Sunday, October 26, 2008

Valuing the Human

Giles Fraser feels an insult, I gather, but it's worth keeping a close watch on what he considers the target of the insult:

Humanists (and by that I mean secular humanists for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value.
Secular humanism fails to place a proper value on the human, says Fraser:
[I]t is clear that here is an admission that the value of human life is down graded by those who call themselves humanists. Human life is something that is deemed to have no value for the individual if that individual decides that it has not.

I am thinking, of course, about the support that so many secular humanists have given for the assisted suicide of Daniel James, the disabled former rugby player who felt, at the age of 23, that his life was not worth living.

My friend Jerry, at a similar age, broke his back in a motorbike accident, and could move only his head and tongue. With these he managed to woo his caregiver, marry her, have three children by IVF, and run a pizza franchise. Humanists see the difference between these cases as hanging from the fragile thread of individual choice. That is not good enough.
There is an admission worth noticing here, but it's not the one Giles Fraser indicates: it's the admission -- really the assertion -- that humanness amounts to nothing if its value originates in human minds, aspirations, sentiments, projects, bonds, histories -- in short, human agency. No, for Fraser, human life can only have "fundamental value" if an authenticating agency grants it, and his contempt for human agency is such that it can never suffice to supply that agency -- it is "not good enough." The authenticating agency must exist as far above the squalor and uncertainty of the merely human as the human stands above the merely bacterial.

Giles Fraser seems determined to see humans as the fruit flies or white mice in a cosmic lab, whose value is written on a ledger beyond our perceptions. But since we are creatures who can and do generate our own meanings and values, and since these values and meanings are real enough to live and die for, it seems both pointless and demeaning to press our faces against the imaginary glass and daydream about the grand scientist's schemes. All the more so since the scientist doesn't seem to exist at all, leaving the entire conceit more than a little suspect. Suppose instead there is no lab and no ledger and no scientist. We still live and die by our meanings.

Christians (and by that I mean Giles Fraser for now) would do much more to persuade me of their world-view if they took more seriously the idea that the human is of fundamental value.

There's more on this from Ophelia Benson.


larryniven said...

I'm not sure if I mentioned this point to you yet, but this bit about intrinsic, mind-independent value is vastly overstated. Money doesn't have intrinsic value and gets all of its importance from our opinions about it, and yet it's arguably the main driving force in many of our decisions. One might be able to argue, having already in hand the premise that human life is valuable in this intrinsic, mind-independent way, that any view that holds otherwise is false, but it's plainly absurd to argue that any such view automatically fails to sufficiently motivate morality.

Dale said...

LN, thanks for that. To me, not being a professional philosopher, the whole argument seems a little arid and ad hoc. I don't think people wake up in the morning wondering where life's meaning will come from that day. I don't think they do this even when they're relatively privileged, having no foreseeable worries about predators or food or water or disease.

And even if we play ball and assume otherwise -- i.e., even granting that the foundation of human meaning/value is of great importance -- the idea that some entity beyond the stars grants this foundation is nothing short of bizarre, and I have to think it's unsatisfying even among the people who profess it. As Ophelia Benson points out, pigs and horses and cows and chickens can, if they're exceptionally smart for their species, see that humans provide a sort of foundational purpose to their lives. The cow sees that it will become steak and the chicken that it will become someone's taco filler. This is comforting? This is inspiring?

The god of conventional religion seems to be fond of us insofar as we agree to grovel before him, admire his awesomeness, and sing his praises for all eternity. Uh, no thanks. This stirs a lot of thoughts in my mind vis-a-vis this god and my life, but it doesn't vest my life with a purpose that makes me want to leap out of bed in the morning.

Rick Barnes said...

One's life may or may not be of value to others, however, the value others place on your life must always remain subordinate to the value you place on yourself. A life is the sole owner of itself. It can have no other master by right, however, others may or may not be at liberty to control it. That liberty is not a right because none such can be derived from ownership by right of their individual lives. Sole ownership of your individual life also means sole ownership of the decision to end it. Only by the claim that you do not rightly own your life can one then claim you do not own your death, i.e., the value you place on yourself is always subordinate to the value placed on you by others. All of the horrors of man against man have been perpetrated by this unsupportable claim of one's man's "ownership" of another, most often justified by the unsupportable claim that a "higher power" has ownership over all.

It matters a great deal to most of us how much and in what way others value us, however, only a life can rightly own itself and therefore self-value is superior to all other opinion when it comes to one's own choice to live or to die.
If it does not, then no man and, indeed no other life, is safe from the whims of another. If another is at liberty to deny you death, they can also deny you life.