Human Value: What Makes Humans Valuable?

Article ID: DA360 | By: Scott Klusendorf

The following is an excerpt from an article found in theChristian Research Journal, Volume 27, Number 1, by Scott Klusendorf. To view the full article, follow the link below the excerpt.


Do humans come to be at one point, but come to be valuable only later by virtue of some acquired property (i.e., characteristic)? In his article, “Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate,” Paul D. Simmons concedes that zygotes (early embryos) are biologically human, but he denies they are “complex” or “developed enough” to qualify as “persons” in a biblical sense. “No one can deny the continuum from fertilization to maturity and adulthood,” writes Simmons. “That does not mean, however, that every step on the continuum has the same value or constitutes the same entity.”17

Simmons’s larger purpose is to defend abortion rights by telling us who does and does not bear God’s image. He argues that humans bear that image (and hence, have value as “persons”) not by 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.”18 Zygotes, as mere clusters of human cells, do not have this capacity and therefore do not bear God’s image.

Three counterexamples underscore the arbitrary nature of Simmons’s claim. First, newborns cannot make conscious, reflective choices until several months after birth.19 What principled reason, therefore, can Simmons give for saying infanticide is wrong? Peter Singer points out in Practical Ethics that if self-awareness makes one valuable as a person, and newborns like fetuses lack that property, it follows that both fetus and newborn are disqualified. One cannot arbitrary draw a line at birth to spare the newborn.20

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.21

In short, Simmons cannot account for basic human equality. As George and Lee point out, if humans are valuable only because of some acquired property such as skin color or self-awareness 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 also come in varying degrees. Do we really want to say that those with more self-awareness are more human (and more valuable) than those with less? This relegates the proposition “all men and women are created equal” to the ash heap of history.22 Theologically, it’s far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely with respect to talents, accomplishments, and degrees of development (acquired properties), they are nonetheless equally valuable because they have in common a nature made in God’s image. Humans are equally valuable by virtue of being equally human.

Second, if the immediate capacity for consciousness makes one valuable, many nonhuman animals qualify as persons. This is Peter Singer’s point. Singer contends that a variety of nonhuman animals are rational, self-conscious beings that qualify as persons in the relevant sense of the term; consequently, dogs, cats, and pigs are valuable persons, while fetuses, newborns, and victims of Alzheimer’s disease are not. Singer concludes that to favor the preconscious infant over a self-conscious dog simply because the infant is biologically human makes one guilty of “speciesism,” a crime akin to racism.23 It’s hard to see how Simmons can escape this same conclusion given his belief that God’s image in humans is grounded in the property of self-awareness per se rather than in human nature, which allows for self-consciousness among other capacities, given the right conditions.

Third, human embryos have a basic (root) capacity for self-consciousness, lacking only the immediate, or current, capacity for it. As George points out, human embryos possess this basic capacity by virtue of the kind of thing they are — members of a natural kind, a biological species — whose members (if not prevented by some extrinsic cause) in due course develop the immediate capacity for such mental acts.24 We can, therefore, distinguish between two types of capacities for mental functions: (1) basic, or natural, and (2) immediate, or current. On what basis can Simmons require for the recognition of full moral respect the second sort of capacity, which is an accidental (i.e., nonessential) attribute, and not the first, which is grounded in the kind of thing one is?25 I cannot think of any basis that is not arbitrary. One grows in the ability to perform mental acts only because one already is the kind of thing that grows into the ability to perform mental acts, that is, a human being. My thoughts and my feelings, indeed all of my functional mental abilities, cannot exist unless I first exist. I can exist without them, as, for example, when I am sleeping, but they cannot exist without me.26

In the end, Simmons’s case for human value is ad hoc and arbitrary. It cannot answer why self-awareness is the biblically relevant factor rather than another, nor why a certain level of development is necessary.