stirs our emotions so much as matters of life and death. This is not surprising, for we are dealing with a fear of the unknown. Most of us have our own set of beliefs concerning death, and as long as we are not reminded of it too much we can manage. Our attitudes may change dramatically when subjects such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, and animal experimentation become issues about which society must make decisions. Conflicting points of view then fight for supremacy with heated debate. The peculiar thing is that most of these controversies are concerned mainly with the visible consequences or the matter-side.
Much of the debate in the abortion issue, for example, is about whether or not it is murder, whether a fetus is a human being, when it is viable, and if the woman should have the choice to end her pregnancy. Those supporting capital punishment argue that society is justified in taking the life of a murderer, while their opponents think justice should not involve revenge. Society is also being asked to decide about euthanasia in both its active and passive forms: should extreme measures be taken to keep a vegetating body alive? Should a deeply suffering human being be allowed to end his life if he wishes to do so? When can doctors or relatives make such a decision? And how about the lives of animals? Do we have the right to make animals suffer, even if we are convinced it will save human lives?
Our Western religious and philosophical traditions teach a threefold division of body, soul, and spirit. While many people think they have a clear idea of what the body is — as a matter of fact, they identify with it — their idea about the soul and spirit is much more vague: both are invisible and usually associated with something "higher" in us, though how is not very clear. The majority of people would probably be at a loss if asked to describe what they think the difference between soul and spirit might be. Eastern traditions go into more detailed divisions of man, whether fourfold, fivefold, or sevenfold. They emphasize that a human being is much more than just a body: we are composite beings in which the different "parts" or levels work together as a whole. The sevenfold division includes a physical body, an astral model body, vital or life-energies, desire, intellect, an aspect in which higher intelligence and intuition work together, and the divine spark that connects us with the whole.
The arguments debated in these social controversies deal mainly, as said, with the physical body. The other human principles or aspects are hardly ever taken into consideration. How can we expect to come to any valid conclusions concerning these life-and-death issues if we disregard most of our being? Through our divine nature we are related to everything in the universe: nothing can happen to one that does not affect all the others. Causes and effects influence us not only on the physical plane, but also on the astral, psychical, mental, intuitional, and spiritual levels. The greatest mistake we can make is to think that anything we do concerns only ourselves. Because we are connected in so many intricate ways with the whole and everything in it, we cannot act responsibly unless we think of the whole.
By attempting to solve the various problems confronting us by focusing our attention on only material causes and visible effects, we are missing a great deal and may very well make things worse. Most people would agree that physical causes have physical effects, especially since they can see the immediate consequences. Yet by the same reasoning, nonmaterial causes should have effects on nonmaterial levels — even though we cannot see them. In essence, all of these discussions revolve around how we think about life and the eternal question "Who am I?" The truth is that we have to deal with circumstances that are the outcome of a diversity of invisible causes which affect much more than our visible selves.
How would these pressing issues appear to us if we were to take our entire being into consideration? Perhaps abortion is not just a matter of killing bodies from the fear of unwanted pregnancies; is it not denying oneself and the unborn self the opportunity of working out ties that have been made in the past? Could we actually be increasing our burdens by assuming that we will never undergo the consequences of previous and present thoughts and actions? Again, what guarantee do we have that ending the life of a criminal's body will end the life of the other aspects of his being? The criminal tendencies of his thought-life may very well continue to influence others who are sensitive to them. In the case of euthanasia, our hearts may go out to the needless pain and suffering of a person who is beyond recovery. The word needless, however, is the key: who knows what an entity needs?
Suppose we are here to learn and grow, materially and spiritually. By having a person leave his body before his time, we may be taking something he needs away from him. On the other hand, by keeping the body mechanically "alive," we may be trying to give him something he does not need. If we were to approach all these issues with the law of cause and effect in mind, we might realize that in many cases both abortion and euthanasia are only postponing certain effects and not eliminating the problem. Is this really in the best interests of the persons concerned?
Finally, vivisection and experimenting on animals form just one aspect of our treatment of animals and life in general, for we use and abuse living beings in myriads of ways. Our excuse in abusing experimental animals is that certain tests are necessary to discover more about ourselves, to make and keep us well, to save our lives and give us a better quality of life. The essential question is, "Do we really benefit by taking advantage of other beings?" In assuming the right to cure our ailments by ruining the lives of animals, we may very well be setting causes into play on invisible yet very real levels, with consequences that we cannot begin to fathom.
Obviously, it is impossible to bring out all the aspects involved in such complex issues and there are certainly no easy solutions. Nevertheless, these questions cannot be answered until we have a responsible basis on which to found our views. We can come to conclusions that satisfy our entire being only when we have a philosophy of life which is universal, which includes all living beings and the whole of their nature, visible and invisible. Only then will we realize that what matters is not only matter, and shape our thoughts and acts accordingly.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Theosophical University Press)