Economics tells us that the value of a thing is nothing more or less than what someone is willing to pay for it. The most amazing painting, the rarest antique, the most ingenious book… none of these have any value if no-one wants them.
What, then, is the value of a person?
If this question were asked in eighteenth-century Britain, the answer would be something like “three guineas, maybe four. Does he have all his teeth?” At that time, the slave trade treated humans as a commodity within a capitalist framework. The economics definition applied:like gold, oil and toilet-paper, a slave’s value depended on how much someone was willing to pay for him.
Or if your thinking is more contemporary, maybe a kidnapping scenario like Denzel Washington’s Man on Fire came to mind. Slaves weren’t always worth much, but even in older times one might get a “king’s ransom” if one kidnapped the right person. Or not, as in the case of the miserly billionaire John Paul Getty’s grandson.
An article about euthanasia by Dr David Van Gend, Did Granny jump or was she pushed (Spectator, 7 July), recounted various cultures over the years that would no longer value elderly people who could no longer contribute to society. These elders would kill themselves with poison or by wandering off into the forest or jumping into volcanoes, because they believed themselves worthless—thus also treating themselves like a commodity. A sour investment, no longer breaking even.
Our society, however, rejected slavery long ago and actively protects people from such treatment. Murder and kidnapping are similarly illegal, with severe consequences. Clearly we value people very highly. But why?
The economics definition provides a good starting point for pursuing this question, because it implicitly requires that another should first be answered:By whom is a person valued? If value is “what someone is willing to pay”, then it necessarily involves a “someone”—a valuer. A valuer can be any thinking being who has a will. That is, a set of priorities and desires like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—otherwise known as “values”—that form the input to his or her decision-making processes.
So something has ‘value’ to a‘valuer’ because of its significance to his ‘values’, you could say.
Of course, all human beings are not just “somethings”, we are thinking beings. Hence one answer to “by whom is a person valued?” is that people can value themselves and one another.
This is clearly true. I value my family and friends and, of course, myself. Valuing yourself is, in fact, considered mentally healthy. It’s called having a sense of “self-worth”. As an ultimate explanation for human value, though, it’s dangerously subjective. Some people don’t value themselves, what should they do?
According to the above definition, we value things because of their significance to our values. So on what basis do you value yourself? Maybe you belief that you’re “special”, as if you’re in an entirely privileged position in the world. That feels great. It also fights perpetual friction with the obvious fact that you are not special; you’re just one of 7 billion+ similar people, and after you die the world will keep spinning. Ego-maintenance is a delusional way to bolster self-worth.
The problem is, you will only value yourself insofar as you remain significant to your own values. If, for example, your highest value is happiness, but you are thwarted by no prospect of being happy… well, you might as well kill yourself.
If valuing yourself is a flimsy thread, being valued by others is more so. What if no-one values you? Or what if one person values you being alive, but another person values you being dead—who’s value wins? Valuing one another is back where we started with the slave trade; historically, people are poor peer-valuers, because we value ourselves more.
Even in our comparatively humanitarian society, do we value other people’s lives only because quid pro quo we’d like them to value ours? “Don’t kill me and I won’t kill you”? Maybe. Euthanasia is then just the other quid pro quo for people who don’t value their own life—“you kill me, because one day you might want someone to kill you”.
Collectivism values individuals because of their significance to society, like Van Gend’s granny-that-jumps. But surely society only gets its value because of its significance to individuals, not the other way around? Society is not a thinking being, not a valuer. Putting society above the individual leads, among other things, to the terrible darker chapters of western history, where eugenicists pointed out that some people are unable to contribute to “society”, and hence are insignificant. And… well, we might as well kill them.
(Though actually, if one’s value only comes from their usefulness to society, then there are two logical solutions for the problem of a useless person. One: kill the useless person. Two: kill everyone. If there is no one in the world who needs to eat, it won’t matter if someone can’t cook, will it?)
Today, the value of a foetus is believed by many to be derived only from its significance to its mother. The foetus, with its very limited thinking ability, is not capable of valuing itself. There’s no case of quid pro quo because their roles can never be reversed. Hence, if its mother doesn’t “want” it, then it has no value. She might as well kill it. Disturbingly, the same things can all be said of a one-day-old baby.
(Of course, someone else—for instance, the foetus’ father—might value it, but then it’s a matter of price. How much he is “willing to pay” for the un-born baby is pitted against how much she values not lugging it around, getting stretch marks, permanently re-shaping her hips and eventually giving agonising birth. She’s already paid that price for a one-day-old baby, and perhaps that’s the difference…)
“Significance” describes when one thing has importance to another thing that transcends it. It’s there at the start of the word: “sign”—we all know a sign points to something, and the thing it points to is more important than the sign itself. A sign saying “gold-mine” is worthless with no gold-mine, but a gold-mine is not worthless just because it has no sign. Likewise, if I think of the things I value and spend money on (like food, clothing, books, my car, etc.) they only have value because of their significance to me. Without me they have no value, as I demonstrate when I throw them in the trash.
Significance is an arrow that can’t point at itself. Ultimately, to say that people have value because they are significant to themselves, or even to other people, is just circular logic for temporal, mutable beings like us, hence the kill, kill, kill refrain that has emerged in the last few paragraphs.
Unfortunately, over the last few centuries, nihilism and atheism have gained broad traction in our society. These philosophies do not believe in anything that transcends us. Human beings are the only thinking beings; we are the only valuers. All values are held by us, all value comes from us, when we die, all value dies with us.
Once, we believed in “sanctity”, something with sanctity has significance to a transcendent reality. Without sanctity, ‘values’ are arbitrary, reason d’etre is annihilated and so… well, why should anything live?
If atheism and nihilism are right, I can’t answer that question. But I don’t find their message remotely compelling. To think of the world as a freaky cosmic accident requires mental gymnastics. I look around and see purpose. We humans—we’re are an amazing set of unique thinking-machines, designed with great powers of observation and decision, marvellously equipped to see the world, explore it, understand it, and then shape it. And when we do so, we find ourselves in an unlikely, fine-tuned place, uniquely balanced but robust to change, that sustains us in every way and displays to us an astonishing, unfathomable breadth of beauty. Us, the world, everything—it’s just dripping with design, with significance.
Christianity provides an answer to our question that resonates with the conscience and the brain (in my opinion), and happens to make for healthy societies. The Christian basis for sanctity of life is that we have significance to a transcendent God, who values us as special beings that he made in his own image. Unlike some ancient deities, he doesn’t need us to burn stuff, or cook children for him, or even to believe in him. He doesn’t value us the way we value kettles or toothbrushes, but rather the way we would value a painting that we painted. We are significance vectors, and we point upwards.
God values us, and this gives us the basis for valuing ourselves and one another. When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your mind, soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Unlike the contemporary use, biblical “love” is a verb synonymous for valuing someone. But, not valuing them for their significance to your values, but as one of your values. Put simply, if you love someone, you value whatever is good for them, you don’t value them because they are good for you.
In the early 1800s it was Christians like Wilberforce and the Claphamites who stood up against slavery and left a strong humanitarian legacy that is only recently being eroded again. Wilberforce could not afford to purchase all the slaves in the British Empire, but he knew that their value was sacred and hence he set out to protect them by the rule of law. “Thank God,” Wilberforce said after his success, “that I should live to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty million sterling for the abolition of slavery.”
The economics definition is still there; this was what they were “willing to pay”. But now they paid to free the slaves, not to buy them. Their values had changed; the slaves’ significance was inverted by love.
In the long run, Christians believe that we should not kill people, but should rather treat them all with kindness, because we are directly commanded to do so (see the Sermon on the Mount). But we can trace that command to a fundamental perspective on values that completely inverts the natural human mindset.
Many people today complain when religion is mixed with politics, when some people seek to impose their “morals” on others. Presumably they believe that atheism is a ‘neutral’ position, not a religious one. However, a ‘neutral position’ is to say that each person can choose to murder or not to murder based on their own opinion. Permitting slavery was ‘neutral’; after all, no-one in the empire was compelled to own slaves. Pro-choice is definitively neutral. Sure, atheism is neutral. Hence it is permissive and amoral, and ultimately can’t tell us why we should not kill, kill, kill.
Our forebears advocated for the separation of church and state, but not the separation of religion and politics. All decisions are powered by values, and some values are transcendent. The government doesn’t have the right to be neutral on values. Being ‘neutral’ on values is to neglect justice.
There is a strong and growing movement in the Western world for a restoration of “traditional western values”. Many have described this as a resentful desire to regain influence, but I’m not sure how they distinguish between resentment and commitment. Personally, I don’t care if a value is “traditional” and “western” or “contemporary”, “eastern” or “archaic”. I care if it’s right. To say the values we care about are merely a subset of culture is to embrace the post-modern, relativistic narrative. If a value is true and good then we should move heaven and earth to change any culture to establish it.
For those of us who believe in the transcendent, there are transcendent values that we will defend, cling to and, in their absence, fight for. One of them is the sanctity of human life.