Cape Royds, Antarctica is a most inhospitable place.  Temperatures drop to -50 Fahrenheit and high winds produce blinding storms.  The only inhabitants in this godforsaken region are penguins who, by their incessant squawking, seem to be protesting life in their desolate habitat.  But this narrow reef of black volcanic rock that juts out along the coast of Antarctica houses a buried treasure:  two cases of Scotch whisky left behind in the year 1909 by Sir Ernest Shackleford after his abandoned attempt to reach the South Pole.

Conservators located the wooden cases in January 2006, beneath the floorboards of a hut that Shackleton had erected, but were unable to dislodge them from a century’s worth of accumulated ice.  Undaunted, the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand will send a team of experts who will use a special drill that chips into rock so they can extricate the valuable cache of Charles Mackinlay & Co. whisky.

Richard Peterson, who is the master blender at Whyte & Mackey, the Glasgow whisky company that now owns the Mackinlay label, is hopeful that he may get to taste some of this long-aged brew.  Helen Arthur, however, who has penned six books on the subject of whisky, has expressed her doubts about whether the whisky still tastes very good.  If oxygen gets into bottled whisky, it would cause the contents to go bad.  Furthermore, an international treaty dictates that any intact bottles found in Antarctica must remain there unless they need to be removed from the continent for conservation reasons.  Therefore, only a couple of bottles from Shackleton’s supply can be removed.  It is estimated that one bottle of the vintage would fetch $1,000 at auction.

Meanwhile, in a hospital in the south of France, a region far more hospitable for human life, a judge has ruled that doctors at Orange hospital “demonstrated unreasonable obstinacy” in saving the life of a newborn.  Parents of the child are seeking 500,000 euros in damages.

Soon after the baby was born, a gynecologist informed the parents that their child was dead.  Staff, however, continued their efforts in saving the child and succeeded in restoring its heartbeat.  The judge’s ruling, revealed in November 2009, stated that “By acting this way without taking into account the highly probable harmful effects for the child . . . constituted a medical error of a nature which engages the responsibility of the Orange hospital.”

Does it seem that the hospital staff was guilty of “unreasonable obstinacy” in spending a few minutes to save the life of a newborn, if we contrast it with the extraordinary, expensive, time-consuming, arduous, and possible life-threatening efforts on the part of the Antarctic Heritage Trust team to excavate two ice-embedded cases of Scotch whisky at the South Pole?

What has happened to the world’s way of evaluating things?  Human life has intrinsic value;   a bottle of Scotch does not.  To say that human life has intrinsic value is to say that it has inalienable dignity.  This dignity is its moral claim not to be harmed or used as a means to an end.  But there is a growing trend these days to reduce all things, human life included, to market values.  Thus, if a defective newborn turns out to be a costly inconvenience, and a 100-year-old bottle of Scotch gets $1,000 at an auction, market values favor the latter.    

This is why Steven Pinker, a noted Harvard psychologist writes about “The Stupidity of Dignity” (in The New Republic, May 2008).  Pinker believes that the notion of dignity (based on the intrinsic value of human life) produces deeply negative results including the rejection of the principle that medical practice ought to maximize health.  Pinker wants to jettison the notion of dignity and replace it with autonomy.  Yet, who among us is truly autonomous?

Rescuing a couple of century old bottles of Scotch from their frozen hiding place in the Antarctica is, I suppose, an heroic act.  If the team is successful, it will no doubt win high praise in Media outlets throughout the world.  But its success will offer very little to improve anyone’s life.  Nonetheless, heroism in the larger, more moral sense, is rescuing human beings, newborn or otherwise, from heart failure of from fire.  When society praises the former and begins attacking the latter with law suits, as in the case involving Orange hospital, we know that the Culture of Death has reached a new level of iniquity.

What better characterizes the human being?  Is it dignity or autonomy?  All the talk these days about “autonomy” omits the glaring fact that because of our acute dependence on one another, none of us is truly autonomous.  If we lose sight of our own inviolability because we are mesmerized by the illusion of autonomy, then we do not have very much left, as the value of our respective lives converts into arbitrary and fluctuating market values.

A great deal of time, labor, and expense was also expended in trying to salvage various artifacts from the sunken Titanic.  The word “salvage,” interestingly enough, is derived from the Latin salvare which is related to salvation.  We human beings need to be saved, even if only from our own foolishness, far more so than do century old bottles of Scotch.

Postscript:  In early 2010, the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust excavated, to the amazement of the team, not two, but five crates of the buried brew:  three labeled as containing whisky and two labeled as containing brandy.  Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte and Mackay, whose company supplied the Mackinlay’s whisky for Shackleton, described the find as “a gift from the heavens” for whisky lovers.

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