What Makes Humans Valuable? The Philosophical Case

What Makes Humans Valuable? The Philosophical Case

If it’s wrong to hurt people because of their skin color or gender, why is it okay to hurt them because of their size, level of development, location, or dependency?

Does each and every human being have an equal right to life or do only some have it in virtue of some characteristic that none of us share equally and that may come and go in the course of our lifetimes?

There are two rival views that answer the question of human equality. Which one best explains human dignity and equality?


  1. Performance (functionalist) view—Humans come to be at one point, but only become valuable later on in virtue of some acquired characteristic such as self-awareness or self-consciousness they can immediately exercise. That is, humans are not valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are, only some function they can perform. For example, Mary Anne Warren distinguishes between human beings and human persons, with only the latter having a right to life. She asserts that “persons” are self-aware, able to interact with their environment, able to solve complex problems, have a self-concept, and are able to see themselves existing over time.38 Joseph Fletcher suggests a similar set of criteria for personhood—namely, an immediate capacity for minimal intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, curiosity, and the ability to relate to others.39 Paul D. Simmons, meanwhile, argues that humans bear God’s image (and thus have value as “persons”) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are (members of a natural kind or species), but only because of an acquired property, in this case, the immediate capacity for self-awareness. A “person,” he contends, “has capacities of reflective choice, relational responses, social experience, moral perception, and self-awareness.” Zygotes, as mere clusters of human cells, do not have this capacity and therefore do not bear God’s image.40


  1. Endowment (essentialist) view—Humans are valuable in virtue of the kind of thing they are, not some function they perform. True, humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, but they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that bears the image of their Maker. Their right to life comes to be when they come to be. Put differently, humans have intrinsic dignity. As Christopher Kaczor points out, the beach bum and the university scholar are both equal in their intrinsic (fundamental) dignity. However, they differ in their attributed dignity: The scholar has flourished according to his nature; the beach bum has failed to live up to his.41

Our understanding of pathology assumes human exceptionalism. A dog that can’t read isn’t a tragedy. A beach bum who can’t is one. Sometimes we fail to flourish due to illness, injury, or other factors outside our control. Other times, it’s due to character issues, self-inflicted wounds if you will. Either way, the endowment view contends that all humans have intrinsic dignity and equally bear the image of their Maker. That we all fall short of flourishing according to that image speaks only of our inability to live up to it, not that the image of God itself is marred or only present in degrees. Put simply, the beach bum and the scholar equally bear the image of God and thus have intrinsic value. However, the latter does a better job living up to that image.

Problems with performance views

The worldview idling behind performance accounts of human value is body-self dualism. According to body-self dualism, you are not your body. Rather, “you” are your thoughts, aims, desires, and awareness. A human organism was conceived, but only later, after significant neurological development, did “you” show up as a “person.” Body-self dualism is problematic. If true, your mother has never hugged you since one cannot hug desires, thoughts, and aims. You end up saying things like, “My body showed up before I did” or “I once was an embryo before my conscious self showed up.” Moreover, “you” pop in and out of existence anytime you temporarily lose awareness, desires, thoughts, or aims (as, for example, when under anesthesia). Indeed, curing multiple personality disorders would entail mass killing, given multiple personalities—each with separate aims, desires, and thoughts—are destroyed. Finally, body-self dualism cannot explain simple statements like “you see.” Sensory acts like seeing involve bodily acts (via the eyes) and intellectual acts (via the mind).42 Better explanation: Humans are a dynamic union of a physical body and an immaterial nature.

Other problems with performance accounts of human value:


  • They lack justification. Why is an immediate capacity for self-awareness or consciousness (or seeing one’s self existing over time, having immediately exercisable desires, exercising reflective choice, etc.) value-giving in the first place? As Kaczor points out, requiring actual consciousness renders us non-persons whenever we sleep. Requiring immediately exercisable consciousness excludes those in surgery. Requiring the basic neural brain structures for consciousness (but not consciousness itself) excludes those whose brains are temporarily damaged. On the other hand, if having a particular nature from which the capacity for consciousness is present makes one a valuable human being—even if one can’t currently exercise that capacity—then those sleeping, in surgery, or temporarily comatose are valuable, but so also would be the normal human embryo, fetus, and newborn.43


  • They prove too much. All of these definitions put the arrival of “personhood” sometime after birth, meaning newborns are disqualified. After all, infants cannot make conscious choices or interact with their environments until a few months after birth, so what’s wrong with infanticide? As Peter Singer points out in Practical Ethics, if self-awareness determines value, and newborns and fetuses lack it, both are disqualified from the community of persons.44 You can’t draw an arbitrary line at birth and spare the newborn. Abraham Lincoln raised a similar point with slavery, noting that any argument used to disqualify blacks as valuable human beings works equally well to disqualify whites.

“You say ‘A’ is white and ‘B’ is black. It is color, then: the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are a slave to the first man you meet with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again: By this rule you are to be a slave to the first man you meet with an intellect superior to your own.

But you say it is a question of interest, and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.”45

For David Boonin, desires rather than human nature ground the right to life. Only present desires, not future ones, are value-giving. And since a fetus cannot have “present” desires prior to organized cortical brain function—which occurs sometime between 25 and 32 weeks after fertilization—it has no right to life prior to that point.46 However, Boonin’s argument proves too much. As Kaczor points out, having “desires” presupposes belief and judgement, which newborns lack until several weeks (if not months) after birth.47


  • They cannot account for basic human equality. As Patrick Lee and Robert George point out, if humans have value only because of some acquired property like skin color or consciousness and not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, then it follows that since these acquired properties come in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees.48 Do we really want to say that those with more self-consciousness are more human (and more valuable) than those with less? This relegates the proposition that all men are created equal to the ash heap of history. Philosophically and theologically, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature made in the image of God. Humans have value simply because they are human, not because of some acquired property they may gain or lose in their lifetime.


  • They are subject to counterexamples. If having immediately exercisable desires grounds the right to life, rather than being human, counterexamples follow. To cite a few, a slave can be indoctrinated not to desire his freedom. Is he still entitled to it? If the defender of abortion says yes because the slave has an “ideal” desire to be free, he borrows from the pro-life view. That is, our common human nature, not having immediately exercisable desires, grounds our fundamental rights. Or, to borrow an example from Francis J. Beckwith in Defending Life, suppose a scientist surgically alters the brain of a developing fetus so it can never desire anything. Two years later, the child is killed so his organs can be harvested to treat disease in others. Given he didn’t desire anything when he was killed, was he harmed? If so, what’s doing the moral work is the nature of the fetus, not his immediately exercisable desire to go on living.49 Desire accounts of human value result in savage inequality and conflict with the concept of inalienable rights. That is, if your right to life is inalienable, you can’t dislodge it simply because you no longer desire to live. Inalienable rights can’t be negotiated away.

Endowment view applied to abortion

Pro-life advocates contend there is no morally significant difference between you the embryo and you the adult that would justify killing you at that earlier stage of development. Differences of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are not good reasons for saying you had no right to life then but you do now. Stephen Schwarz suggests the acronym SLED as a helpful reminder of these non-essential differences:50

Size: You were smaller as an embryo, but since when does your body size determine value?

Level of Development: True, you were less developed as an embryo, but six-month-olds are less developed than teenagers both physically and mentally, but we don’t think we can kill them.

Environment: Where you are has no bearing on what you are. How does a journey of eight inches down the birth canal change the essential nature of the unborn from a being we can kill to one we can’t?

Degree of Dependency: Sure, you depended on your mother for survival, but since when does dependence on another human mean we can kill you? (Consider conjoined twins, for example.)

In the past, we used to discriminate on the basis of skin color and gender, but now, with abortion, we discriminate on the basis of size, level of development, location, and degree of dependency. We’ve simply swapped one form of bigotry for another. In sharp contrast, pro-life advocates contend that no human being regardless of size, level of development, environment, degree of dependency, race, gender, or place of residence should be excluded from the human family. In other words, our view of humanity is inclusive, indeed wide open, to all, especially those that are small, vulnerable, and defenseless.51