Intrinsic value of the human being?

Some atheists/agnostics talk of the “intrinsic value” of the human being to explain their humanism. An agnostic (I prefer “fence-sitter”) friend of mine for example says he takes it as a given (or an axiom – since he’s a mathematician).

Why is the human being assumed to have an “intrinsic value”? Are there any deeper concepts / principles that give the human being this intrinsic value? Or is this intrinsic value just another vain delusion – just like, admittedly, the concept of god is.

If it is intelligence that gives human beings their intrinsic value then, just for the sake of discussion, do more intelligent humans have more intrinsic value?

If it is consciousness and intelligence combined then does it mean that animals have less intrinsic value than humans, or that plants have little intrinsic value?

Posted: September 5th 2010

bitbutter www

Value is subjective, never intrinsic.

Most of us benefit greatly from interacting with other people, both in terms of emotional sustenance and economic advantage. In addition, most of us have an empathic capability, and we prefer not to witness other humans suffering. Taken together, these things lead to a situation in which placing a high value on general human well being is widespread.

This high regard for human well being is so pervasive that it’s easy to confuse this common, but subjective, preference for a set of objective truths about how humans ought to be treated. Considered carefully though, there’s no good reason to believe any such categorical imperatives, 'unconditional oughts’, exist.

Some people are horrified by the thought that their moral feelings (so strongly felt) do not reflect transcendental truths. The antidote to this fear is to recognise that it makes very little practical difference whether they do or not.

Our moral sense doesn’t disappear when we realise that moral facts don’t actually exist. Like fear or love, it still strongly motivates us. We appeal to shared moral feelings when we try to persuade other people about the acceptability of certain behaviours—'if we both agree that X feels wrong, then doesn’t it follow that we should feel the same way about situation Y which resembles X in many ways?’.

After letting go of right and wrong in a transcendental sense, we’ve lost very little. Foundational moral disagreements are insoluble, but they always were: If you tell a sociopath that transcendental moral facts are on your side, he’ll disagree. Moral realism doesn’t help you persuade people.

On the question of 'what to do’ with moral anti-realism, Mackie and Joyce advocate moral fictionalism (pdf) on pragmatic grounds. This can be thought of as a policy of 'making believe’ that moral facts exist, except in our most critical moments.

Posted: September 7th 2010

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Eshu www

I think humans have value from a human perspective. We, as humans, generally agree that humans have value. Whether that counts as “intrinsic” or not I don’t know. I suspect not.

Why we might decide, collectively, that humans have value may be not because we think it is obviously a good thing, but because of the terrible consequences of any other viewpoint. History has taught us that assigning certain rights to humans is necessary to prevent the most heinous wrongs from recurring. This is discussed in detail in Rights From Wrongs by Alan M. Dershowitz.

Posted: September 5th 2010

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brian thomson www

I would be careful with a word like “intrinsic”. In the most abstract, universal sense, I wouldn’t claim that humans have intrinsic value. Something would have to imbue that value, and atheists don’t see anything that would perform such a function.

In a relative cultural sense, however, we have an intrinsic value. In other words, if there is an intrinsic worth, it is one that we (as a culture) have created and applied. You need only look through history to find past human cultures in which the value of a human was not something we would recognise today. I’m thinking of the Aztecs and their practice of human sacrifice: imagine having no value, as a person, other than your death in a horrific ritual. This should serve as a reminder that the value we place on human life didn’t just come out of nothing; it is part of what makes us human, something we care about and need to fight for. It wasn’t given to us: we worked for it.

Posted: September 5th 2010

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Blaise www

I’m always a little uncomfortable about supposedly non-belief-based screeds that talk about terms like 'intrinsic value’. They always seem like codewords for “as important to us as the religious people think it is, but we don’t want them to leave us behind in the touchy-feely race”.

Obviously, the whole concept of value (in this context) is invented and subjective, and can’t really be quantified in a rational way.

Posted: September 5th 2010

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