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

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I feel that before moving on to see if humans have intrinsic value, we must first discuss some of the issues and terms surrounding this series. This requires us to move into the field of metaphysics and ontology, which can be confusing because we’re dealing with concepts that often cannot be known, but it is one field we must traverse if we have any hope of dealing with the intrinsic value of human-persons.

Essence – a term that describes the nature of a thing; a thing is what it is because of its nature.

An example of this is that we can know the difference between a rock and petrified dung; though the two can sometimes look similar, we can know that the two are different. Why is this? It is because each one has a difference essence.

This is because the essence is what makes a thing what it is. We cannot know an essence in a comprehensive manner; rather, we can experience the essence and describe the attributes of the essence, but we can never comprehensively grasp the essence of any one thing.

So when we speak of an essence, we are discussing the nature of a thing. The term “species” can, at times, be synonymous with “essence.” We know that humans are different from cats, cats different from cows, and cows different from giraffes. Each individual being in each specie group will be difference (we’ll get to that), but all draw from the same essence in their categorization.

Now, some would argue that “essences” simply do not exist, that we made them up as a way of classifying species. However, common sense would negate this argument. If there were no essences, then we would look at everything as an individual or as a whole. Thus, we would either approach each object in the world as being totally separate and unrelated to all other objects – no matter how similar – or we would view everything as being the same. Conceivably, a rock would be viewed as being the same as a human, or a tree being the same as a water buffalo.

So we are able to tell the difference between objects; we know this because each object has an essence that differentiates it from all other objects.

An important rule about an essence is that they do not change. If the essence of an object were to change, it would mean that the object would cease to exist as it is. If we look at a bear in the woods, we distinguish it from the trees because it has the essence of a bear. If we look at a bear laying on a bear-skin rug, we know it is different from the rug (because of the essence). The unfortunate bear that is now a rug, however, had a “change” in its essence. But this change brought about its death. In order for the bear to lose its “bearness” and instead gain the essence of “rugness,” it had to die.

It’s hard to think of living organisms that do this. It’s hard to think of living organisms that die and then come back to life. In most instances of a changing essence, a living organism dies (losing its essence) and then becomes an inanimate object (becomes a new essence).

Being – being is the actualization of an essence, that is, taking an essence and brining it into existence in part.. Being is the act of existing (latin ens); it draws from what a thing is (latin esse [essence]). It could be divided in English that esse means “being,” while ens means “the act of being.” In English such word usage is quite confusing, so it is best to use “being” as the “act of being” (ens) and “essence” as “what a thing is” (esse).

It is possible, in a very broad English usage of the word “being”, for something to have being without existing. If something can be conceptualized, in a sense it has being in that it exists within some conceptualized form without actually existing. This, however, is why most metaphysicians choose to distinguish (in English) between “essence” and “being.” Regardless, some use the term “being” in a broader sense. Those that do often refer to actualized states of being as being “existence,” which is viewed as a mode of being.

For example, a unicorn has being in the mind of one who conceptualizes a unicorn, but the unicorn does not exist. Thus, it lacks the mode of being called existence.

However, this view is generally rejected because it simply isn’t logical. By playing fast and loose with the language, our unicorn both has being and doesn’t have being. That’s a logical contradiction. Likewise, for the theist such a view is problematic because it opens itself up to pantheism, in that because we were thought of by God before we existed, it could be said that we had “being” in the mind of God before such being was actualized. This would mean we existed, just on a lower tier of reality. In theism, specifically Christianity, this opens the doors for Gnosticism, Eastern mysticism, Hegelian deism, and other beliefs generally considered heresies.

Thus, we revert back to the original definition – being is the actualization of essence into existence. Being doesn’t actualize the essence in full, but instead is, by its Latin definition, “the act of becoming.”

For example, I can have the essence of “human,” but never fully live up to my essence. That essence may never be fully actualized. Jumping the gun, part of the essence of “man” is “rational.” However, if I hold the potential for being rational, but have yet to actualize that potential or am not currently actualizing that potential (i.e. because I am asleep), then I am still a “man” because of my essence, though my current state of being doesn’t display the essence in full.

So we are always working toward fulfilling our essence within our being, but never have a completely actualized essence; it is always incomplete, but moving toward completion.

Substance – is that which defines a manner of being so that without this manner of being an object would not exist. This sounds far more confusing than it should. If we have a brown bookshelf, then the bookshelf has the essence of a bookshelf, the being of a bookshelf, but its substance includes the property of “brownness.” If the bookshelf were blue, then it would no longer have the substance of “brownness” within it. This is a very simple explanation, but one that I think displays what a substance is.

Substance is the bringing together of properties of a being. An individual human, for instance, has more proprieties than a rock; thus the substance of a human is far more complicated than a rock. Now, properties are universals that exist regardless of the being the properties are assigned to. Thus, “brownness” exists regardless of if the bookshelf exists or not.

I make the above distinction simply to point out that a substance is also the combination of parts. A person’s eyes, ears, nose, and other bodily parts are contingent upon him existing. If he were to no longer exist, his parts would no longer exist (as they are particular), though the properties of his being would continue to exist (as they are universal).

If the reverse is true, if a being loses a part, he does not lose his substance. The part, however, does lose its substance, as it is no longer part of the unity of existence that it shared with the being.

The final make up of a substance is the capacity of a substance, that is, what it can potentially be and not be. The substance of liquid has the capacity to be a gas or a solid. This means that the substance holds the potential to do something even if that something is never actualized.

For instance, Mike may have the capacity to do advanced calculus, but is currently asleep and therefore is not actualizing his capacity. Likewise, Jan may have the capacity to do advanced calculus, but dropped out of high school and never learned it. It is true that both Mike and Jan have the capacity for advanced calculus, but neither is actualizing it in their respective states.

There are ordered capacities, but such orders should not be necessary to go into for this series.

Substance, like an essence, must remain constant and unchanged in some sense. If we take a cat with white fur and dye the fur to be purple, the cat still has the same substance, just a differentiation of color. The substance is not the sum of its parts, but rather continues on even if the parts are taken away. The substance will grow and “change” in their appearance, but the identity remains the same (the “inner substance” if you will). Napoleon at 3 months old and Napoleon at 43 years old is visibly different, but the identity is the same. The inner substance of Napoleon doesn’t change throughout the course of his life. His personality might change, his appearance will change, his intellect will change, but who he is as a substantive person does not change.

Accidentsthe accidents are the part of a substance that are contingent upon the existence of a substance, but the substance does not need. They are non-essential to a substantive being for the being to remain what it is.

A human hand, for instance, is an accident to the substance of a human. It is a part, an accident, of the human substance. If one loses a hand, one still maintains one’s identity (inner substance) and being.

One of the flaws in the modern age is to make the accidents before the whole or to define beings by their accidents. Racism is the perfect example. One looks to the skin color, which is an accident of human existence, and defines a person based upon the accident. Whereas, a person could keep everything about himself, but change his skin color, and still be the same person. The color of the person’s skin is irrelevant to what the person is like.

A proper metaphysical view places the whole before the accident. Thus, a person is who he is prior to his skin color.[1] A child who is pre-pubescent hasn’t developed certain mental or physical capabilities as an adult, but that child still holds the essence of “human” in his substance. Though the adult and child have different accidents in their substance, their inner-substance draws from the essence of “humanness”.

Summary so far

This can all be confusing, so let me do my best to break this down through an actual thought process and then offer an analogy.

A substance is what defines a being as what it is. But both the substance and being are contingent upon the essence of that being. The substance is what gives the individual nature to a being. So, the process goes like this:

essence (universal) à being (universal + differentiation from other beings + existence) à substance (universal + being + existence + differentiation from other similar substances [in the substance’s parts]) + similarities to other similar substances [in the substance’s universal properties]) à accidents (contingent parts + being)

So how does the above look in the real world? Let’s take John Doe, who is a black man who is missing an arm.

John holds the essence of being human à John actually exists and is different from a tree, dog, etc à John is different from other humans by looking different in certain features, but the same in that he is still human in his properties à John is a black male who lacks an arm, but none of these define him as who he is

I hope these definitions help in the upcoming posts, which will deal with hat it is to be human, if humans have intrinsic value,  and if fetuses, infants, and others are human-persons.


[1] One “problem” with this view is if naturalism is true. If naturalism is true, then there is no inner substance to humanity as the “inner substance” is non-physical. Thus, the only evaluative aspect we have to determine objects is by their accidents. Though naturalism wouldn’t justify racism, it wouldn’t offer a condemnation either, other than defining a racists line of differentiation as arbitrary; but the naturalist would lack the proper standard to really call anything arbitrary.

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