Dealing with Intrinsic Human Value

Prelude | Essence and Potentiality | Definitions | What is human? | Intrinsic Value of humanity | Of fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part a) Of fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part b) | Functionalism and Utilitarian ethics revisited | Conclusion


Chris over at BioSled TrueFire offered up an article on intrinsic human value. He wanted my opinion on it and here it is:

1) From a secular view, it’s a good argument. It points out that the only consistent part of human nature is our flesh and blood. However, he leaves it there. The problem is that many biological creatures also have flesh and blood, but we don’t consider them human. However, this can be easily tweaked to point out that all humans share the same DNA. Both the astronaut and the homeless man have the same DNA (not replicated, but the few differences simply distinguishing how they will look within their species; by saying “same” I mean of the same type, not replicated). What is more, from the moment of conception to the moment of death, the DNA does not naturally change.

The importance in this is that if we reject intrinsic human value, as Chris argues, we end up promoting discrimination. Some humans perform at better levels and do more for society than other humans. Someone who wins the Nobel Peace Prize has more utilitarian value than someone who works a minimum wage job and plays video games all day. Thus, if we reject intrinsic value in humans, we must rely on utility. This has interesting implications not only in the abortion debate, infanticide, and end of life issues, but carries over into legal matters; when a person is killed, rather than simply looking for who did it and punishing the person, we would have to evaluate the persons involved, the utility of the victim, and the utility of the perpetrator. If the perpetrator has a higher utility and terminated the person of lower utility because of that person’s lower utility (especially if the person lowered the utility of society as a whole), then the killing could easily be seen as justifiable.

Though the consequences never determine the truth of a theory, most humans know a priori that such a mindset is wrong.

2) Chris goes on to say:

Our flesh and blood is intrinsic to our nature as human beings, to our very personhood as beings. Just as you can’t remove the grain flour and still have bread, you cannot remove flesh and blood and still have a human being regardless of their concious state.

Disconnecting personhood from flesh and blood (dualism) undermines all bodily rights reasoning for abortion. How can you rightly claim it’s your personal body, if you don’t believe it has a coherent, intrinsic value as a whole?

With this I agree and disagree. Working backwards, I think he has a misunderstanding of dualism. One can fall into the dualistic camp without being Platonic in one’s dualism (that is, elevating the spiritual above the physical). It is quite possible (in fact, it is only logical) to be an “equi-dualist.” It is possible to view both the body and soul, the material and immaterial, as equally important. This means that we can find our essence in both our material and immaterial states of being.

The reason I stress this is because those who die are without a body, but are still human. Now, without going into a huge theological explanation of this, we can look at it this way:

(1) Anything that has within its nature to be something, even if not actualized, is still that something

(2) A disembodied soul has within its nature to be both material and immaterial, though the physicality has yet to be actualized

(3) Therefore, a disembodied soul is still human though it lacks a material nature

The counter on this would be, “What about the body.” Well, the Orthodox Church actually believes that the body is still human (though it will be resurrected and reformed one day). This used to be common among all three branches of Christianity, but today only the Orthodox really hold onto this view (though many conservative Roman Catholic and Protestants do as well). Thus, the dead body is to be treated with respect.

With the above knowledge, we can look and see that he is correct on his argument for intrinsic value; if humans lack intrinsic value and instead posses a utility based value, then how can we truly argue for utility? The axiom is, “There is always someone better.” With this in mind, it would mean there is someone who has more of a right to live than we do; there is someone who always has more claims to basic rights than we do; there is always someone who has more of a claim to own us than we can claim to own ourselves.

Overall, it is a good argument. I want to come back to this issue later on after I have re-read Aquinas’ On Being and Essence, as it might help to clear up some issues on this topic.