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


What does it mean to be human? This question is far more difficult than people could imagine. Different cultures define “human” in different ways, depending on their views of the world. In parts of modern India, some people are not classified as human due to their lower caste. In ancient Rome, the head of a family could kill any child born into that family if he didn’t feel the child was worthwhile, because Romans did not believe children to be human. In more recent memories, the debate often raged over whether or not African slaves and their descendents were human (or as human as whites).

Thus, this question often elicits different answers with different responses. Is it possible to know what a human person is? I would advocate that it is quite possible.

The Essence of Humanity

The classic definition for “human person” is the ancient Greek understanding that a human is a “rational animal.” But what does this mean?

Rational –

To be rational means that we have the capability to engage in advanced thinking. Beasts, to an extent, have the capacity for a limited form of rational thinking, but only humans have the capability for advanced rational thinking. Our use of language, our creativity, our desire to discover, and so on. We are self-aware, so much that we often wonder what our purpose in life is. No animal wonders about his purpose or takes the time to be creative – there is food to be found and mating to be had. Humans, however, transcend such tendencies.

This is because we are non-instinctual beings. Though we can certainly rely on our instincts and though it is sometimes good, there are times where we will work against our instincts. For instance, a man who is married, but comes across an attractive woman might have the instinct to try to mate with her, but realizing he is married, he will make the choice to remain loyal to his wife. Though his instincts push him one way, his ability to rationally evaluate the situation causes him to go another. Were he nothing more than an animal, then he would have to act on his instincts.

Animal –

Man is also an animal. This is much easier to explain than being rational, as this is what links us to the beasts rather than separates us. To say that man is an animal distinguishes him from other forms of biological life and places him in a specific category.

All animals have physical bodies, as opposed to plants, trees, or rocks. We are not inanimate, nor do we stay in one spot. We are biological creatures with a body, that is, an animal.

Thus, man is a rational animal, something that has a physical body, but holds the ability for deep reason.


This definition of a “rational animal” can now be explored. To be rational is to be independent, that is, an individual. The best way to look at this is to determine what it is to be a non-individual. A non-individual has no free will, that is, the ability to choose certain moral actions. As proof of this, no human people group is known to operate under a hive mentality. There is no “queen human” that, through brain waves, forces people to act a certain way. Even in the cases of a totalitarian regime, a person’s mind must be manipulated (through fear, force, or other methods) to act a certain way, that is, the government must work around the person’s individual nature.

We are all unique in various ways. For all humans, part of our uniqueness is in our biological state. Even in the case of a human clone, the body will eventually become different than that of the original “donor.” Due to biological influences the clone would still be a unique individual. Thus, all of us have a body that no one else has, that looks like no one else (once we get into subtleties), and is truly unique.

Furthermore, we each have personalities that distinguish us as different. I remember when working with two severely disabled students who were incapable of speech, both made similar sounds and similar noises, but it was quite apparent that both had different personalities. These were two human persons with different reactions to the world. All personalities are unique and different in some way. This simply accentuates our individuality.

Continuance of Identity

Another aspect of humanity is that we maintain our identity (our personality) throughout our lifetime. We never cease being who we are, even though it might appear so to others outside of who we are. It doesn’t matter what our current state is, whether we are asleep, in a drug-induced coma, a child, or an adult, who we are never changes. Though our physical appearance changes (e.g. a person born on June 24, 1983 will look drastically different now than he did back in 1983), who we are does not change.

Our genetic make up, for the most part, does not undergo any drastic changes as we develop. Unless there are outside influences, our DNA will guide the development of our lives. Changes in the DNA, especially significant ones, do not change us, but can ultimately lead to our death (which is a change). Regardless, this DNA composition that we have within us now is the same composition that we had from the moment of conception. In the very least, our genetic identity has been the same from the moment of fertilization up until now. This doesn’t necessarily prove the case for the pro-life movement (remember, we’re dealing with intrinsic human value – so what is in the womb could lack value), but it certainly shows that what is in the womb is a human person. But that is for later in this series.

This goes back to being a substantive person. By having a human essence (unchanging) and the substance of being human (also unchanging), who we are as an individual will remain unchanged. Our personalities might change, our bodies will change, but who we are as an individual simply will not change.

The Immaterial Self

What is it that causes us to remain unchanged? Biologically, our bodies change almost daily. Some scientists believe that most of our molecules are changed every seven years. That means that by the time a person is 21, it is quite possible that he has been through 3 different bodies on the molecular level. Regardless of the validity of this hypothesis, even the casual observer can say that the 21 year old has a different body than the one he had ten years earlier. Yet, he is who he is.

Thus, what maintains our identity cannot be found in the material. In fact, whether we like the idea of there being an immaterial self to human individuals or dislike the idea is irrelevant; we function as though there is an immaterial self. The most common argument in abortion is, “It’s a woman’s body.” Well, if all she is, is her body, then it makes no sense to use the language of ownership and possession. In fact, she wouldn’t have a right over her body because she is her body, meaning she (her body) is subject to nothing more than biological influences. Likewise, we still convict criminals; but it is quite possible that their bodies have changed since they committed a crime. Yet, we ignore the biological change and realize that he person who committed the crime still exists, regardless of physical changes.

So our bodies change, but we do not change. What does this mean?

It means that we have souls. It means there is a me inside my body that works with my body to function in the physical world. How does this work though? There isn’t an adequate analogy as there is little in nature that compares to the complex relationship between body and soul. After all, when I walk I think of myself going for a walk. When I talk to a person, I think of myself as having talked with an actual person, not just a body with an immaterial aspect. So there is a deep relation between the material and immaterial aspects of human existence (or the tangible and intangible). Such a thing simply cannot be analogized in a proper fashion.

However, think of a car. The car would be the body and the person inside the car would be the soul. If both the person inside the car and the car itself are functioning properly, then the car will run smoothly all at the commands of the person. Let us assume, however, that we give the car a flat. Then, no matter how much the person wants to express himself by turning the car or driving it, he will have extreme difficulty because the car is not functioning properly. If we take the engine out of the car, then the person ceases to be a driver because the car no longer functions. Likewise, if the person decided to engage in vehicular homicide, we will punish the person. Even if he changes the siding on his car, paints it a different color, puts a new engine in the car, and paints the interior, we will know that he still used that car to commit a heinous act and he will be punished, regardless of the change.

Let us imagine that this car has tinted windows, to the point that we cannot see the driver in there. We open the hood as the car is running and, by toying around with the engine, we discover that we can get the engine to rev up. We find we can cause the wheels to turn without any action on the part of the car. We therefore conclude that there is no driver. How silly would that be? Likewise, though we can look at the body and the brain and through physical manipulation cause the body and brain to do certain things, or because we can measure brain waves on certain thoughts, does not mean we are purely physical beings. If we were purely physical beings, then our identity would not remain the same.

Thus, to be a human means to be a rational animal, being physical (animal) and rational (immaterial); in addition to this, it means to be a unique individual that does not change over time.