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


One of the more charged terms in the abortion debate is the word “murder.” Those who are pro-life use this term quite a bit, calling abortion murder, whereas those who are pro-choice think equating abortion to murder is egregious rhetoric. Of course, the issue is quite simple; if the fetus is a human being, then the intentional killing of the fetus in murder (with few exceptions). If the fetus is not a human being, then killing the fetus is no more an act of murder than killing a wild animal that threatens livestock, or killing off numerous skin cells by taking a shower.

That is what the abortion debate – and multiple other life debates, such as what to do with the disabled, the mentally retarded, the terminally ill, and the like – hinges upon; is “it” human?

As seen in Part 5 from the Intrinsic Value series, being a human being means that you have certain rights, the most foundational of those rights being the right to life. All other rights are based upon this one right. Without a right to life, ultimately we have a right to nothing. This right is not given to animals, nor is it given to inanimate objects; this right is placed solely on humans.

Human, All Too Human

To provide a brief overview of the last parts, we determined that a human is both material an immaterial (though it is not necessary to believe this in order to believe that humans have intrinsic value); the material aspect of humanity is shared among humans in our DNA. Humans are individual human beings and though at times reliant upon other humans for our existence, we are ontologically separate from other human beings. We are self-aware, we have the ability to forgo our instincts, and we are creative.

We are individuals at every stage of development; no matter how much our bodies change, who we are doesn’t change. Thus, once a human, always a human. When our essence changes, this means that we have ceased to be, that is, we have died.

So the question comes up – what about those who do not show the attributes of being a human? What of those that show no capacity for reason, are tinier than other humans, are inching closer to death, are in vegetative states, or so on and so forth? This seems to be the question of the day. Often times abortion rights advocates will declare, “It’s a woman’s uterus; what she is killing inside her uterus is not human” and seek to provide a justification. When we kill the severely deformed, the advocacy is, “they are not really humans.” Or, as the Nazi father from the movie The Boy in the Striped Pajamas says about the Jews, “Those people aren’t really people.”

General Thoughts Concerning Humanity

There are, I believe, a few overriding principles in determining what does and does not qualify as human. The first principle is one of negation – negating the idea that how big we are plays into whether or not we are  human. The second principle deals with a negation of the belief that someone must look human in order to be human. The third principle deals with the negation of the quality of life argument. The fourth principle deals with developing non-arbitrary standards for determining what is and is no human; that is, we need to find characteristics that all humans share in essence, rather than looking to the accidents of humanity and confusing those with the essence. It ties together the three previous principles and summarizes an adequate view of humanity.


When people advocate embryonic stem cell research, abortion, or even infanticide, one of the arguments used is as follows: “An infant/fetus/embryo is simply too small to be a human being. Humans are measured in feet, not in inches.” This argument is generally a layperson appeal, once that is often heard on TV talk shows or some other similar medium; the reason for this is that such an argument is hardly academic.

The reason the argument doesn’t qualify as an academic argument is because there is no non-arbitrary standard to determine who is and is not human. Scientifically, there is no cardboard sign saying, ‘You must be this tall in order to be human.’ How do we determine how tall one must be before qualifying to be human?

Does this mean midgets are a different species than humans because of their size? It can’t be so since midgets come from humans and can produce humans. Considering the law of biogenesis, this would make midgets humans.

If we determine a happy medium of size, does this mean those closer to that medium have more rights than others? Does this mean that a male who is 5’10” holds more rights than Yao Ming?

Thus, the argument from size just doesn’t work. If someone who is 3 feet tall qualifies as human, why not someone who is three inches in length? Why not someone who is three millimeters? If the person who is three millimeters in length doesn’t qualify as a person, why not the person who is three inches tall?


One of the greatest movies I have seen is The Elephant Man. In the movie, John Merrick is born with a disease that leaves him extremely deformed in his appearance, rendering him to look extremely different from the average human being. The pivotal moment in the movie is when he ventures out and people begin to follow him, angry that this monster had come into their midst. As he is backed into the corner he begins to yell, “I am not an animal! I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

Though it makes for great cinema, if we accept the argument that someone must look human in order to be human, then John Merrick doesn’t qualify. He is an animal, but he is not a human being. Thankfully, not only is this great cinema, but it is true as well; looks have little to nothing to do with being a human being.

How do we determine what “looks” human? Are we to say that the “Elephant Man” (and those who suffer from the same disease) aren’t really human, even though they hold all the universal capacities that other humans do? Are we to say that a child who has been severely burned in a fire and thus lacks all the facial features that humans have is no longer a human being?

If we are allowed to determine the above, then can we say that white people look human, but no one else does? Or can we argue that one must have slanted eyes and yellowish-brown skin in order to be human; all others do not qualify? Certainly we believe that all humans, regardless of skin color, facial features, or deformities qualify as a human being.

So why not an embryo? Why not a fetus? Why not a significantly deformed individual? If a white person or black person or brown person qualifies as a human being regardless of looks, why not others? What constitutes “looking” human? Having all four limbs (what of those in accidents)? Having chiseled features? Being Aryan? What qualifies as “looking human”?

Quality of Life

Another argument that is often used, especially in end-of-life issues, is the argument about the quality of life. We argue that someone who is a paraplegic doesn’t have a high quality of life. Someone facing an imminent death lacks a quality of life. An aborted baby who wasn’t wanted was facing a life without quality. This is usually how the argument goes.

However, who determines what constitutes “quality” when it comes to life? I currently reside in an extremely small room with little income. There are those in the world who have no home at all and no income. Their quality of life is significantly lesser than someone who’s income is ten million dollars a year. Does this mean the poor person lacks a proper quality of life and therefore deserves to die? Then again, the person who makes $10 million a year could be corrupt and therefore miserable, meaning he lacks a certain quality in life. Shall we kill him instead?

There simply is no unified definition on what it means to have a qualitative life. What is quality to one person may be the lack of quality to another. What is sufficient quality to one person could be insufficient for another. Someone who developed properly may look at someone with Down’s syndrome as lacking quality in life. A person with Down’s syndrome, however, may believe he has quality no matter what.

There will never be a unified understanding of what it means to have a “life of quality.” The reason for this is that it varies from person to person and from culture to culture.

The above aside, we forget that humans are intrinsically valuable. Thus, if one is human, one has value, no matter the quality of the circumstances. And that’s the kicker – it’s not the life that has quality or lacks quality, it’s the circumstances the life happens to be in. A poor person might have a life of low quality, but give him $1 million and his quality could improve. A person with “lock-in syndrome” may have a life of low quality, but find a cure and the life gains quality. This has nothing to do with the life itself, but instead with the circumstances in which the life is placed.

If we accept the “quality of life” argument, then not only can we never properly determine our own quality of life, but our humanity is circumstantial! This is an absurd belief because it means we would be changing our species dependent upon our circumstances, but this flies in the face of both philosophy and science.

If we accept the quality of life, then we have to argue that it is less evil to kill a person with a broken leg than a person with two working legs. After all, the person with the broken leg has a lowered quality of life (i.e. can’t perform the tasks that a fully functioning human can) even though it’s just the circumstances. But if humans are intrinsically valuable, then it does not matter if you kill a properly functioning human, a human with a broken leg, or a human paralyzed from the neck down; you have killed someone of value and therefore have committed a heinous error.

Humans have intrinsic value, thus no matter the circumstance, no matter how strained a life is, the life is valuable. Even if the circumstances do not allow for a high quality of life, they are irrelevant to the fact that the life is valuable. A dollar bill may be crumpled up, have dirt on it, and even a tear, thus rendering it a low quality dollar bill, but it’s still just as valuable as another dollar bill that has been freshly minted. Likewise, a human may have circumstances and situations that lower the quality of life he has, but he is still valuable simply by existing.

A Non-Arbitrary Standard

Finally, as hinted at in all the above principles, a standard for what qualifies as human must be non-arbitrary. That is to say, there must be a solid justification for the line drawn, one that can be universally applied, and one that cannot be applied to other similar situations.

The first problem with an arbitrary standard is that it does not allow for any justification. For instance, if someone says, “You must look human in order to be human,” this qualifies as an arbitrary standard; what does it mean to “look human?” One person can say, “have the facial features and all four limbs.” Another person can take it further and say, “have blonde hair and blue eyes.” The second person might unsettle us, but what rational objection can we offer to say he’s wrong? Simply put, we can’t say he’s wrong because we’ve drawn the line arbitrarily.

This means that such standards can quickly be turned on us. If we argue that only the athletic have rights, we might prove our case. But if we are in an accident and no longer athletic, then we have given up all our rights, though we haven’t changed as a person. We haven’t changed, just our ability to actualize our capacities; an arbitrary standard would take this into consideration. A non-arbitrary standard would ignore it.

Conclusion Thus Far…

What should be learned from the above four sections is that whenever we provide a universal standard of humanity, we must do our best to make sure such a standard is non-arbitrary. An arbitrary standard, even if well intended, can have negative consequences.

In the next section of Part 6 I’m going to explain why an embryo/fetus, an infant, a disabled person, a mentally handicapped person, the terminally ill, and the elderly are still human beings and therefore valuable. The conclusion will be simple; unless you are dead you have a right to live.