Valuing persons 2

At what point,” you say? Simple: The instant supply outstripped demand.

Hence sweatshops. Hence managerial bullying, which led to unions, which led to union bullying, which led … and so forth. Hence situations where spouse finds a new mate and decides “three’s a crowd,” so former mate has to go — either to divorce or death. Hence the abandoning of children to die of exposure because their existence creates a problem for inheritance, or exceeds the legally mandated family size, or creates a drain on caregiving resources, or is just plain inconvenient. And we’re damn sure not going to quibble about getting rid of “a few cells,” right?

Given the current state of human nature, the cheapening of human life is inevitable. The alternative is to find in human life a value that is intrinsic, not subject to supply/demand (because, hey, if people are worth something because of what they can contribute, then why worry about an individual when another is available?). And where would such a value come from?

Let’s consider two possible sources, yielding two kinds of value — assigned (or arbitrary) and derived.

Assigned: we value someone because we choose to do so. Thus adoptive parents love the child they will bring into their family. And thus spouses can love each other even though the marriage is arranged rather than a love-match, or one spouse has physically or mentally deteriorated to the point that they cannot share all the usual interplay that goes on in marriage. This value isn’t the kind we’re looking for, however, because it’s not intrinsic to the child or the infirm spouse. Rather, it resides in us who do the choosing. We’re not recognizing the other person’s value, we’re simply conferring it.

Derived: we value someone because we look on that person as someone who is produced and we love the one who produced her. Thus grandparents love their grandchildren (whether natural-born or adopted) because they love their children (and so we have books like Billy Crystal and Elizabeth Sayles’s I Already Know I Love You and Anne Bowen and Greg Shed’s I Loved You Before You Were Born). Thus we are prepared to love a child, sight unseen, because we love her mother or father. And if we are to love and honor Jane Doe simply because she is human, it will be because, consciously or not, we recognize that she is a created being and we love and honor the one who created her.

I notice I’m using the word love here as though it were the principal expression of value. Well, maybe it is.

And I notice also that the phrase “the one who created” seems indispensable. If Jane and all other humans came into being full-formed out of an energy vortex, we might say, “Wow, that’s interesting” — but we would still wait for Jane to “prove herself” before we gave her any respect. She just happened. If we look only at the mechanical aspects of egg-sperm interaction, meiosis and mitosis, and final childbirth, the result is the same — it’s a mechanism, and she is its product. But if we think of her as having a personal source distinct from the mechanical process, that changes everything. How we think of her depends how we think of the person who originated her.1 And I submit that unless you’re willing to posit a Creator, you don’t have much reason to value the creation.

The answer to “Which is worth more, a randomly-selected human being or a brilliant, productive humanoid robot?” is a no-brainer for just about everyone, even some who’ve meditated upon Asimov’s First Law of Robotics and what it means to be human.2 But that doesn’t mean they’ll agree on the no-brainer answer. And the response they give tells us a lot more3 than simply, “That one.”


  1. See James 3:9, invoking Genesis 1:27 — “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father; and [yet] with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” Also 1 John 5:1b — “Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” [return ↩ ]
  2. See especially Asimov’s own story “—That Thou Art Mindful of Him!” (quoting Psalm 8:4), in which his own robots wrestle with the question. In Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzberg, ed., Final Stage (Charterhouse, 1974), 89–116. [return ↩ ]
  3. See the discussion on meaning and significance in a previous article. [return ↩ ]
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