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


I’m putting this forth from a discussion I’ve been having on my previous post. I’m putting it in this format mostly because I think it’s easier to display my arguments, rather than crunching them into a little reply.

I stated in my previous post:

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

That is where the opposition began, specifically this comment:

But surely you don’t think that $5 is actually the same as $10 simply because if you invest $5 it can become $10. If a potential human being is an actual human being, then shouldn’t potential money be as good as actual money?

So, before going on to refute the idea that we don’t have an essence, or that we make our own essence, let me first define what I mean by my statement.

I will use “essence” and “nature” interchangeably, but a very simple definition of what both essence and nature mean is this; “the thing that makes a thing what it is.” In other words, we know the difference between a bear and an apple because both have different essences. The essence is the ding an sich (thing in itself). It is what makes that one thing unique from other groups (there is also a species essence and personal essence, one dealing with the necessary aspects of a species while the other deals with the accidents of the individual, but that is for another time).

To say that anything that has within its nature to be something is that something is not the same as saying, “I have the potential to be an athlete, therefore I’m an athlete.” Rather, I am dealing with necessary potentiality. That is, in order for object x to be considered part of group G, x must hold the attributes of  p1, p2, and p3. If any of the attributes are missing, then x cannot be said to belong to G. So what does it mean to possess said attributes? Does x need to actualize the attributes before it can be said that xhas the attributes and thus belongs to G? Or, if it can be said that x holds the necessary potential to obtain said attributes, then x is a part of G? Let us deal with the first part, that potentiality must be actualized in order for an object to be part of a species:

Issue #1 -Is actualization necessary in order for an essence to exist?

As the previous poster has stated previously on this site:

Because adult human beings can ‘own’ themselves (that is, they have the capacity to put value on their own lives). Fetuses and infants (and some adults) lack the requisite abilities (self-awareness, especially) to value their own lives. As such, they are of value only to others and not to themselves (and if those others do not value them and wish to be rid of them, that is their decision).

In other words – and I hope I’m being accurate in portraying this – the value of an individual human goes only so far as the person is both capable and willing to place value on one’s life. A fetus or even an infant is unable to ascribe value his life and therefore is not really worth very little. By not valuing one’s life (or failing to have the capacity to value one’s life), one cannot offer a serious objection to losing one’s life. Furthermore, if an infant doesn’t know the value of his life, then when it is snatched from him or threatened then he doesn’t really know if he is losing anything. Besides, the value we place on ourselves is completely subjective to begin with. We are only valuable because we say we are valuable.

There are, of course, quite a few problems with this view:

1) What of those in comas? Let us assume that one day you are out with your friend Bob who, being foolish, walks out in front of a car and is hit. In order to heal the damage to his brain, the doctors put Bob into a medically induced coma. While in the coma, Bob lacks the abilities and capacities to decide the value of his life. We are then left with a dilemma:

a – If we say that Bob’s life is to be valued even while he is in a coma and lacking the ability to voice his own value, then we are accepting that potentiality can be the same as actualization. Bob lacks the ability to voice his concerns, but we still place value on his life, meaning we believe that event hough Bob can’t actualize his belief in his value as a human being, we believe it to still be there. This is the actualization of Bob’s potentiality of reasoned communication, which is an essential aspect to the human essence. Though damaged and thus hampered, Bob still has the potentiality for reasonable communication. This means he is valued, regardless of his lack of ability to actualize this aspect of his essence.

b – We can say, alternatively, that Bob has no value while in a coma. Or we can say that the closest living relative to Bob has the ability to determine Bob’s value (since Bob is unable to at that time). But, this leads to major problems, such as the second point I wish to bring up…

2) What of those who are asleep? When we are asleep, we are incapable of voicing our value or deciding our value. We, like the coma patient, are unconscious.

So returning to the previous analogy, if we determine that (b) is true, then we must likewise admit that when we are unconscious we have no value as human beings! This would mean that so long as you kill someone in his sleep and can prove to the court that you killed him in his sleep, without him ever waking up, that you shouldn’t be punished for the crime because he was of no value.

Again, if we argue, “But we know that he valued his life while awake,” we are still making reference to something that is not actualized in that moment. So it becomes irrelevant to the discussion. If our essence must be actualized in order for us to have value, then while we are asleep we are of no value.

3) What of those who lack the ability to voice the value they place on their lives? Imagine if we took Steven Hawking out of his wheel chair, or placed him in a regular wheel chair. Though his mind functions (no one can doubt this) as all other humans do, he would be unable to voice his value. Though he feels he has value and a right to live, there would be no way for him to voice his value. Thus, someone could kill him or declare themselves his keeper, robbing him of all rights, simply because he has no way of voicing that he has value.

If this is true for Steven Hawking, then it could be true for others. For instance, an infant may in fact have the minimal rational capacity to believe he has value, but lack the necessary motor skills to explain his value. Though this might seem silly, there is no way to know. In other words, if this standard of human value is true (the standard being that we must value ourselves), its major flaw is that it doesn’t allow for people who lack communication to announce that they feel they have value.

4) Why should value exist so arbitrarily? Why do I have value simply because I say I do? What is so magical about my words and feelings that it would give me actual value? If value is subjective, to the point you can only have it if you say you have it, then it means value doesn’t really exist. I can say I’m the king of Borofia, but it’s an empty claim as I’m not a king and Borofia doesn’t exist. If I say I have wings and can fly off a building, that doesn’t mean that I really have wings. Simply saying that you have something doesn’t mean you have it.

You can say you have it, but I can equally deny that you have; both claims are equally justifiable. In such a case, the strongest one gets to decide who is right. If James says that Kyle has no value, but Kyle says he knows that he has value, then an impasse has been reached. There is no way to determine who is correct.

5) What if I believe someone has misplaced value on his own life; what if I believe the person lacks the proper capacity to determine his value? For instance, in the previous example, what if John retorts that Kyle lacks the proper capacity to decide if Kyle has value because he is a sub-standard student, while John excels? If John can prove that Kyle doesn’t have value or lacks the capacity to properly say that he has value, wouldn’t this mean that even the claim to value fails to secure actual value? Wouldn’t this be a defeater to the belief, as the belief can be used to negate itself?

So as seen, the belief that we declare our own value is one wrought with logical impossibilities. Instead, we must look to intrinsic value within the human individual, whether certain attributes have been actualized or not.

Issue #2 – If an object holds the potentiality within its essence to be something, then it is that something whether the potentiality is actualized or not.

The above statement might sound complicated, but the issue is quite simple. Necessary potentiality simply refers to the things an individual will carry that necessarily exist for an individual to be a part of a species. For instance, a cat has certain attributes that a dog doesn’t have. These differentiation points are necessary for the cat’s essence. If a cat loses its tail, then it is no longer a cat. However, if we kill it and turn it into a mini-rug, then it is no longer a cat. It has died and, in turn, its essence has changed.

So we come to the issue of essence. What is the essence of a human? What are the components of a human that necessarily make a human a human? And once we can distinguish what makes something human, how do we know that a human is intrinsically valuable (that is, valuable by merely existing)?

First, we must determine what it is to be human. Second, we must determine if humans have intrinsic human value. And finally, we must determine if fetuses, infants, the elderly, disabled, et al fall within what it is to be human. If those in the third step fall within the first step, then by a logical extension they would fall into the second set.

I can see that all three of these will be quite an undertaking, thus I am going to take the time to put together such an argument. It may take a while, so please bear with me. Each one will probably comprise of its own post. So I guess this is really “Part 2” of what will now be a series on “Dealing with Intrinsic Human Value.”