The common wisdom, the received tradition, the obvious idea is that every human being is valuable and has an inherent right to life.
But let’s be skeptical for a moment. Let’s think critically. Let’s move away from our naive intuitions and rationally calculate human value.
What makes a human being valuable?
There are three potential sources for locating human value:
- A person’s own perception of their value,
- Society’s perception of personal value, or
- God’s determination of human value.
Let’s consider each of these options in turn.
Human Worth As Self-Perception
If human worth depends upon each person deciding their worth, then our value will vary widely:
- The more positive thinking I have, the higher my value will actually become.
- The more depressed or self-hating I am, the less I am worth.
So, for instance, if I believe I am god incarnate, then my actual value is quite high!
But this is absurd.
For instance, the person contemplating suicide, believing themselves to be worthless, without value, is simply wrong. We counsel and encourage them to choose life, community, and purpose because we recognize their real, actual value and the importance of their life.
Why? Because we see that, for the person tempted by suicide, their perception of their life is wrong. We don’t think that their perception of their value is somehow actually determinative of their value.
By contrast, the narcissist who believes himself to be God himself, is seriously deluded. Rehearsing the ideas that “I am important. I am loved. I am somebody” doesn’t make it so. Peruse some dating website profiles and you’ll immediately see that someone’s view of themselves can often be wildly inaccurate.
But logically speaking, if we can be wrong about our own value, then our actual value is not the same as our self-perceived value.
Furthermore, practically speaking, this viewpoint would only reinforce class distinctions.
If we brainwash an abused child into believing she’s nothing more than a prostitute or a slave, good for nothing but what her ‘owners’ want, then as long as she accepts that lie, that is her actual value? But if she changes her mind and believes she can be president, then she is suddenly worth more? If her ‘owners’ believe themselves entitled to have slaves, then they are so deserving?
The idea that we can give or decide our worth, just because we say so, leads to bizarre implications.
Human Worth As Social Status
Some people suggest that status is socially ascribed, others believe that your status is achieved. As Wikipedia summarizes,
Ascribed status is a position assigned to individuals or groups based on traits beyond their control, such as sex, race, or parental social status…Achieved status is distinguished from ascribed status by virtue of being earned.
In both cases, however, our status in society is directly dependent upon how others in society view us. If they buy into an ascribed system, or an achieved system, or a blend of these two systems, and our social status is equivalent to our actual value, then we are, by definition, worth whatever others say we are worth.
But immediately we can see this leads to severe problems. Let’s say someone thinks they are a valuable person, worthy of freedom, but their society believes them to be worthless and should be a slave, simply because of the color of their skin. Does this mean that the person’s actual worth is now their price at auction?
Conversely, let’s say that a given society honors a person with fame, wealth, and influence, simply because they can make a football fly through the air in a socially approved manner. Is this person more important than a person with a handicap of some kind? Does the sports star become more valuable just because society says so?
If popularity isn’t the right social measurement, what about our economic value? According to some estimates, “a body could be worth up to $45 million — Calculated by selling the bone marrow, DNA, lungs, kidneys, heart … as components.” However, if you just look at the value of the chemical components in a human being, “we come to a grand total of just over $160.” So perhaps human value lies somewhere between $160 and $45 million, depending upon the mass of the person and the quality of their organs?
No, of course not. But if it is possible for a society to value a person’s worth incorrectly – either too high or too low – then personal worth is not connected to how our society views us.
Let’s be clear: if there are any cases where a personal or social valuation of human worth is X, but our real value is Y, then personal or social valuations are not the same as actual human worth. If and when X = Y, this is a happy accident or a fortunate coincidence. As one saying has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
It is to your credit if you know that all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity. It is even better if you live consistently with your beliefs. However, you are not determining that human beings have such rights; rather, you are perceiving that they have rights. This is a truth independent of you knowing it; it is a truth whether or not you had the capacity to know it is true.
Human Worth As God Given
If we can see clearly, we know there is something independent about human value, distinct from our self-perception or other-perception, that defines our worth. This is not a narrow or partisan understanding of human value. Rather, as Article I of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights plainly states:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
How can such a bold assertion be true? What facts can back up such an audacious claim? In light of such different experiences, self-perceptions, social judgments, and actual inequalities, how can we rationally affirm that all human beings have equal dignity and rights?
One way to do so is to see that human worth is God given.
“God” is traditionally understood to mean a God of all knowledge, power, and goodness. Whatever an omniscient God knows to be true is, of course, actually the case. God’s viewpoint is a perfect description of reality. Furthermore, if an all-powerful God decides to create something of great value, then God is able to do so.
So, if God created humans to have great value, and God knows this to be true of humans, and God has communicated these facts to us, then we would have good reason to believe that every human has great value. (This situation, of course, is what Christianity teaches about the human condition).
We can consider this two ways:
1a. If God exists, then humans have great intrinsic value.
2a. God exists.
3a. Therefore, humans have great intrinsic value.
1b. If God does not exist, then humans do not have great intrinsic value.
2b. Humans do have great intrinsic value.
3b. Therefore, God exists.
In other words, if we are uncertain about whether or not humans have great intrinsic value, but we became convinced that there were independently good reasons to affirm that God exists, then we could also affirm that humans have great intrinsic value.
Or if we agree that humans have great intrinsic value, and believe they would not have such value unless God exists, then we could also affirm that God exists.
As we saw above, however, if we could only gain our value through how we see ourselves, or by how others see us, then absurd conclusions result. It really is a kind of moral blindness to not see that every human being is equally worthy of respect. As the United States’ Declaration of Independence states,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- Do you believe that every human being has equal rights?
- If not, are you willing to live consistently with your worldview?
- If so, how do you justify such an incredible claim?
I am thankful that we have, for the most part, come to recognize the inalienable right of every human being to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now the question remains: do we acknowledge the Creator who guarantees the existence of human value?