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Do people have intrinsic value?

Do people have intrinsic value? For several years now I've worked with people with disabilities of all sorts and degrees of severity. It has made me question a lot of things and think about why people matter. There are so many external elements, positive and negative, of these peoples lives I've given consideration: the things that impact our community and others in it but is there something else underneath all these things that gives value to people? I believe they do although I cannot express why. Just by asking these questions I feel uneasy like I'm being disrespectful by discussing peoples existence like a math equation. So my question regards that weightiness I experience and where it comes from. (Could you recommend further reading?)

Where the weightiness you experience comes from is a psychological, psychobiological, or anthropological question and therefore not a question that philosophers, as such, are competent to answer. Having said that, I'll speculate anyway! It wouldn't surprise me to learn that natural selection has favored a tendency in human beings to treat all, and only, human beings as belonging to a morally special category. But, of course, a tendency favored by natural selection might nevertheless be hard to defend with argument.

About the weightiness itself: Speaking as a philosopher, I'd urge us to distinguish between persons (i.e., people) and human beings. I regard person as a psychological category: members of the category possess distinctive (if broadly and vaguely defined) psychological traits and dispositions, such self-consciousness and rationality. I think those traits and dispositions make any person morally significant in a way in which any non-person isn't (even a non-person that's morally significant to some degree). I don't think this distinction gives persons the right to treat non-persons any which way they like -- I don't have the right to torture a cat just for fun even if I'm a person and the cat isn't -- but the distinction does carry some moral weight. By contrast, human being is a biological category -- a species -- and I can't see how species membership, all by itself, carries any moral weight. So I think it's possible to hold that people (i.e., persons) as such matter but that human beings as such don't. A member of our species might fail to be a person and therefore lack the moral significance that comes with personhood; a member of some non-human species might be a person and therefore have the moral significance that persons have.

For further reading, you might start with this SEP entry.

Is judging a person by their intelligence analogous to racism? A person can't

Is judging a person by their intelligence analogous to racism? A person can't help the genetics that determines their intellectual capacity and the belief in the superiority of intelligent people seems to arguably be a basis for social inequalities.

Great question!

Some preliminary thoughts: Racism seems to involve treating a group of persons who share an ethnic identity with derision, disrespect, and partial disadvantage. Accounts of racism today are controversial, but I propose that a comprehensive account of racism should involve both action as well as attitudes. What you write suggests that one reason why racism is inappropriate / unjust / wrong, is that persons cannot help being a certain ethnicity. I suggest, however, that racism would be wrong whether or not one could voluntarily adopt or abandon a race or ethnicity. If I converted to Judaism and, in the eyes of the world I became Jewish, anti-semitism would still be wrong even though I could have remained a Christian. In a related way, I suggest it would still be wrong to discriminate against homosexuals whether or not a person can choose whether to be homosexual or not.

It should be added as a side point that the very category of "race" is vexing. Some think of race as a social construct. If that is true, then (paradoxically) it could turn out that races do not exist as real things / categories, but racists do. This might be analogous to the idea that while it turns out that there are no witches (persons with supernatural powers to cast spells etc) but there have been witch-hunters.

On to intelligence: I suspect that some kinds of preferential treatment of persons based on intelligence would seem like racism. The following examples seem unjust: a policy in which only highly intelligent people have a right not to be tortured, but less intelligent people may be tortured for any reason whatever; a policy in which intelligent people can enslave those less intelligent, etceteras. But sometimes discrimination in which intelligence is a factor seems fair and prudent. Wouldn't you want intelligent persons to be pilots, surgeons, sailers, etc, rather than persons who are not intelligent --here I mean intelligent in the sense of mastering the relevant skills? Presumably, too, for a university to accept students on the basis of intelligence (including the capacity to learn) seems reasonable, right?

But you may be on to a very interesting worry. Some persons may be very vain and assume that they are superior to others on the grounds of some kind of measure of intelligence, when they are utterly inferior when it comes to matters of compassion, caring for others, generosity, courage, humility, poetic and artistic expressiveness, and so on. I suggest that someone we might call intelligent could turn out to be merely clever, but that is different from recognizing that someone is wise.

Is it possible for anything to matter? My teacher always tells me if I do bad in

Is it possible for anything to matter? My teacher always tells me if I do bad in a drama scene, I shouldn't worry about it because no one will remember or care in a few weeks. Doesn't that apply to everything? If I cure cancer, surely that will affect almost everyone on the planet, but will anyone even appreciate it a million years after the fact? A billion? Humans can't last forever, and eventually our species will die - meaning no one will be alive to remember cancer even existed. Even Earth will die eventually. Even the Galaxy!! So how can anything I do be important in the grand scheme of things?

Good question? I have wrestled with this one a lot. Of course, it depends what we mean by "matters" -- if it is an issue of being remembered then there is a good chance that when the earth slips into the sun or whatever, all will be forgotten and in the end nothing will have mattered.

When we say that something matters to us I think we mean to say it has value. But just because an event has impact at one time but not at another -- like the play -- does it follow that it never mattered? I don't think so. I can remember playing football in college. Sad to say, it was the most important thing in the world to me. Now, I can barely remember the outcome of some games. But it doesn't mean that those games were meaningless. There is no reason to think that in order for an event to matter it has to have eternal consequences.

Obviously, your drama teacher was just trying to help you fit things into perspective. Events that can feel world consuming to us at one time will look differently in the rear-view mirror - but again that doesn't mean that they were insignificant at the time.

We might also ask if it is even possible to believe that the events of our life don't matter. I have seldom seen anyone act on the belief - which tells me something. Often it is a dodge or the symptom of depression.

The Nagel article cited by Professor Stairs is perfect for a meditation on this issue - as is Camus's Myth of Sisyphus - which is the target of the Nagel offering. Thanks for your question and for listening.

Selfishness is considered bad in society, and my parents tell me to be as

Selfishness is considered bad in society, and my parents tell me to be as selfless as possible, but how can it be possible to be selfless? I think selfless can be traced back to our instincts. We had to work for ourselves in order to survive and reproduce so life can continue. Eating is selfish, because it's benefiting ourselves only. That food could feed other people. If I donate to charity, is that not also selfishness? I donate so I feel like I can contribute to the world, and so I can feel better as a person. That means that the donating was purely in my own interest. If a parent throws themselves in front of a car to save a child, I think the root of their action is actually selfish - they don't think they could live knowing that they could've saved the child but didn't. What's your view on this? Do you think there's such thing as being selfless? If so, how can I live selflessly? Am I just thinking about all of this completely wrong?

You are right in thinking that the urge to be selfless can have selfish aspects to it, but surely not to the extent you suggest. It is possible to carry out an action entirely out of the motives to help others, and not because it makes us feel better. We may hate the action especially if we are helping someone we dislike or who actually disgusts us but we do it nonetheless. We do it because we think we should, perhaps we regard it as our duty. It is possible of course that this gives us pleasure in the sense of overcoming a personal obstacle but you are suggesting that there can be no other possible motive, and that seems dubious to me.

It is the possibility of making morality depend on our feelings that led Kant to insist that it never should. If it does, he argued, then that would make it arbitrary and subjective. Whatever we think of his approach we can grasp the main point here, which is that people are supposed to do the right thing out of a motive to do the right thing and not because it makes us feel good. Some people manage to act in this way, although perhaps not everyone who thinks they do.

I have a reoccurance of Base of Tongue cancer, and this is a dehumanizing sort

I have a reoccurance of Base of Tongue cancer, and this is a dehumanizing sort of cancer in that it starts to strip away some our most basic asthetic appreciations: eating food, tasting, swallowing, speaking and sexual intimacy. It is also dreadfully painful. So - I've been having the internal question of, when is enough enough, and I think there was a classical parable of how someone would choose their death.

When is enough enough? Oh my friend, what a hard, hardquestion - a question that when being raised says a lot about life itself. Though I worry about a person being in decent fettle trying to resolve such a question --for me it would be when the pain got so relentless and all consumingthat it devoured my ability to love others – to care about anything outsidemyself – when the pain permanently nailed me to my self.

Various experiences, considered good, bad, beautiful, ugly, etc., are believed

Various experiences, considered good, bad, beautiful, ugly, etc., are believed to give life "meaning." This implies that there is some underlying purpose beyond the natural processes of growth found everywhere in nature. A tree doesn't need to "mean" anything to be a tree...Is this yearning for "meaning" in life simply a human coneptualization and nothing more?

What exactly are meant by the 'natural processes of growth'? I ask because it doesn't seem to me that this is obvious even with respect to trees, much less human beings. Let me give a tree-based example: an apple tree, which I can in fact see through my window right now. My understanding of the science of horticulture is pretty poor, but let us suppose that an apple tree can allowed to grow large but then it tends to die more quickly OR it can be trained so as to be quite stunted, and yet produce lots of fruit, and live for decades. Which is more 'natural'? The first involves less human interference, to be sure; but the second accords with concepts of long life and 'fruitfulness' (reproduction). My purpose here is simply to argue that we are not working with a clear-cut account of what 'natural processes of growth' are. In fact, some of the criteria we might want to use here are just straight-forwardly cultural: the move from formal garden design in the 18th Century, to a more 'wild' style in the 19th, was based upon two different conceptions of what nature was.

So, to human beings. If we knew what it meant for humans to 'grow naturally', then fine. For the vast majority of human (pre-)history, a natural life meant something like gradually accumulating diseases, malnutrition and broken bones, so that you were too slow by the age of 26 to get out of a mammoth's way. Nowadays, that would be to die 'tragically young'. With generally longer life-spans, the questions become more numerous: should I have more children? should I better myself through education? should I make wads of money? should I strive to make the world a better place? should I 'burn brightly' with self-gratification and die sooner rather than later? should I learn to paint, and express myself? and so forth. All of these are versions of the question of life's 'meaning'. It is difficult to imagine that these questions were absent even for our caveman: 'one more mammoth? or should I spend some time with that cave painting I started...?'

It is precisely because we do not know what is 'natural' for a human being, that the question of the 'meaning' of life arises. Aristotle thought he knew, and built a whole ethics around it; and while his answer is very thoughtful and far from the least plausible, there are certainly alternatives. One might also argue that even trying to answer the question once and for all involves considerable moral or political dangers: many and perhaps most persecutions or prejudices throughout history have been perpetrated by those who 'knew' what human beings were, should be, and how they should live.

Everyday, people set out to make the world a better place. And every now and

Everyday, people set out to make the world a better place. And every now and then, people actually do something that DOES make the world a better place. Sometimes it's on a large scale, sometimes it's on a small scale, but it's still an improvement nonetheless. And I don't think anybody really TRIES to make the world a worse place. I think sometimes they do, but it's not intentional. Do you think that someday, everybody will have fixed everything once wrong with the world, there will be no more improvements necessary, and the world could be the perfect place, almost like a utopia?

Nice (and fun!) question. First "almost like" a utopia? That sounds pretty utopic ... Of course part of the problem -- perhaps the biggest part of the problem -- is that not everyone agrees on what a good or perfect world would look like, so that actions that some take to improve the world would be countered by others who have a different conception of the good world ... Maybe,then, rather than imagine the utopia to be something static, a fixed destination -- after all, isn't 'change' the only constant thing? -- we should imagine it to be dynamic, an ongoing changing equilibrium of sorts -- so there could be an ongoing flux and flow, of movements forward and back (by different people's different metrics),e tc.? .... (On that view, nothing quite stops the idea that this very universe might be the 'good' or 'perfect' one -- yes it's got plenty of individually lousy elements, but the ongoing effort to counter those lousy things, even by all the different people with their different metrics, might be just the right universe for we faulty human beings? ... (hm, not sure that's convincing but it's an idea ....)


I hope this isn't too general, but here's a question I've been wondering about:

I hope this isn't too general, but here's a question I've been wondering about: What is it that one has or does that, if one has or does it, one's life was not a waste?

Something seems wrong about the question. At any rate, it's too general a question for me to venture a non-trivial answer to it. It seems to me like asking "What is it that one does such that, if one does it, one has succeeded?" I don't see how to give a non-trivial, general answer to that question. Succeeded at what? Some actions count as successes and some don't, just as (I would presume) some lives are wasted and some aren't, but I don't know how to give an informative, general explanation of the difference.

I would like to have some non-theistic response from you about the value of life

I would like to have some non-theistic response from you about the value of life. (I don't know if people asking about the "meaning of life" are asking what I want to ask, but I'll try to be specific.) One thing is the value of other people's lives. I am not concerned about this: I'm pretty sure that homicide is a terrible crime even in the cases I will mention next. A different thing is the value of one's own life (the value of life for the person living it). Of course, many people have good, rewarding, happy lives. Such lives are very valuable. But many other people have no such lives. I would like you to consider two cases. The first case is that of very ill and depressed people, continuously and permanently suffering with their illnesses, or that of incarcerated people, tortured from time to time, without any hope of getting out of their suffering: I mean people who will commit suicide if they have the courage and the chance to. I think that those lives have no value and that, for instance, if we...

From an entirely secular point of view, plus some simple ethical assumptions that seem quite convincing (suffering illness, incarceration...are bad), plus a strong principle of respecting persons' choices (imagine the persons suffering would take their own lives if they could or they are actually asking others to assist them in committing suicide) it seems one can recognize cases when life has ceased to be of value to those suffering and one may well be sympathetic with providing (for example) a way that the prisoner could, if he chose, take his own life (imagine being able to get the prisoner a pill that would bring about an instantaneous, painless death, hence putting an end to the torture). BUT, even in such cases it may be that simply BEING ALIVE is a good, whether or not this is welcomed or valued by the person who is alive. It is hard to think of a compelling argument that life itself is and should be valued, quite apart from suffering and so on. Speaking personally, whether or not I am suffering, I find the bare fact of life itself an awesome good. And yet, in the absence of this kind of experience of value, it is hard to conjure up the experience in others. Perhaps, though, three further points can be made:

First, there is some evidence that persons who are under such desperate conditions often do not seek to end their lives. Apparently, we have a tendency to value life even amid horrible catastrophes. Victor Frankel has written on this.

Second, in real life, we rarely know with certainty that there will be or can be no rescue, some deliverance from depression and suffering. I suppose we might here come close to looking for a religious reply to your question(s) but one may be thoroughly secular and yet hope for a better end.

Third, you might be putting us on a slippery slope. So, if we accept your first case, why not go with your second case? One reason not to is that you are winding up viewing large numbers of people having lives not worth living. This may not be bad if it motivates you to try to change the conditions of the unhappy people, but if you and others are of the opinion that such cases are pretty hopeless, I would think this would lead you to find the existence of these people a matter of regret. Imagine you are one of the unhappy people you describe in the second case and you meet a philosopher on a train. After you tell him your story, the philosopher looks sad, but he also wants to make things better and he tells you: "To be perfectly honest, if what you tell me is true, I am sad that you came into existence; your life is pointless and without value. Still, I think I can help. When the train goes through the next tunnel if you stick your head out the window and...."

OK, very grim thought experiment, but I introduce it to urge you to think that life itself may be of value. And I have not once mentioned theism. Ah, but I suppose I just did. If you are interested in theistic responses to such matters you might look at Stewart Goetz's The Purpose of Life. There are also lots of non-theistic religious responses to consider, e.g. Buddhism.

Why do we do anything if nothing lasts forever? Every action we make is but a

Why do we do anything if nothing lasts forever? Every action we make is but a blip on the finite timeline of the universe, ending with the heat death. All our actions fade into insignificance as they become the past. Similarly, on a smaller scale, why do we do things if life is finite too? What difference would it make to the individual who is unable to witness the effect of his actions?

I presume you're asking a philosophical question about the rational justification of our actions rather than simply a psychological question about our actual motivations for doing them. The first thing to emphasize is that your question isn't rhetorical (and I'm not saying that you meant it to be). In other words, the burden of proof rests with anyone who says "You're right: there really isn't a good reason to do anything if nothing lasts forever, if our every action is but a blip in the overall history of the universe." Whoever asserts the claim I just quoted owes us an argument for it, because it's very far from obviously true. I've seen arguments -- or at least what loosely resemble arguments -- for the quoted claim, but I've never found them persuasive, as I explain in this short magazine piece. A classic discussion of this issue appears in Thomas Nagel's 1971 article "The Absurd," available here.

So the reasons we typically give for our actions can't be dismissed in advance, and they'll depend on the specific action in question. Why listen to a splendid performance of a piece of great music? Because it's ennobling and deeply satisfying, even though the performance ends and even if the composition itself won't last forever. Why stop a small child from grabbing a pot on the stove and drenching himself with the boiling contents? The answer is too obvious to need saying. I've never seen a good reason to think that the answers to such questions automatically become inadequate on the assumption that nothing lasts forever.