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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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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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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 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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