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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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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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Chris over at BioSled TrueFire offered up an article on intrinsic human value. He wanted my opinion on it and here it is:

1) From a secular view, it’s a good argument. It points out that the only consistent part of human nature is our flesh and blood. However, he leaves it there. The problem is that many biological creatures also have flesh and blood, but we don’t consider them human. However, this can be easily tweaked to point out that all humans share the same DNA. Both the astronaut and the homeless man have the same DNA (not replicated, but the few differences simply distinguishing how they will look within their species; by saying “same” I mean of the same type, not replicated). What is more, from the moment of conception to the moment of death, the DNA does not naturally change.

The importance in this is that if we reject intrinsic human value, as Chris argues, we end up promoting discrimination. Some humans perform at better levels and do more for society than other humans. Someone who wins the Nobel Peace Prize has more utilitarian value than someone who works a minimum wage job and plays video games all day. Thus, if we reject intrinsic value in humans, we must rely on utility. This has interesting implications not only in the abortion debate, infanticide, and end of life issues, but carries over into legal matters; when a person is killed, rather than simply looking for who did it and punishing the person, we would have to evaluate the persons involved, the utility of the victim, and the utility of the perpetrator. If the perpetrator has a higher utility and terminated the person of lower utility because of that person’s lower utility (especially if the person lowered the utility of society as a whole), then the killing could easily be seen as justifiable.

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