Sunday, April 2, 2017

Atheism and the Intrinsic Value of Human Beings

During a Twitter exchange yesterday I brought up the idea that atheists could account for the intrinsic value of human beings in order to counter the idea that only theism could account for our intrinsic value.

The atheist compatible basis for intrinsic human value is fairly simple: The capability to value anything at all is intrinsically valuable.

Since some human beings have the capability to value something, those that do are therefore inherently valuable.

This idea was challenged by an apologist and theologian I happen to respect and interact with fairly often Stephen J. Graham.

Stephen asks: "Why is the ability to value necessary for possessing intrinsic value?" (Emphasis his)

There is a response to this question, though at first I should make an important point.

The question is somewhat malformed, because like any question for the basis of value, or why something has value - you eventually come to a terminus of your explanation to which one can always ask "but why does that give something value?"

This is as true for theistic conceptions of value as it is for atheistic ones. After all, even if theists say that god simply is defined as being valuable, one could ask why we should consider a being like that to be valuable?

So at some point we reach an explanatory ultimate with regard to value.  The best we can do is evaluable whether or not we consider that explanatory ultimate to be sufficient.

My Answer

The conception of intrinsic value that I'm giving here is one that is rooted in an atheistic worldview, one that would be compatible with naturalism.

To see that the capacity to value anything is itself intrinsically valuable, you need to consider what "value" entails.

Valuing something requires a mind - this is true regardless of whether one is a theist or an atheist. This is still true even if all minds are dependent on physical brains - as naturalism would entail (note here that naturalism is a much stronger claim than atheism).

Still, on atheism or naturalism what is to be valued is subject dependent. Not everything is going to be valued equally by all kinds of beings.  However there is one thing that would be true - a meta kind of fact about value itself: the "capability to value" is itself valuable.

This would be true for all kinds of beings that have the capacity to value, since nothing could be valued at all without one first having the capability to value something in the first place!

So if a theist asks that if atheism or naturalism is true and human beings just are the sum total of their material components, what makes us any more valuable than slime or other collection of matter - an atheist can respond with the idea that the capacity to value something is what makes us intrinsically valuable compared to other collections of matter.


I hope that this answers Stephens question, or if it did not I hope he points out where I've gone wrong or how I've misunderstood his question in the first place.


  1. Thanks for the response. I should note that I have no beef with the idea that “atheists could account for the intrinsic value of human beings in order to counter the idea that only theism could account for our intrinsic value.” I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the claim that “The capability to value anything at all is intrinsically valuable,” (though I would probably prefer to say that the capability to value is a “good” for the being who can do so). However, the context of our discussion was abortion, and you appeared to claim much more than that the ability to value bestows intrinsic value. You made the stronger claim that the inability to value means a being does *not* possess intrinsic value. In other words, you made the claim that having the ability to value is a *necessary* criteria for possessing intrinsic value. Here’s one of your remarks: “if the fetus has no capacity to value, then it lacks intrinsic value.” It’s this stronger claim I see little reason for. Moreover, I think your position has potentially much deeper problems: what account of “mind” do you mean to use? Moreover, what is it to possess “intrinsic value,” and when can a being be said to have the ability to value something in a morally relevant way? Later in the same discussion you said a baby was capable of value but a fetus is not, and yet it’s not difficult to think of cases which are problematic for your position: such as an 8 months old baby in the womb and a 7 month old baby born prematurely. I’m not sure a baby has the cognitive apparatus necessary for being capable of valuing anything in any meaningful sense, and thus if it has intrinsic value, I don’t see that intrinsic value can reasonably be based on the capacity to value.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

      I do think one could argue that if a being doesn't have the capacity to value then it does not have intrinsic value.

      I use the tentative "you could argue" since I'm not completely convinced the initial position is air tight, though I favor it. I can see arguments about "potential for the capacity to value" granting intrinsic value, though I'm not yet convinced they could work.

      To make my position more clear: I think a very early stage zygote/embryo (ie. the clump of cells) doesn't have intrinsic value, at best it has extrinsic value. This would make things like Plan B style contraception not morally problematic.

      I do appreciate the point about a 7 month prematurely born baby and a 8 month fetus still in the womb - I would agree both have the capacity to value and so would have intrinsic value. Arguments for abortion would then move towards bodily autonomy, but I admit things are far less clear when it is very late term - and in the vast majority of cases when that happens it's in the "life of the mother" kind of problem.

      Still, the autonomy of the mother arguments would have purchase at the usual terms that the vast majority of abortions take place, even if we granted the fetus had intrinsic value at that point. Though it's not clear it would be able to value anything in the early terms when most abortions occur.

      Hopefully this clears up any confusion from Twitter where I can see how it would appear I was drawing a line on intrinsic value of a born baby vs. a fetus en-utero. Clearly a fetus can have intrinsic value via this criteria.

      As for your other question about theory of mind - I think this argument works regardless of what theory of mind you want to use. Even if we went with a very reductive theory of mind, we still clearly "value" things and it makes sense to speak of value in these terms.

      Finally, I do think the capacity to value is a necessary component for possessing intrinsic value. On atheism, I'm not sure what else is going to get you there in quite as universal a way.

  2. It seems that you ultimately acknowledge that value is not objective (mind and subject-dependent).

    That would seem to suggest *nothing* is intrinsically valuable. And I fail to see why this is such a stumbling block. Just because theists like to pretend some foundational values exist doesn't mean any actually do, and it doesn't put them in any legitimately better position unless they can substantiate the basis they claim.

    It's getting caught up in theist's digressions (aka distractions), just like making abortion debates about the fetus instead of focusing on the woman.

    Perhaps there is no intrinsic value, but there can be a goal that is strived for, which we then hold valuable. After all, that's precisely what they do, regardless of any claims they may make.

    1. What? How in the world are you getting that?

      To say that "value" must be "mind independent" in so far that they exist apart from "minds" in totality would render even theistic attempts at objective values failed.

      That is a criticism I've leveled before, but crucially I point out that you can still get objective facts on which to base value from even the theistic view - it's just in such a way that atheists can do much the same.

      That is to say there are objective (mind independent) facts about "value" in general that we can use as our basis - and this is one such a case.

      Only Platonism would suffice, I think, to say that values could exist in a mind independent way, but as I argue here valuing is necessarily a function of minds in general.

      But that fact alone means that beings with minds of this capacity are inherently more valuable than things that lack it.

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