Saturday, February 07, 2009

Why Human Beings Have Intrinsic Worth

This is the kind of question that should be addressed in a thesis. Complex arguments about human reality cannot be exhaustively dealt with in a blogpost. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to address the issue, because this is one of those philosophical issues that is at the very root of the abortion debate. And it’s precisely because we have to change people’s philosophy that what I’m about to say must be said.

The reason why humans have intrinsic worth is that our species is capable of complex reasoning and detailed design; and that we aspire to transcendent realities.

We produce great works of art, sophisticated models of reality and great feats of engineering. We are able to undertake large-scale, labour-intensive projects to honour our most cherished values and advance the greater good.

Not every individual is capable of this. But we as a species are amply capable of this. And it is the nature of our species that makes this possible.

Our ability to do these things reveals our greatness, because they flow naturally from who we are.

And that’s why we have intrinsic worth.

The relativist answer to the greatness of human endeavour is that its value is subjective. It’s great because we say it’s great. So our value as human beings is attributed and not intrinsic.

This points to one of the flaws of philosophical relativism. It has so little trust in the power of reason that it refuses any standards whatsoever.

It is sometimes difficult to assess standards and the value of things. The fact that it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible or meaningless.

Who can deny that humans are capable of great feats? It’s plain to anyone who steps back and examines the whole of human endeavour.

Saying that what humans do is of questionable value is denying the obvious. Anyone with half a brain sees that humans are capable of acts that lead to greater happiness (and that’s the ultimate good).

The next point is that animals can think, engineer and show moral reasoning as well.

So humans are no more special than animals.

It is true that some animals are capable of using some abstract thought. And some animals are capable of some engineering, e.g. beavers. And some can show some moral reasoning.

But in no species do ALL these things appear. And even where a species shows a human trait, it is far inferior to that shown in the human species.

No chimp will ever write a PhD thesis. No dolphin will compose a symphony. A beaver can build nice dams, but beavers will never build hydro-electric dams capable of generating electricity for millions of people.

Some might wonder that if the greatness of human endeavour is the proof of worth, does that mean individuals who are incapable of such feats have no worth.

That’s not the case at all.

I am not talking about humans as individuals. I am talking about an underlying reality about the human species as a whole. There is something about humanity that makes it capable of achieving all these things.

And it’s that “something” that makes it great. It’s the internal make-up of the human species. And we call that human nature.

That human nature will express itself in various traits with varying degrees in individuals. A few human beings will be prodigies. Most will be “average”. And some will be not very capable at all.

But that potential to complex, abstract thought, moral reasoning, and design will always exist in every individual. Sometimes that potential is unable to express itself due to immaturity. Sometimes because of handicap. Sometimes because of laziness.

But it’s always there.

And every individual who possesses that human nature is worthy of being treated as a member of the human family, because humanity is great and worthy of respect in and of itself.

And that’s why unborn children should be respected and their rights should be acknowledged.

And no I didn’t answer every objection.