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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

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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

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 humanity | Of fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part a) Of fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part b) | Functionalism and Utilitarian ethics revisited | Conclusion

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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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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.

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

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I’m putting this forth from a discussion I’ve been having on my previous post. I’m putting it in this format mostly because I think it’s easier to display my arguments, rather than crunching them into a little reply.

I stated in my previous post:

Anything that has within its nature to be something, even if not actualized, is still that something

That is where the opposition began, specifically this comment:

But surely you don’t think that $5 is actually the same as $10 simply because if you invest $5 it can become $10. If a potential human being is an actual human being, then shouldn’t potential money be as good as actual money?

So, before going on to refute the idea that we don’t have an essence, or that we make our own essence, let me first define what I mean by my statement.

I will use “essence” and “nature” interchangeably, but a very simple definition of what both essence and nature mean is this; “the thing that makes a thing what it is.” In other words, we know the difference between a bear and an apple because both have different essences. The essence is the ding an sich (thing in itself). It is what makes that one thing unique from other groups (there is also a species essence and personal essence, one dealing with the necessary aspects of a species while the other deals with the accidents of the individual, but that is for another time).

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