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


We now know that to be human is to be a rational animal (thus defined as a human animal). To be a human animal is to have a soul. Is the idea that we have intrinsic value based upon having a soul? I do not believe so. I believe that ensoulment can provide one of the better arguments for intrinsic human value, especially under the Christian worldview. After all, under the Christian worldview, a human being is made in the image of God, thus by the very nature of being human, a person has value because that person is made in God’s image. This is the strongest case so long as a person believes in the Christian God and that He created humans in His image. If one has those two beliefs as a premise, then it logically follows that humans – no matter their stage of development or ability to actualize all capacities – have intrinsic value.

Unfortunately, not everyone accepts such premises and it is doubtful that most people will change their mind on such premises. We are then left to ask ourselves if there is any natural reason for believing in intrinsic human value. Do we have a reason to believe in it by appealing to reason alone? I would advocate that there is certainly a non-spiritual, non-religious, purely natural way of determining that humans have intrinsic value.

Intrinsic Value

What does it mean for a thing to have “intrinsic value”? As the name indicates, to have intrinsic value means that a thing has value by the mere act of existing. One cannot add to one’s value or take away from one’s value; all things that of a group that are intrinsically valuable are all equally valuable. If we could add to intrinsic value, then the value is ultimately extrinsic. It is the same if we could take the value away. Thus, if value is intrinsic, it is the same for everyone.

This stands in stark opposition to the view of extrinsic value. A car is extrinsically valuable. Its value goes only so far as people will let it go. If no value is placed upon the car, then so be it. The American dollar is extrinsically valuable; it only has the power it does because people have decided to put an emphasis on it as a way for paying for services rendered and goods. If we did not value the dollar, then it would be of no value.

So if humans are extrinsically valuable, then there are no human rights; humans would have to earn their value (if there is, in fact, any value to be earned at all). Humans, as a whole or as individuals, would only be as valuable as we make them to be. If we decide that certain humans aren’t valuable, then those humans simply have no value.

This is why the debate over extrinsic and intrinsic value is so important. It lays at the basis over deciding human rights. Those who accept intrinsic value (such as myself) would argue that all humans, regardless of physical or mental condition or stage of development are valuable human beings, deserving of basic human goods (human rights). That is the position that I am going to defend on this post. Though I have already dealt somewhat with utilitarianism and the idea of extrinsic value in the second post of this series, I will deal with it more later in a following post. For now, however, I wish to defend the natural law view of intrinsic human value.

The Deontological Defense

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant laid some good groundwork for a belief in intrinsic value. Though his deontological view of ethics provides adequate groundwork, it is ultimately insufficient for completely defending a belief in intrinsic value. However, before dealing with its inadequacies, it is good to look at how his deontological view helps provide a basis for intrinsic value.

Kant taught that there were two axiomatic beliefs concerning the natural view of ethics. He believed that we should act in a way that we would wish to see our ethics made universal and that we should act in a way toward humans so that we treated them as ends and not means to an end. These two axioms provide a good support for intrinsic value.

Axiom 1 – Act in a way that we would wish to see our ethics made universal.

Too often people take this as Kant laying the foundations for subjectivity. Though such an argument can certainly be made (one of the short comings of deontology), Kant is assuming that those following the axiom are concerned with goodness. Thus, Kant argues that if we would not want people to steal from us and we don’t want people to steal from others, then we should never steal in any way.

Kant’s argument is actually an ethical view that is in desperate need in the world today, specifically in business ethics and politics. He simply states that if you want others to act in a certain way, then you too must act in that way so as to make the law universal. If you refuse to act in that way, then you do not truly view the ethic as universal and thus negate your own ethical standards. I cannot lie to you, but then want everyone to not lie.

Axiom 2 – Always act so that you are using humans as an end and not merely as a means.

To use a human as an end simply means that we value the person as an individual. We do not harm the person, manipulate the person, or treat the person as a commodity; we value the person as an individual human being. As Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen explain in their book Embryo:

Certainly, if I believe that your death will be instrumental to my getting the inheritance, to kill you is to treat you as a mere meant to my end of getting the money. By contrast, if I ask you for money, and you agree to lend or give it to me, then I have treated you as an end in yourself by letting the decision remain yours – you are the one who determines whether to give or lend the money. I have thus not treated you as merely subordinate to my wishes, like an instrument for obtaining my ends. (pg. 96).

All humans want to be treated in such a way. No one likes being treated as a means to an end. This is why there is so much discontent in many factories or in many corporations, because humans are treated as ways to make money, not as individual human beings.

Kant does, unfortunately, have downfalls. For instance, his first axiom wouldn’t work for people who give no regard for their own lives or other human lives. Under such a framework (though rare), a person wouldn’t even care about the second axiom. So there is an assumption in Kant’s deontology that must be explored more fully, namely that humans are intrinsically valuable.

Why Humans and Not Animals?

One objection that could be raised immediately, especially with the deontological view, is that only humans are targeted as intrinsically valuable and not animals. The philosopher Peter Singer, for example, argues that if animals can feel pain then they are just as valuable as other human beings who can feel pain. So what is the differentiation between humans and animals?

Pain does not work as a measuring mark because pain, to a certain degree, is quite subjective. What might be painful for one person may only be a nuisance for another. Does this mean a person who feels more pain has more value than the one who feels less pain? Or what if we argue that species who have the capacity to feel pain are valuable? If we do this, though, then by arguing for the capacity to feel pain, we render the destruction of human life – from the embryo to the natural end of life – as immoral and evil. If one is willing to grant such a conclusion, then so be it.

Regardless, since “pain” is subjective and some people, such as sadomasochists, enjoy pain, it doesn’t work as a proper standard. What is it then that separates humans from animals?

First, as mentioned in the previous post, humans are rational beings. Humans hold in their very nature the capacity for thought. What is the proof that we are rational?

Humans have the capacity to choose. If one wanted to hold to a deterministic stance, specifically of biological determinism, then one would need to explain how humans can be irrational. Nature is, for the most part, rational. Rationality is the norm in nature. All animals operate like well oiled machines, doing what is rational according to their nature. Humans, however, are prone to acting irrationally. If biology determines our choice, then why are humans the lone anomaly in acting irrationally? The human capacity to be irrational indicates that we have the ability to freely choose certain actions; that is, we hold the capacity of choice.

A second proof is that we can appreciate aesthetics and art. An animal can look at a painting and think nothing of it. A human, however, can look at a painting and find the beauty in it, the creative ability of the artist, and even interpret a message. It is within a human’s natural capacity to do so. What I mean by that is we have the ability to actualize our appreciation for aesthetics. I am currently staring at a computer screen and a while ago I was asleep. So for some time I have not been in a situation where I could appreciate aesthetics. This does not mean I have lost my ability, merely that I am currently in a location that does not allow for me to act on my capacity for appreciation of aesthetics.

A third proof is that humans can act without being instinctual. In fact, this used to be a virtue; to evaluate any given situation and rationally think through it, going against our instinct to act and instead act in a rational manner. If someone calls us stupid or insults who we are, our instinct is to fight back. However, we hold the capacity – even if we do not act on that capacity – to respond in a rational manner or ignore our instincts completely and subsequently ignore the person.

All three of these are things animals cannot do. We may develop technology that might allow animals to act rationally (hypothetically speaking), but this would be an extrinsic act. Animals, when left on their own, lack the ability to think rationally. It is not within their nature to be rational, thus they do not have the capacity for rationality. Humans, however, do hold the capacity to be rational beings; it is within a human’s nature, even if not currently actualized, to be a rational being.

The second thing that differentiates us from animals is that we have a desire for freedom. Now, in some sense, many other animals desire “freedom” in the sense that they do not enjoy being barricaded. But the human sense of freedom goes much deeper. We want the freedom to make certain choices. We want the freedom to certain rights. Our freedom is beyond that of any other animal; we want freedom that extends beyond location without barriers.

Humans want to act upon their rationality, to be creative, to make choices, to seek after knowledge, etc. When such actions are removed, people will fight for their freedom. Animals, however, aren’t creative and have no rationality to begin with, so they could care less about the right to choose or the right to be creative.

In fact, totalitarian societies have one of two options when they remove freedom from individuals; convince individuals through pleasure that freedom is overrated and that the pleasures given to them by the government outweigh freedom, or brutalize and scare the people into giving up their freedoms, that is, brainwash them. Both of these actions, however, must be external actions as it is within the human capacity to desire freedom; it is part of our nature to want freedom and to be free.

Intrinsic Value for Humans

The above not only separates us from animals, it is the explanation for why we are intrinsically valuable. For if humans have within their nature to both be rational and desire freedom, then to violate either the rationality or freedom of an innocent human being would be abhorrent.

Some might want a justification for the above, but I would argue that such a sentiment is simply a priori in all human persons. Both liberals and conservatives can sympathize with Martin Niemöller’s poem, which states:

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

All humans have a sense that, “If it could happen to me, then I don’t want it to happen at all.” Of all of Christ’s teachings, the second greatest commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” is the least controversial of all of Christ’s teachings, because whether one is a Buddhist, a Baptist, a Jew, an agnostic, a Muslim, or an atheist, one can accept the premise. I believe this is because such a sentiment is a priori within human nature; we don’t want our rationality and freedom interfered with, thus we conclude it would be wrong to do so with others without proper and justifiable warrant.

This would mean that we have basic human goods, things that fulfill us as humans. These goods are intangible, that is, they are not the same as material goods. Having a nice car, the best television, the biggest house, and the like might make us temporarily happy, but material goods always leave us wanting more. The basic human goods, therefore, are goods that can be pursued for a lifetime that will also fulfill us. Likewise, they fulfill us because they are good in and of themselves – though we can pursue such goods because of the effects they will bring, we do not necessarily have to do so as the goods are good in and of themselves.

Such goods would be the right to pursue knowledge, the right to privacy, the right to pursue God (or religion or no religion at all) in your own way, and others. Such goods might be open to debate, but one good that is not open to debate (if we are truly intrinsically valuable human beings) is that of life; life is the most basic good. If we do not have a right to life, then we do not have a right to anything else. All other goods, whatever they might be, hinge upon the belief that we are (1) currently living and (2) hold the right to live.

A Right Interrupted

If the right to life is our most basic and fundamental right, then the violation of that right would be evil in cases where a person is innocent. Certainly there are instances where the taking of a human life is necessary, but this is generally when the life being taken is purposefully threatening the life of an innocent human being. Regardless, if humans have intrinsic value, then to harm or kill an innocent human being is to violate a person’s most basic right.

In a pragmatic view, this would mean that if are willfully able to harm innocent humans for arbitrary reasons (e.g. a person has a different skin color, a person talks funny, etc) then we must accept that such harm can also be done to us. It leads to an ethic where only the strongest survive. Such an ethic is not tenable and does not aid in human survival, hence why few societies have followed such an ethic.

Rather, because we enjoy not being harmed for being different or weaker than other humans, we too choose not to harm or kill humans who might be different from us or weaker than us. We do this because we know a priori that we have value and that other humans have value.

So humans do have intrinsic value. This means that whether I am asleep and thus incapable actualizing my rationality or my desire for freedom or awake and actualizing my desires, I have value. Since we learned that nature cannot change (see Part 3) and that rationality and a desire for freedom are a part of our nature, and these are what give us intrinsic value, no matter my condition, unless I am dead, I am intrinsically valuable.

This, however, is one aspect that we will cover in Part 6 of the series (soon to be posted). Part 6 will deal with embryos, fetuses, infants, the elderly, the mentally retarded, the severely disabled, and others humans who are different either through disability or stage of development. It will explore two parts; (1) do we have value when we are in these states and (2) are we still human in these states? I will contend that even in such states, we are still human persons and thus worthy of respect because we still have intrinsic value.