What are you Worth?
The Fresh Perspective Podcast - Episode 2
How’s it going everyone? I’m Nick and you are listening to the Fresh Perspective Podcast.
For today’s episode, I want to talk about an idea that I suspect will be an essential aspect to any universal secular moral philosophy. It has to do with how we regard any other person. Does a human being have inherent worth? If so, What Is the worth of a Human Being? We will explore those questions, in just a moment.
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What is the worth of a Human Being?
When confronted by this question, I suppose the most common response is to flounder for a moment. After all, we haven’t been given much information. How can we judge the worth of someone without knowing their past choices, background, beliefs, attractiveness, wealth, popularity, intelligence, and so forth? In order to go about life, aren’t we are required - to some degree - to make small moment-to-moment judgements, based on as much information as we can?
But the conversation today isn’t about seeing how any particular person ranks. Rather, I mean to explore worth in the broadest of terms. What is the worth of any Human Being, regardless of age, race, sex, or any other distinguishing feature? Put a different way, do each of us have an innate underlying value based solely on our humanity?
If we look to our world’s religions for the answer to this question, we find both embellishing and disparaging answers. This should not be a surprise to us, given the diversity of belief. Is the person in question a member of the chosen people of the local deity? Then they are considered to be of great worth, perhaps obeying without hesitation the commandment to slaughter their neighbors who believe differently. It may be taught that another has infinite worth because they are merely a manifestation of the divine reality. Are they believed to have been reincarnated into a lowly caste? Then perhaps they are worth less because of their presumably poor choices in a previous life. If a neighbor was also made in the image of God, how much should that factor into our treatment of them?
Ideally, we could all agree that a human being is of great worth. To perpetuate the opposite has obvious distasteful results. When a creature, a vehicle, or a book is considered to be of little worth or value, how kindly can the average person be expected to treat it? We judge tools and resources by their utility, and are happy to discard them when that utility dips below an acceptable level. Can it be considered anything but immoral to likewise judge people by their usefulness? Worse still is when some sum of money is believed to be of greater value than a human being. For most of human history, it was even commonplace to sell and trade people, as commodities, as property. How could this answer be acceptable when it offends our modern sensibilities so egregiously? Indeed if anything can be considered immoral, it is the devaluing of human life and human wellbeing.
So is there anything beyond faith, social convention, or political theory that can justify an elevated esteem of a human being? Can we logically view others as more than potential allies, providers, buyers, mates, or simply as means to an end? I propose that there are five sound elements found in every person that can inform our honest proclamation of their inherent worth:
1. The Rareness of One’s unique Consciousness, Perspective, and Imagination.
Often, the value of something can be extrapolated from the apparent rareness of that thing. The chemical element rhenium, for example, is something like three times more valuable than gold, because of its scarcity. In an observable universe of some two-trillion galaxies, each with about 200 billion stars, how many planetary systems do we know of in which life can be found with self-awareness, consciousness, and the ability to contemplate this cosmic vastness? One. More incredible still, we each use our minds differently. We each experience consciousness in slightly different ways. No two people share the same imagination. Therefore, each thought process and perspective - each person - is inherently valuable.
2. One’s membership in the Human Family.
Human beings are a social species with natural instincts that drive us to promote the overall wellbeing of our family group members. Our species did not survive on the grasslands of prehistory as lone wolves, but as clans. Natural selection has favored this group-oriented behavior. It seems most apparent when we consider child rearing. How else can we survive such a comparatively long infancy, necessary for our brain development outside of the womb? Even as adults, it is apparent that our mental and physical health is maximized only through sufficient social support. In other words, nature itself has established that we should be concerned with the wellbeing of our family members.
This begs the question - who then, should be considered our family members? I’m reminded of the Lawyer’s question in the Christian parable of the good Samaritan: "Who is my neighbor?"
Who belongs to our family? From what scientists have learned from the human genome, the answer is wide-sweeping. With a scientific perspective, we can apply these instincts to every single member of the human race. Whether through the evolutionary processes revealed through our biology, or a belief in divine creation, we can accurately state that every human being is a member of the same family. We are all related to every other person who has ever lived. That makes any other human being our literal relative, a member of our clan, a clan that encompasses the world itself.
3. The fact that each person is a work in progress, with untapped potential to improve the self and the lives of others.
When we think of a person, we tend to think of them as a history of their previous appearances and their behaviors. But we are, quite literally, not who we were yesterday. Even in the field of neuroscience, it has been observed that the human brain is constantly re-arranging itself, changing what one understands and how one thinks. Thanks to each of our brains’ “plasticity” it is far more accurate to think of a person as a process, a work in progress, with tremendous potential.
It is impossible to tell exactly how much of a positive impact a child will have on the future. The greatest scientists, leaders, explorers, philosophers, and inventors all started out as helpless infants. Each individual is budding with potential, potential that can be expanded through education, skill development, character building, and so forth. Even in the last moments of one’s life, the potential for impactful good remains. Of course, there exists the other side of that coin. Every person possesses the potential for untold horrors, something to be understood and respected just as seriously as their capacity for good.
4. One’s capacity for empathy and sympathy.
Today, an AI assistant can help us find a pre-programmed source of valuable information, but can it feel our pain? A tool may prove its utility in one task, but can we ask it to share in joyous celebration? A special characteristic in all human beings (admittedly, to various degrees) is their ability to sincerely visualize the thoughts, experiences, and feelings of someone else. In a way, we can step into the minds of another and imagine the world through their eyes. Doing so allows us to share the burdens of problem-solving, coping with extreme emotion, and even containing exuberant ecstasy. On even a selfish level, the innate capacity of another person to share our joys and pains is of great worth in its possible synergistic application.
5. Curiosity, and the Adoption of Causes greater than Survival.
Is there a greater cause than one’s survival or the survival of one’s family or species? For most living things, 100% of their behaviors have evolved to perpetuate their existence. This is true for whales, eagles, angler fish, and bacteria. The average animal spends their days concerned with eating, avoiding being eaten, and reproducing. But we are different, aren’t we?
A phenomenon found in even the earliest humans is the propensity to live for causes beyond such. This can be considered our “spark of divinity.” We imagine a higher form of living in which we serve ideas greater than ourselves. Consider the fact that all human beings believe that we are either the creations of gods, that we are gods, or that we have created gods. Think of the religious relics found in the archeological digs of ancient human civilizations. The search for truth, meaning, and higher purpose is one of the most human things about us. Where else can we find beings earnestly searching for truth for truth’s sake? Whether it manifest in the search for mathematical equations that help us predict the nature of dark matter or the philosophical debate on moral realism, human beings possess this valuable and magnificent characteristic.
This is my argument. This is my answer to this fascinating question. What is the worth of a human being? Although it may not be quantifiable it should be apparent that the worth of any human being is inherent and great. In this respect, it doesn’t matter if you are a clergyman or criminal. Whether you are wealthy or homeless, these five elements, at least, set you apart as something truly special in our universe:
The Rareness of your unique Consciousness, Perspective, and Imagination.
Your membership in the Human Family.
The fact that you are a Work in Progress, with untapped Potential to improve your life and the lives of others.
Your capacity for Empathy and Sympathy.
Your Curiosity, and the Adoption of Causes greater than Survival.
That is all I have for you today, but the conversation continues across social media and in the comment sections below. Do you agree with today’s message? Am I in need of correction? How can I better elaborate on this topic in the future? Feel free to share your perspective!
Written By Nicholas Burk, Executive Board Member © 2019 Free Thought Initiative