Dealing with Intrinsic Human Value

Prelude | Essence and Potentiality | Definitions | What is human? | Intrinsic Value of humanityOf fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part a)Of fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part b) | Functionalism and Utilitarian ethics revisited | Conclusion


We now revisit utilitarian and functional ethics concerning human beings. This was somewhat tackled earlier on in the series, but I wanted to give a fuller treatment to these two ethical standards. Lately, the utilitarian and functional view has been in abundance. However, before such views are attacked, we must first understand what those views are and why they are wrong (especially in the context of issues surrounding life).


Functionalism is a term that I am using to describe the idea that a person’s value is determined by a person’s specific function within society (I am not using this term in the same way the term is used in philosophy of the mind arguments).

When I use the term “functionalism” I am meaning to describe the way of thinking that determines value by function. Sadly enough, this view is very common in our society whether we realize it or not. For instance, one of the first questions asked when meeting someone is “What do you do for a living?” Intentional or not, we are asking what the person does in order to sum up how we view the person. If the person says, “I am a janitor” we will generally view him less than the person who says, “I am a brain surgeon.” The brain surgeon, in our view, holds a greater function within society and thus has more value.

In short, we must have a function within society that is positive in order to be deemed a person of value. The classic hypothetical provided to indicate how we approach functionalism is if you have the ability to save one person off a sinking boat, out of a child, a doctor with the cure for cancer, an athlete, a mentally disabled person, or an economists who has found a way to eradicate poverty worldwide, who do you save? The hypothetical is to force you to think about each person’s function within society to determine who is worthy of saving; we look to the person’s function within society to determine the value. Inevitably, in the above scenario, it comes down to the doctor and the economist.

The antecedent of the above is that a person who lacks function isn’t as valuable as others. You might be a mail man, which provides some level of function, but this makes you far more valuable than the person with severe autism. Thus, if caught in a fire and a fireman can only save you or the autistic person, you are the logical choice because you hold more value than the autistic child. Though the autistic person isn’t really human because he lacks a function within society, even if he were, he would be lesser in degree of value due to his lack of function.

The Functionality of Functionalism

Is the above a proper way of looking at human life? Does it convey a proper attitude and respect toward human persons? I would advocate that such a view is both immoral and inappropriate.

The first problem with such a view the arbitrary nature of how it defines human individuals; what is the “norm” we go by to determine the qualifying level of function? Once we establish such a norm, what is our justification for the norm? What about when a person is engaging in mundane activities and not contributing to society? Has that person temporarily given up his status as a ‘person’? These are the problems we run into. If we say that a person who is a brain surgeon (high societal function) is currently taking a nap (low societal function), is he a non-person during the nap? Or, alternatively, do we say that because he has the capability to function within society, though he is not currently exercising it, that he is still a person? If this is the case, what of the fetus, the disabled, or the low-functioning individual; why are they not persons if the napping doctor is?

Some could argue that a person’s functionality simply deals with functioning as a human. Even if a person holds little value to society, so long as a person functions as a human (mostly independent of outside help) then that person is truly a person. But this runs into the same problems as above; what constitutes properly functioning person? Is Tom Brady more of a person than I because he is in shape and can do things physically better than I can do? Is he entitled to more rights because of his physical capabilities? If not, then why am I entitled to more rights than the disabled person or the mentally handicapped person?

No matter what direction a person takes, functionalism is wrong, complicated, and arbitrary; it is an inadequate system in determining how we should look at human life.


Utilitarianism is similar to my usage of the word functionalism, but has some slight variances. Utilitarianism teaches that the great good for the greatest number of people is to be placed ahead of the greatest good for the individual. Thus, if killing one innocent person will save one million innocent persons, such an act is justifiable.

When applied to human person debates, the argument is that the elderly, disabled, and others can cause an economic burden on the greater good of citizens. Thus, it is justifiable to engage in euthanasia in order to preserve the greater good of society. Though death is not good for the individual, the individual’s death is good for that society.

The most recent debate over this was over the supposed “death panels” of the government health care bill. Though such claims were taken out of proportion, there was some truth to the idea of a “death panel.” Just as insurance companies currently function, the government wanted to put rules in the bill that would restrict aid and medicine to elderly patients or terminally ill patients. Insurance companies argue such a practice keeps premiums lower (for the greater good). This is utilitarian ethics in a nutshell.

What is good?

The problem with utilitarianism – which is oftentimes relativistic – is it holds no way to determine the greatest good. The greatest good for one society could be evil for another society. There is no objective standard of “goodness” other than what the majority of people in that society decide constitutes “good.” If a society deems that a culture composed of white people and absent of dark-skinned people is good, then so be it; there is no way to say such a society is wrong without deeming dark-skinned people as human individuals, but this would require abandoning utilitarianism in the first place.

In order to understand the greatest good for any society, one would have to hold comprehensive knowledge of that society. To know what is good for anything, we must have comprehensive knowledge of that thing or access to someone who does have comprehensive knowledge of that thing. Without either, there is no way to really know what is “good” for a society.

To say that we can know what is good for a society without having comprehensive knowledge makes little sense. If I say, “rape is good for this small society,” but lack comprehensive knowledge, then I have no basis for my claim. It could very well be that there are a limited number of resources in this small society, hence the low populace. By encouraging rape as good in order to increase the populace, I have actually created a greater amount of evil by introducing shame, violence, and dwindling resources to this society. Without comprehensive knowledge of a society and its circumstances, I am left to the mercy of unforeseen consequences and unknowable factors, thus negating my claim to know what the greatest good for a society is.

A further problem is what to do about contradictory goods. What if a current good will eventually harm future generations? What if the number of people living right now surpasses the number of people living one hundred years from now? In such a case, it is justifiable to do what is good now even though we know harm will befall future generations. Under the utilitarian calculus, however, such an act is justifiable.


Both functionalism and utilitarianism are ultimately untenable positions to hold. At the moment someone uses either argument, that person has undermined his own rights due to the arbitrary nature of both standards. Neither is an appropriate ethical system to turn to when attempting to discover how to treat human persons who determine who are human persons.