Section One: The Human Being

The Human Being

In this and the following sections, we’ll be looking at some of the basic themes of humanism – human being, nature, religion, reason and the sciences, democracy and education.  We’ll begin each module with representative statements from one or more humanist documents.  Later on, in Section Six, we’ll draw conclusions about the humanist project and where our philosophic adventure takes us.


The chief, but not the only, actor in the humanist story is the human being.  Thus, the 5th “affirmation” of Manifesto II [1973] says, “The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value.”  And Manifesto III [2005] puts it, “We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.”  The words seem clear enough, but as we’ll see, they get us into pretty deep water.

“Worth,” is a familiar economic idea.  We ask: what’s that worth?  The answer depends on availability, need, and desire.  Sometimes, when we want to pin worth down, we try to name “basic needs” – food, shelter, and clothing are the classic trinity.  But that isn’t as simple or as objective as it seems.  In many cultures, for example, certain foods can be taboo like those used in sacrificing to the gods or like totem animals or the Jewish distinction between “kosher” and “tref.”  In just about all cultures, we learn to be disgusted or repelled by certain foods.  So you and I are not likely to see an American menu listing insects or dogs or cats.  On the other hand it will probably include pork.  An Arabic menu will not.  As it were, some things are culturally and psychologically inedible even when we’re hungry.  As we say, “I’d rather starve.”

Things can get complicated with shelter and clothing too.  Some clothing or shelter may be regarded as unsuitable for certain kinds of people.  Palaces are for kings, huts are good enough for peasants and temples are for priests.  Costume is symbolic too.  Gandhi, for example, wore a simple white wrap in order to say that he would not support British manufactures.  But you don’t have to go to India.  The American colonists made the same point with what was called “homespun” clothing.  Needs becomes wants [desires] and wants becomes needs.  “Worth,” in other words, is a product of needs, tastes and desires, social, and cultural habits, religious and ideological beliefs, and political causes.  Worth isn’t just a matter of biology or arithmetic, not even in economics.

Things get even more complicated.  Provided it is desired, a rare object is worth more than a readily available one.  An artwork can be bid into the millions of dollars or, losing its audience, can be left on the trash heap.  A glass of water on a hot day can command a good price.  You’ll notice too, that “needs” aren’t self-evident as when you find yourself dealing with “social needs” like the ones “sold” to you by fashion or status.  Bottled water, these days, becomes an economic good for example.

In a barter economy, worth is measured by the equivalence of two or more objects as a bowl of cereal is worth one apple.  Sometimes one of those objects – say an ounce of gold, a necklace of certain colored beads, or a green-printed piece of paper – may be standardized by custom or law, becoming what is called “currency,” a medium of exchange.  Worth is subject to bargaining – it’s not inherent— and a bargain is struck depending the degree of our need, the intensity of our desire, and the strength of our habits.  In a labor economy, worth can be measured by how much effort or skill is required to produce something.  Labor can become currency too as in “man-hours.”  By the way, both Adam Smith and Karl Marx opted for a “labor theory of value.”  Worth varies with the way a society is economically and morally constructed.  It varies with time, place and context, and with personal and social values.

Sometimes, things have worth because they help us do things we need or want to do.  Tools are an example.  But, given the right circumstances, many things can serve as means to an end, as tools – a pep rally for a team, a word of encouragement for a friend, a chant at a political convention.  Acts and gestures can be tools and thus answers to the question, what is something worth?  Tools have worth because they have what is called “instrumental value.”  They get us from where we are to where we need or want to be.

The underlying economics of worth is ownership and power, i.e. the ability to claim a property that can be transferred from one person or group to another.  Economic “objects” also include skills and abilities or what we today call services.  These vary from the work of a busboy to a surgeon and even to a philosopher.  Services make property useful.

We say that some things are “beyond price” or “priceless.”  This may refer to an object so rare – a work of art or craftsmanship – that it cannot be valued as such.  Instead, its worth is an outcome of what may be called extraneous, not inherent, values, preferences for example, or the signs and symbols of status, or taste.  So we might say something like “I’ve got to have it” or “if he/she has it, I’ve got to have it too.”  On the other hand, “priceless” may refer to things that are readily available – like the air we breath.  For these, it is not ordinarily possible to claim ownership, to make them a commodity, and so to allow for pricing and exchanging.  However even things like air and water can command a price as in water rights or air rights or as when activities like pollution create a need for pure water and breathable air.  In fact, under the right social conditions and given human inventiveness, just about anything can be commodified, i.e. can be priced.

Ultimately then, worth is measured by what we’re willing and able to pay, i.e. what economics call “effective demand.”  Our informal look at things and prices tells us that lots of things, in fact most things—food, shelter, clothing, water, air, labor, artworks, services, gestures, etc. – can have a price and so can answer the economic question “what is it worth?”

We know that human beings have been bought and sold – e.g. slaves, women, children – that some parts of human beings have been bought and sold – e.g. blood, organs – and that some human activities have been bought and sold, e.g. labor to take the most obvious example, “intellectual property” like books, the results of research, etc. to take another.  Their worth can be calculated, priced, and traded.  Human life has its price too.  For example, auto and life insurance convert “priceless things” like life and good health, etc. into priced items.

But, the humanist is point at something very different when he or she claims that the human being has inherent worth and dignity.  When the humanist says something is “beyond price” he or she is shifting from “is” to “ought.”  He or she is saying that price and exchange ought not apply to human beings.  The humanist claim is “normative,” not “descriptive.”  On the record, as we have seem, anything may have a price; But some things ought not to have a price.  For example, when I say, “I love my children,” I am saying that their worth is not measurable, that they are not property, and that they cannot be for sale.  Worth becomes an ethical and not an economic term.

Reflection:  “Worth” is a word with many sources and many uses.  List some things that you find have worth.  Ask yourself what qualifies them for the list.  Is it usefulness, pleasure, social recognition or what?  Have you listed tings that you find priceless – what makes them so?  Has your list changed as you’ve grown up?  Would other people make different lists?  Why?

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