Does human life have intrinsic value? I proposed in my master’s thesis, Two New Kinds of Stoicism, that it does in the sense that our consciousness has value. I will similarly argue here that we have some reason to believe that human consciousness has value, and there can be different qualities of consciousness that can have differing values. I will also present the major objections that have been raised against the view that human life has intrinsic value including a famous objection given by Darek Parfit.
What is human life?
I think there is an ambiguity in the term “human life.” I am not talking about human life as in a human body with a heartbeat. I am talking about human beings who actually have experiences. I am talking about human beings in a way that distinguishes them from other animals in a way interesting to philosophers. They are capable of learning language, they can do mathematics, and so on. A human being without experiences might be best described as “brain dead” rather than as a human life.
What it means for human life to have value.
The fact that human life has value is uncontroversial, but identifying what sort of value human life seems to have is not so easy. The fact that one person can be useful to another is not interesting. The fact that people care about each other is not interesting. What is interesting is the thought that we could have a real intrinsic value worth caring about whether or not we are useful to others. Some people call intrinsic value “desire-independent value” or “objective value.” If we have intrinsic value, then it’s good to merely for us to exist.
People commonly seem to think that we have intrinsic value. For example, we worry that killing people “to put them out of their misery” is wrong even when they will probably suffer for the little remaining time they have left. Additionally, we are often joyous when someone we know has a child. Something “miraculous” is believed to have been created.
If people have intrinsic value, then the more people that exist, the better. It’s good that you exist, and it’s good that I exist.
Some important questions remain:
- What is it about human life that makes it valuable?
- Do all animals have value?
What is it about human life that makes it valuable?
I can think of two plausible candidates: (a) consciousness, and (b) a holistic relation of our bodies and consciousness. It doesn’t seem to be our living bodies alone that have value. A brain dead person could be technically alive, but the lack of consciousness makes the person dead for all intents and purposes. The permanent loss of consciousness is a loss of intrinsic value.
Whether or not our minds are the source of intrinsic value or whether we have intrinsic value in a holistic sense (body and mind) is something I don’t yet know how to answer, and I don’t know if it can be answered. Part of the problem is that it might not be physically possible to separate consciousness from a living body. They might be equally part of a single human being.
Do all animals have value?
If it is consciousness (or even an embodied consciousness) that has value, then it seems very likely that other animals also have value because it’s pretty obvious that other animals also have minds.
Evidence that human life has value.
It seems clear enough that many people find the value of human life to be intuitive. We don’t just feel like we want to live because we are deluded or manipulated by our instincts. We feel like our lives are highly meaningful parts of the universe. I offer three intuitive illustrations.
First, a universe without consciousness would be empty and meaningless. A world full of real people with minds of their own would seem to be important unlike a world full of robots that are programmed to behave exactly like real people.
Second, consider that we value the lives of friends and strangers. When someone dies we love we experience grief; but when a stranger dies (especially a young one), we can also experience grief and mourn their death. We seem to realize that something important was lost when the person dies.
Third, it is quite possible to end one’s own life—but such a decision does not come easy. Our life can seem horrific and we usually still value it enough to keep on living. We certainly don’t think it would be right to kill miserable people just because their life is awful. We suspect that their life can be worth something even if it isn’t enjoyable. That’s not to say that suicide couldn’t possibly be a rational decision. Perhaps overwhelming pain could be worth avoiding through death in some situations.
Finally, consider how counterintuitive it would be encourage people to commit suicide when their life is miserable—especially when the miserable person is glad to be alive. This sort of behavior could even be considered to be “absurd.”
Some people will be unimpressed by our intuitions regarding human life. I have responded to some of these concerns in “Objections to Moral Realism Part 2: Intuitions are Unreliable.,” but I agree that it would be more persuasive to argue for the intrinsic value of human life without making use of intuitions.
Is there any reason to think that human life has value beyond intuition? I want to suggest that we can actually experience that human life is valuable. We know what it’s like to have a mind because that’s exactly how we know we have one in the first place. We know that having a mind involves having experiences—some are positive and some are negative. These experiences are quite complicated. A happy person can experience pain but still highly value their life overall. A miserable person can experience pleasure, but still feel unfulfilled at the end of the day.
It is our experience of our mind as having value that can cause us an experience of dread at the thought of our non-existence and permanent loss of consciousness because we know what will be lost. Many people even desire immortality in order to escape our inevitable fate. I don’t want to suggest that the desire for immortality or experience of dread at the thought of death are the wisest responses. It might be more wise to merely accept our inevitable fate and decide to “seize the day” while we still have the chance.
Although it is intuitive that human life has intrinsic value, there can be a good reason for that. It can be intuitive because we really do experience our life as having value. It can be difficult to put our experience of our own experience in words, which would explain why it is so difficult to argue that human life has value, even if it is obvious to us.
The quantity and quality of life.
To live a long life is to have a higher “quantity” of life. To save four lives by sacrificing oneself is to protect the “quantity” of life that exists. However, life can also have various qualities, and these qualities could be important in determining the value of life. The idea that all life has equal value sounds politically correct, but it can be false. (It might be that all people should have equal protection from the law, but that has little to do with their personal value.)
To have a higher “quality” of life can involve having a higher quality of consciousness. This quality can have global or local significance. The local level of consciousness is what we experience only temporarily with only having a superficial impact on our life. We can have preferable experiences that don’t last long, but we can also have preferable moods, attitudes, and states of mind that can be quite long lasting. The global level of consciousness tends to be long lasting and its elements effect many aspects of our experience. The local and global elements of our quality of life are merely two sides of a single spectrum. The local level of our consciousness tends to have less significance on our mind while the global level tends to have a highly significant impact.
Locally, we can evaluate the quality of specific short-term experiences we have—such as bodily pleasure. The value of pleasure and happiness is almost undeniable based on our own experiences of pleasure and happiness. However, it might not be that “free floating” pleasure and happiness have value. A more holistic approach could suggest that positive experiences, such as pleasure or happiness, are more valuable “qualities of life” or “states of mind.” We can evaluate the value of having a mind by what kind of a mind we are talking about. A mind that is fulfilled, happy, and experiences pleasure, could be better than a mind that doesn’t because it could have a higher quality. (A miserable mind or a mind that will experience a lot of pain might have less value.)
The classic utilitarian view would suggest that only happiness and suffering are relevant intrinsic values, but this would give the impression that a miserable life should be eliminated. If human life itself has value and a miserable life still has some value, then we can realize that our states of mind (happiness and misery) are only two aspects of our life and cannot override the value of our life.
Globally, we can evaluate the quality of a mind as a whole. For example, a higher quality of mind could be found within higher mindedness and reasonableness. There could be enlightened or philosophical minds that have developed a higher quality of being. John Stuart Mill suggested that “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” and he thought this proved that some pleasures are better than others (Utilitarianism 260). The intellectual pleasure of someone like Socrates are supposed to be the best kind. However, it might be more accurate to say that Socrates’s mere existence is better than that of a fool. He might have become a higher life form than the fool. Even a miserable Socrates who rarely experiences pleasure could have more value than a fool.
Finally, Mill’s quote seems to suggest that pigs are “lower life forms.” It’s better to be a human than a pig just because we are a better sort of life form. Some life forms either have a lowly sort of consciousness or none at all, such as snails and insects. Such animals can still have intrinsic value, but the life of a human being could be higher than the value of these animals.
Should we accept that some life forms have a higher quality in the sense of being a “higher life form?” There are two important considerations. One, we don’t want the idea of “superiority” to justify immoral behavior. Two, we need to know how to justify our beliefs concerning higher and lower life forms (or global qualities of life).
Does the idea of being a higher life form justify immoral behavior? No. Such an idea is not racist because all races can include people of higher and lower qualities of life. It isn’t speciesist because we merely realize that some animals seem to have a better sort of life than others. We would have to admit that we could meet godlike aliens that could be a “higher life form” than we can be. The idea that some life forms are higher than others in no way advocates violence, oppression, or genocide—all animals have intrinsic value and should be protected.
How can we justify our belief that there are higher and lower forms of life? Mill suggested that we know that some pleasures are better than others because we have experienced them and can compare them. A competent judge can decide when one specific sort of experience is better than another because she has experienced them both. I think this is a pretty good answer. An “experience” is a form of consciousness, and a “competent judge” knows when something is a higher or lower life form by having analogous experiences of being a higher and lower life form. We start the world as children (which are lower life forms similar to nonhuman animals) and become adults (which are a higher life form).
Philosophers have rarely if ever claimed that human life has intrinsic value. Although Immanuel Kant suggested that (the humanity of) people should be treated as “ends and not merely as means,” people have “dignity,” and people “deserve respect;” it’s not entirely clear that he thinks human beings have intrinsic value. However, there is one objection I have heard to the idea that human life has intrinsic value—the Mere Addition Paradox presented by Derek Parfit. It is argued that the “mere addition of people” not a good thing.
The original paradox is based on the assumption that the more people that are happy, the better. If a population of ten happy people is good, then increasing the population by ten somewhat less happy people is better. Let’s rate the happy people as having a total of “10 happiness points” and the less people as having a total of “5 happiness points.” However, in that case a population of twenty people who are somewhat happy has even more value (that has a happiness rating of 8 each). This third group would be said to be less happy than the first group, but larger. Many people find that to be counterintuitive. They think that the third group is clearly worse than the first. Perhaps they think it’s unfair to sacrifice the happiness of a small population in order to have a larger population.
We could even give a more extreme example. Is a population of one million very happy people (worth a total of one million happiness points) of less value than a population of ten million slightly happy people (worth a total of one million and one happiness points)? Many people that to be absurd. They think the very happy population would be preferable. Parfit would say that the population of ten million people are living “gravely deficient” lives.
How does this relate to the value of human life? If all human life has value, then increasing the population is supposed to be good. That’s supposed to be really silly for some reason, but I like the idea of expanding the human empire to other worlds, like in Star Trek. I don’t see a big problem here.
Perhaps the concern is ultimately that encouraging the human population to increase would end up encouraging overpopulation. However, I don’t see this as a problem because “overpopulation” has to do with making existing life forms less happy. The only reason to say that we can experience “overpopulation” is that a population that gets too large can destroy the environment and use up the worlds resources. That can cause suffering and death that obviously matter in their own right.
Some utilitarians embraced “average utilitarianism” in order to avoid the “mere addition” paradox, which is the view that the average happiness of a population is what has value rather than the total happiness of everyone (which is called “total utilitarianism”). These utilitarians would say that a population of ten very happy people is better than a population of eleven people when one of those people is only slightly happy, and the rest are very happy.
I personally don’t find the “mere addition” paradox to be counterintuitive. I have three responses to the paradox:
One, Parfit basically wants to deny that a “life worth living” is really “worth living.” We shouldn’t want people to be around, even if their life is worth living—unless it isn’t “gravely deficient.” Instead, it should be a proper sort of life. This is a strange position and it sounds to me like Parfit is playing with words. Either the lives we are discussing are worth living or they are gravely deficient.
Two, a life held by a population that is “gravely deficient” is likely to be harming previously existing lifeforms. More resources would be available to those life forms if less children were born. Having children could actually harm other people and animals in an unacceptable way in such a situation. It is this unacceptable behavior that should give us disgust rather than the population of human beings who merely exist minding their own business.
Three, the lives of the entire human population seems to have been “gravely deficient” throughout most of history, but it seems strange to condemn people for having children when they are merely unfortunate for living in a time with few resources and so little technology. If the remaining survivors of the human race will live in such a condition, this would certainly seem better than extinction.
The view that human life has value is uncontroversial, but to say that it has intrinsic value is a neglected controversial topic within the academic philosophical community. Nonetheless, the idea that we have intrinsic value is an intuitive view and much of our thoughts and behavior are based on the assumption that we do—such as the belief that killing people is almost always wrong. Moreover, it is quite possible that we can experience our own life as having value. Finally, I know of no major objections to the view that we have intrinsic value that I find persuasive.
I realize that I have not proven in a satisfying way that we have intrinsic value, but evaluating our own experiences is not an easy task and the implications of our experiences are not easy to determine. We all accept that seeing an apple is a good reason to believe that an apple exists in front of your eyes. I have argued that we experience that pain is intrinsically bad based on our experiences of pain. (If my argument failed, then I suspect that we experience that at least some pain is intrinsically bad.) Now we can decide if we experience our own life as having value and if we have any reason to trust such an experience.
Updated (3/18/2013): Some minor changes, and an improved discussion of Parfit’s objection.