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An excellent article put up by Francis Beckwith titled, “Dignity Never Been Photographed” (link goes to a PDF file). In the article he argues that philosophical materialism (empiricism) not only doesn’t allow for the belief of human dignity, but is counter-intuitive to human dignity. He also doesn’t simply make these claims and attempt to make logical jumps in order to validate these claims, but instead quotes from Harvard University’s Steven Pinker’s article, “The Stupidity of Dignity.”

I hope to offer up a review of Beckwith’s article soon, but think for a moment on what the world would look like if we didn’t believe that humans were intrinsically dignified. This would mean that we would be only as valuable as what we do, our value would be limited to our contribution to society. Is such a world survivable or plausible?

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


After reviewing this series, what can we conclude? If we give consent to the idea that all human beings, from the embryo to the elderly, from the able-bodied to the disabled, what of it? What are we supposed to do with this information? Though there are multiple applications, I can think of a few:

  1. On the personal level, we must start treating humans with dignity. This means we must cease giving into a materialistic culture. In a materialistic culture, attributes other than a person’s humanity determine the value or worth of a person. Things such as looks, wealth, athletic ability, and other accidents to our essence are elevated above the essence itself. When this occurs, we lose sight of the fact that all humans are intrinsically valuable. This can lead to some negative consequences, some as small as making someone feel left out to actually killing people because they are different. Thus, we must recognize in our own personal lives that all humans hold intrinsic value.
  2. We must support legislation and Constitutional amendments that support the sanctity of life at all stages of development. We must support legislation and legislators that actively seek to prevent stem cell research, abortion, and other destructive medical research. We must support legislation and legislators that protect the elderly and disabled. We must likewise support legislation that protects the sanctity of life even when it puts other issues – such as economics or political power – on the back burner.
  3. We must re-evaluate our approach to the world. Rather than flexing our military might at the first sign of trouble, we should seek every opportunity to end a crisis without bloodshed.
  4. We must get more literature into the hands of the public and make information on the intrinsic value of humanity more readily available. Much of the problem in the modern world is that most people simply don’t think about this issue. They innately know that human life is valuable, but fail to define what it means to be human. Rather than defining it, they let others define it for them, which in turn leads to arbitrary definitions of humanity. Arbitrary definitions lead to arbitrary laws, which is the current status we find ourselves in.

There is much more that can be done than the above four examples, but I hope they lay a good foundation.

This series is now complete (for the most part). Though I don’t see myself adding anything to this series, I will continually edit each relevant post as more information and critiques come available.

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.

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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


With the previous post, we established a premise for what it is to be human, or better, what criteria we cannot use when determining who is and is not human. We cannot rely upon how a person looks, how big a person is, or the quality of life. These are arbitrary standards and as such we cannot use them; any standard offered must be non-arbitrary.

The standard I have provided can be found in Part 4 of this series. Simply put, a human being is a rational animal; biologically, his DNA and biological make up link him to other homo sapiens. Likewise, he holds the capacity to be rational, that is, creative, inventive, etc. There’s no specification on the degree to which he can accomplish this, just that he has the capacity. After all, how do we determine who is more rational or who is more creative or who is more inventive? We can only go so far as to say that the capacity exists; we cannot use the actualization of the capacity as a standard, because such a standard would be arbitrary.

With the above in mind, we must determine whether certain types of people are actually people; everything from fetuses to the elderly have been thrown into the debate of “person or not”?

With apologies to those with short attention spans, this may be one of the longer posts in the series. I have divided it into sections and sub-sections for those who cannot read it all in one sitting.

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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.”

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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.

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Cross posted at The Christian Watershed.

I watched the film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas today and, aside from being a very depressing movie, one interaction stood out to me. It was between the protagonist 8 year old boy and his antagonist Nazi father, who is the Comendant for the local concentration camp. The boy had just seen Jews in their Nazi-issues clothing working on a farm (he didn’t know it was a concentration camp and to him it looked like a farm) and inquired to the father about them:

Boy: “Who are the people that work on the farm?”

Father: “Well, you see, those people aren’t really people.”

In other words, the father was telling the boy, “They might look human, but they’re not really human persons; they have no value, so we can do to them as we wish.”

This has been the reasoning for the Nazis, the Soviets (for political prisoners), the slavers, and multiple other nationalities throughout history. The Romans, in an effort to boost “manliness” believed that the patriarch of the family was able to decide who was and was not a human person. This led to weaker boys in the family being killed off. The Spartans viewed the fail and fragile as not being human, to the point that infanticide was a common practice. The reasoning always goes back to one argument, “No matter how much they look like a human or biologically/genetically resemble a human, they’re not a human person.”

The above actions would be, to most people, detestable. If we woke up tomorrow morning and read about a father killing his 13 year old son because he believed his son to be weak or not “manly” enough, every group from Christian organizations to organizations that support transvestites would be declaring such an act to be deplorable, and rightfully so.

Imagine the outrage if we read about the University of Kansas Medical Center taking in the severely retarded and disabled and using them for medical experiments. Imagine what would be done if, against their will, such individuals were forced to give up their organs for some “therapeutic organ relocation program” that took vital organs from the severely disabled and gave it to able-bodied patients who needed the organs. Would anyone in the news media laud the benefits of such a practice, or would the focus be on whether or not such victims (or experiments depending on one’s point of view) are human persons? What if it were done to the homeless? Considering the vast medical benefits, would anyone object?

I would argue that most decent human people would object to such views. We can look to how we treat the Nazi medical experimentation on prisoners to determine the public’s reaction to the aforementioned scenario. Though such experiments offered the prospect of great medical advancements, such prospects are completely ignored and viewed as irrelevant by the vast majority of people. Why is this? Because most humans, no matter what they argue, generally hold the view that human persons have value.

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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.

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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


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.

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By Joel:

I am currently working on my series for intrinsic human value. Aside from revamping an earlier post, I am trying my best to make this series well-reasoned and not just thrown together. As such, I have been reading back issues of the journal “Christian Bioethics,” various books I’ve marked up (to collect notes), and researching some of the scientific approaches I want to take.

I will be posting that series this week, but it may be later in the week. However, once I begin posting it again, I should be able to post every day or every other day.

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