General Question

wundayatta's avatar

Do humans have inherent worth?

Asked by wundayatta (58571points) March 21st, 2011

If so, where does it come from? How can you support this idea?

In a question about whether people feel they have to perform in order to be worth loving, Augustlan made a comment asserting that people have inherent worth.

This seems like a very dubious statement to me. It seems to me we are worth nothing unless we are judged worthy by others. We can find worth in ourselves, but does that mean anything? We are ourselves. We can not be anything other than ourselves. To say we find ourselves worthy seems tautological. If we are alive, we have worth but that only reflects our own attitude about ourselves. Again, it is not inherent. You have to choose to find yourself worthy.

I would like to know how we could have worth to anyone else in an inherent way. It seems like other people have a choice, and there is no particular reason they should recognize anyone else as inherently worthy.

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36 Answers

Taciturnu's avatar

I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Edit: I believe you can learn something from every one. I think that means we all have something to offer and therefore we are worth something.

MissAnthrope's avatar

No more or less than any other creature in existence.

jaytkay's avatar

The Golden Rule is enough explanation for me.

Everyone else has the same rights and ability to know joy and sorrow that I have. If I believe in my own worth, I have to acknowledge everybody’s.

Scooby's avatar

Maybe as a food sauce once upon a time, now we’re just simply too many….. :-/

incendiary_dan's avatar

Ditto what @MissAnthrope said, with the caveat that I think our worth is primarily derived from filling the ecological niche we evolved for.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Dang, too late to edit.

I should rephrase to say that our worth is diminished by not filling our niche.

WasCy's avatar

Let’s define the word “inherent” first. How do you mean it?

Do you mean “inherent” as “existing as an inseparable part; intrinsic”? I don’t think this is necessarily so. People’s worth can be separated from them quite easily when the people expire. So that’s not necessarily so.

Do you mean “occurring as a natural part or consequence”? I suppose that this might work. People can have worth which accrues to them by virtue of their lives.

But if we agree on a definition and even if we should agree that people have “inherent worth”, who realizes that? I may not want to kill everyone I don’t know most days, anyway but it doesn’t mean that they have value or worth “to me”. I presume that people have inherent worth to themselves, and I grant them that, at least to the extent that they grant my own inherent worth to me. That’s how we arrive at the construct of human rights, after all.

Taciturnu's avatar

@WasCy Well thought out, but just a side question… If we cease to exist then the worth attached would cease to exist, no? Besides, dead bodies work wonders for compost. I think the plants would find some worth in that. ;)

WasCy's avatar


No, I think that some people have worth that reaches far past the ends of their lives. So in that sense I wanted to show (didn’t, but wanted to) that “worth” and “personhood” are separable. And if that’s the case, then it may be possible for people to have negative worth, too.

Taciturnu's avatar

@WasCy Thanks for the clarification. I do agree that someone’s worth or impact can exceed their mortality.

ETpro's avatar

As an agnostic, I set aside any valuation of things that may have been set in place by a creator. What does and does not have inherent value to a human being is a construct each of us creates in our mind.

Gold and diamonds have incredible value in the minds of many, but give someone a ton of each and strand them on a desert island with no food or potable water, and no way to reach the outside world, and the value of those things is null. The person would soon trade the whole lot of them for a bottle of fresh water and a decent hot meal. So have I really generated anything with inherent value when I mine gold or diamonds?

I place vlaue on all life. It pains me to squach a bug. I will do it if the bug is a threat to me—say a mosquito intent on feeding on my blood and injecting itch serum an possibly dengy fever virus into my system. but I don’t take life, even the simplest of life, without considering why I need to do it. I place great vlaue on the life of sentient beings.

I would willingly work to support the continued life of a human in a deep coma on the hopes that they might some day be revived. In their current state, they produce nothing and consume much, but in my mind their worth is far beyond the cost of keeping them alive. Most Americans feel the same way, and thus we tax ourselves to ensure that those in such a condition are cared for even if the funds to do so must be provided by public assistance.

Psychopaths would not feel that way. The only worth they recognize is their own. Things they need are worth something to them. People they can use to get things they want or need are worth exploiting. But they not only see no inherent worth in anyone or anything other than themselves, they are completely incapable of feeling any concern for the suffering they inflict in fulfilling their own wants and needs by exploiting and abusing opthers.

If the psychopath is right, then all worth is an illusion—a delusion of weak minds. The entire universe is worthless and there is no reason to work to support anything in it, because the worth of it is illusion. Strange that arriving at such a conclusion would be like becoming an enlightened one through the back door of negativism.

crisw's avatar

I believe that all sentient beings, including humans, have inherent value, but that’s a bit different from inherent worth. I believe that that value stems from their ability to have lives that go better or worse for them, to make choices and have preferences, and to experience pain and pleasure.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I don’t think we can know whether or not we have inherent worth. All we know is what we assign to others. However, since we do assign worth to humans, a lot more worth should be applied elsewhere.

listener's avatar

Learn from boidiversity, every living and non-living things plays a part in our lives. And yes it is as simple as that.

ETpro's avatar

@listener I can’t believe I used so many words to say les than your one sentence answer.

WasCy's avatar

My thoughts are not as noble as @ETpro‘s they never are. And furthermore, I disagree I usually do with his assumption that “most Americans” feel as he does regarding “keeping people alive at any cost” (if I’m not putting words in his mouth).

I agree that I would willingly work and contribute to the mortal salvation of many people, some of them less well known to me than others, regardless of their chance at survival, if I was their only chance at survival or an important part of that. But that has a limit. I’m not writing blank checks to mankind, or even to my own neighbors or family, saying, “Take what you need; I’ll make more!” I expect some sort of quid pro quo, even if it’s only understood, as from a family member, that “there would be reciprocity”.

I don’t think I’m a psychopath, but I believe that not everyone is worth my life, or even any part of it that I don’t choose to give willingly. Especially, those who demand parts of my life as their “right”, I think have anti-value. I could be wrong, I suppose. But these are my values.

Furthermore, just because someone finds himself in desperate straits now for decisions he may have made or failed to make decades ago doesn’t give him any more of a claim on my life than a person who makes current choices to not care about his own worth to himself or others. If we all have inherent worth, then I have my own worth, and I don’t “need” to share it with anyone I don’t choose to, do I?

I respect anyone’s right to find his own worth; sometimes I even recognize it explicitly. But anyone who wants that has to grant the same to me.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Eventually we all die. What we leave behind is our legacy to the world, and to our progeny. That is the measure of our worth… what is left when we’re done here. Other than that, imagine sticking your finger in a bucket of water… the hole your finger leaves when you pull it out, represents how “indispensible” you were.

ETpro's avatar

@WasCy It’s been a fair while since I have been rebuked in so friendly a fashion by someone who usually disagrees with me. In fact, I do not agree with preserving human life at any cost. I should have been more specific. I believe in providing life support so long as the person receiving it has not left a living will saying they do not want such measures taken and so long as they are young enough and otherwise healthy enough they have a reasonable chance of someday returning to a more functional state. I did not support keeping Terry Schivo alive against the direct wishes of her family who knew her best, when she was clearly brain dead and had no hope of recovery from an advanced vegetative state. At 67, I have left a living will indicating that if my life quality is unlikely to return, I want no heroic measures made to keep me alive past the defibrillator attempt to get me going again.

I should also be clear that I am sure you are not a psychopath and don’t know of anyone here I think is such. I did not mention that personality disorder in an attempt to say that all who hold life in low value are psychopaths. I wanted to use that particular pathology to arrive at what our philosophy would be if we all were psychopaths, seeing no value in any life save our own. It was just a thought experiment and certainly not a condemnation of anyone answering this question regardless of what their answer may be.

wundayatta's avatar

@CaptainHarley No one is indispensable, as you point out. If our worth is measured by what is left when we’re dead, then I suspect that few of us have any worth. Few people leave any serious legacy when they die, it seems to me. Or maybe that’s just me. All my life I’ve been hoping I would do something worth remembering. It’s not there yet. I doubt if my kids will be interested in my life after I’m gone. But it probably shouldn’t matter, anyway.

It’s what we are worth to others now—our families and our employers and friends—that is meaningful. But we have no worth outside of that, I don’t think.

ETpro's avatar

@wundayatta If leaving material wealth behind is the measure of human worth, then John Dillinger, Willie Sutton, Howard and each of the Robber Barons of the late 19th century were of far more worth than Mother Theresa, the Dali Lama or Dr. Linus Pauling.

I like to think that men like Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling might not have been able to do all the wonderful things they did had not someone mowed their grass, picked up their garbage, cooked and washed clothes for them, and kept their toilets working. If there were no food on the counters of their local market, and they had to spend their days as hunter gatherers, how much value would they have left the world?

Cruiser's avatar

We are all cogs in the wheel that keeps our lives where and what they are. We are all connected by six degrees of separation and I need you as much as you need me to make all this work….how inherent is that?

CaptainHarley's avatar


What you say is true, to an extent. But… you have children who will have children who will be part of your legacy, as will their children, and so on. If you have raised them right, then what you have done will reverberate down the halls of time for many, many years.

Zaku's avatar

Worth is invented; it’s not a universally thing that can be proven, without starting from invented postulates.

Simple proof. Humans are warm. Warmth is useful and therefore, beings who invent “value” systems will at least associate some value with that warmth. Therefore humans have inherent value, or worth. Even if you kill ‘em, you can burn their bodies, or eat ‘em – more proven inherent worth.

One could use more sophisticated properties and values of humans to prove more inherent worth, but that would take more time and not make it any more true.


everephebe's avatar

Worth is indeed a relative term. We humans have great potential, and I personally value that. Our capacity and creativity, makes us “worthy” to be at the “top” of the food chain.

Humans have inherent worth to each other, as a species, to mate and propagate… and many other reasons.

Nullo's avatar

Random J. Human has an indisputable potential. You can’t really quantify potential, but eh.
Beyond that, we are the only sort of God’s creatures to be made in His image. That probably counts for something.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

I don’t really understand your question. Inherent worth to who? To society as a whole, to this planet, to the universe, to God, to other people? We all have worth in some way. Are we individually indespensable – no. Would the eco-system break down if we suddenly became extinct – no. Would life go on if I wasn’t here – yes. My kids would miss me, though. :)

Nullo's avatar

@Skaggfacemutt “inherent worth” is just that: of value even if there’s nobody around to appraise it. The inherently valuable does not require a whom to need it.

LostInParadise's avatar

Chemically about $4.50, though individual organs could probably be sold for more on the black market.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Okay, @Nullo . The idea, the concept of “worth” in and of itself would make “inherent worth” a meaningless phrase in that case. “Worth” means “the value of something measured by the esteem in which it is held.” No one to hold it in esteem, no measurement for worth.

LostInParadise's avatar

I do believe that we all have an inherent worth by virtue of being human. I cannot give a scientific argument for it. It is a value that I have, which I believe most others share.

We have laws against harming one another. One interpretation of this would be that we engage in a contract, which limits what we can do to someone else in exchange for being similarly protected. I think it goes beyond this. We also have laws against cruelty to animals. Here there can be no contract. We feel that animals have a certain worth, which limits what we can do to them. Similarly, basic rights for humans stem from a sense of the inherent worth of each individual.

mazingerz88's avatar

I guess in the end…whatever your OWN answer IS, IS the ONLY REAL answer to your question.

Nullo's avatar

@Skaggfacemutt * shrugs * I don’t write the questions, pal.

augustlan's avatar

While I’m delighted to have inspired this fascinating discussion, what I should have said in that other thread is that any one person’s ‘worth’ doesn’t change day to day, minute to minute. That is, if you are a ‘worthy’ human being today, you will still be one tomorrow, even if you are not at your absolute best. That your ‘worth’ is not based on any one thing you do (or don’t do). It’s not based on a snapshot in time, but over a lifetime.

That said, I do think that every living thing has inherent worth. Maybe not to every other living thing, but surely to some other living thing.

Scooby's avatar

Other than being a food sauce as I earlier stated, as long as I’m still paying my taxes, I guess I’m still worth something inherently, still a food sauce for a very hungry appetite…

wundayatta's avatar

Day to day—little change in worth to others? I always feel like it’s “what have you done for me lately.” Someone could change their mind about you overnight. Friend today, gone tomorrow. Spouse today, gone tomorrow. Employed today, gone tomorrow. I feel like people will only like me or find me worthy of anything if they think I can give them something today. Otherwise they will write me off.

So I’m always trying to be good so people won’t write me off tomorrow. I don’t want to be all alone. I even am good by helping a person write me off when I know they really don’t want to have anything to do with me, but they can’t help themselves. I make enemies on purpose with people I like, just because I’m bad for them. Who knows? Maybe one day she’ll change her opinion, for now I’m an asshole par excellence.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

@augustlan Well, with our definition of “worth” established, the only inherent worth we have is the $4.50 worth of chemicals that we are made up of. In every other aspect, our worth would change as other people’s esteem of us goes up and down. Of course, one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.

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