When humanists say that human beings have “inherent worth” the sentence appears descriptive – like saying human beings have arms and legs – but it is really normative. We are saying that a human being is a “person” and not just an organism. He or she is able to initiate, choose, praise, blame, and the like. So having “inherent worth” means being a “person” and being a person means being rational and free as the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, put it. Being rational and free means that a being with those characteristics can judge and act. An amoeba or virus and most animals as far as we can tell, can react, but not act. A table or a star lacks even the appearance of rationality and freedom.
Another way of understanding the difference between worth and inherent worth is to recall that “pricing” is a transaction between an active subject, a person, and a passive object, a thing. In other words, an economic transaction can’t happen without the presence of a being that has needs and desires [the organism], the ability to judge and to act on the judgment [rationality], and the possibility of initiating or refusing to initiate the transaction [freedom]. Parenthetically, a moral transaction happens when two or more subjects interact, when neither is an object and both are rational and free. As you can imagine, this leads to judgments about human relations and political organizations. More on this when we discuss ethics later on.
A Rembrandt or a Picasso acquires worth within an economic or an aesthetic transaction, i.e. it is priced or it is appreciated. Without a subject’s presence, choice, and action – pricing, enjoying, criticizing, etc. – a star simply is, a table simply is, a painting simply is – there will be neither joy nor regret at their appearance or disappearance, neither appreciation nor indifference at their presence. Terms like plenty and scarcity will not apply, etc. Neither tree nor artwork can price itself or appreciate itself. Only persons can do that.
Of course there are gray areas – aren’t there always – but we only have a moment here to notice them. For example, there is a growing body of evidence that higher apes and other mammals perform at least some of the functions of personhood like having interests and exercising choices. Some exhibit values like “altruism,” the capacity to surrender self-interest for the sake of another’s interest – for their offspring, the offspring of other members of their community, etc. Others would seem to have what we call a sense of humor, playing tricks on each other and on us. And, in so far as language is the cradle of rationality, they exhibit language as well – the ability to respond not just to signals – like salivating at the smell of food – but to symbols like being able to interrupt stimulus and response in order to do what in a human being is called reflection. There is, as I am sure you know, a vigorous movement to defend the “rights” of animals and to criticize the rest of us as “speciesists,” i.e. as persons who fail to recognize the personhood of other beings because they are unlike ourselves. Note that this is much more complicated and puzzling than acknowledging that animals feel pain and ought to be treated humanely. By the way, I suspect that any future humanist manifesto will have to use a more inclusive meaning for “persons” than we do now much as the civil rights movement and feminism resulted in a more inclusive meaning of “persons” in our time.
Returning to our main point, adding the adjective ‘inherent” to “worth” alerts us to the humanist’s normative shift. Of course, the humanist is not alone in using the language of inherent worth. Certainly the Stoics in classical Greece and Rome embedded the ideas we now call inherent worth in their philosophies. As Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and a stoic remarked, “Even in a palace one can live well.” Renaissance humanism celebrated, through its inventiveness and its art, the human being as a being of inherent worth. However, “inherent worth” really became core social, political and philosophic ideas in dealing with human rights and democratic politics. The phrase is a child of the 17th and 18th socialist radicalism, and secular states.
For example, a familiar language echoes through John Locke’s “social contract” in the First and Second Treatises of Government, a basic document that guided the formation of our Constitution. Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence“  echoed with the ideas of inherent worth. Mr. Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That, among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The language is descriptive but its meaning is normative. For example, the Declaration, drawing moral conclusions from its claims, tells King George III that the colonists “are and ought to be free.” “Inherent worth” becomes the ground for moral criticism and an invitation to political action. We can accuse someone of violating “a law of nature” or an inherent “right” and give reasons for doing so.
But, the words “inherent worth” raise philosophic problems although these days we use them almost ritually. Jefferson’s writes, “are and ought to be” in his instruction to King George. “Are” implies that a human being has a certain property or characteristic as in “are free.” Without dealing with Mr. Jefferson’s “creator” – we’ll get to “nature” and “nature’s God” in the next module—we notice that these words refer us to the world itself, to being itself. Recalling Philosophy and The Humanist Connection, Introductory Course, Section two, it is a metaphysical claim. Freedom and rationality are included in the construction of the human being much as gravity is included in the construction of the universe. It is no accident that Jefferson’s time is also Isaac Newton’s time, the time of the new physics, the new science.
The addition of the word “inherent” to “worth” tells us that rationality and freedom are not like legs and arms. For example, we can amputate a leg or an arm but we do not thereby amputate personhood. A one-legged human being is still a person. With freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness, however, things are otherwise. When these are, as it were, amputated – say by slavery or torture or drugs – then we have not merely a handicap but a human being whose personhood has been diminished if not vanished. The result of violation is terrifying, the threatened loss of personhood itself. We cannot say, as we can after an amputation, that we still have a person. Inherent worth is intended to make the distinction, to recognize that there are facts and moral facts. The strange thing about moral facts, however, is that the victim retains the power to remedy the situation by reform if possible, by revolution if necessary. Like Lazarus, who rose from the dead, inherent worth rises in spite of efforts to get rid of it. Those who try to perform the amputation invite basic and on-going discontent. The effort to amputate personhood must sooner or later fail.
Once again, there are gray areas. For example, an Alzheimer patient appears to lack personhood or, at the very least, to enjoy a diminished personhood. The patient in a “persistent vegetative state” retains organic functions like breathing, taking nourishment, etc. but, to the best of our ability to know what’s going on, lacks the freedom and rationality that define “inherent worth.” At the same time, we do not treat these human beings as non-persons, as object, as disposable. A similar puzzle arises in the abortion debate. Even humanists, who deny the “ensoulment” of a fetus, by and large still ask for respect – say of unused embryos. With few exceptions, we notice that humanists just like Roman Catholics or Orthodox Jews are not prepared simply to discard them as if they were “mere” objects. We attach inherent worth to the past – as if our lives were a kind of advance payment for future respect. Similarly, we attach inherent worth to the future – the embryo as potential person – as if the promise itself, even if it is never kept as with natural abortion, imposes moral obligations on us. Moral claims thus seem to come to us in an extended time frame, a continuum. Moral obligation connects both to history and to prediction. At the same time, because this time frame is seldom analyzed, it is unclear how and how far backward or forward such moral claims should extend.
In opening up these gray areas, we also open up the relationship between the traditional doctrine of the soul and the humanist’s notion of inherent worth. Indeed, some religionists have criticized humanism on the ground that it borrows the idea of the “soul” but doesn’t admit it. Moreover, “inherent worth” seems to have surrendered the humanist’s reliance on inquiry and evidence that is his or her boast. In other words, humanism cannot claim logical or empirical justification for inherent worth. “Oughts” cannot be proven the way a scientific hypothesis can be.
So, the evidence seems to betray the humanist. He or she cannot deny that human beings are notoriously willing to violate or ignore the alleged inherent worth of the human person in themselves in others. Whole populations have been denied personhood on the basis of class, race, gender, ethnicity, or nationality. We certainly cannot ignore our excursions into genocide. We know that human beings lie, cheat, exploit, harm, and kill each other. Lacking the doctrine of “sin” and “creation” that provides the believer with reasons and reasoning for human vileness, inherent worth would seem to be a misguided notion at best. Defeated by fact and logic, inherent worth violates the humanist claim to rationality as well.
Reflection: If experience show us that people everywhere and in every time have mouthed words like, “inherent worth,” but have denied them in conduct, why do humanists continue to claim them as “central humanist values?” If it’s not sentimentality and wishful thinking, then what’s going on? Have you used these words and if so, what were you trying to say and do?