Human Value: Part I

“Hey, what’s up?”

“I’m not feeling very good.”

“Oh, how come?”

“I just feel ugly.”

“You’re not ugly, you’re beautiful!

“But what if I was ugly?”

Nearly everyone has struggled with low self-esteem, for we cannot help but evaluate our own worth. There are times when each of us will contemplate the purpose and significance of our existence, weigh ourselves and be found wanting. Fortunately, when we sink into the mire of self-loathing, friends, family and television ads are always there to remind us that we are talented, successful and beautiful. But what if it isn’t true? What if we’re actually mundane, pitiful and hideous? And should we really derive value from such properties?

First of all, the idea of assigning value to life forms may seem cruel and unnecessary, but as we’ve already discussed, this is something we do to animals all the time. The difference between how we determine animal value and human value is that animals are judged collectively, as a species, while humans are judged as individuals. When we say that dogs have a high animal value, we are referring to the intrinsic value of all dogs everywhere, regardless of their individual qualities. However, when we console a friend by reminding them of their worth, we are referring to the acquired value of that particular person. It’s true that animals are sometimes valued as individuals, as was the case with Hachiko, the loyal Japanese Akita, but these exceptions are rare, scarce and extraordinary.

Since humans ascribe worth to themselves and others on an individual basis, the criteria for such appraisals pertains to our personal attributes. We derive value from our skills, accomplishments and appearance, but there are inherent dangers in this strategy.

First, the subjectivity of these qualities is obvious, since each culture prioritizes traits differently, defining success and beauty in a unique way. Accomplished chess players are rarely swarmed by fans or idolized by children these days. Wealthy individuals can enjoy admiration in some circles but also incite contempt in others. Beauty is an extremely difficult concept to define, as it is merely an interpretation of shape, proportion and color, having no foundation in reality.

Second, we tend to compare ourselves to those around us, which skews our perception. For example, after a notable achievement, such as completing a work of art or advancing in our profession, we may experience satisfaction, but this quickly evaporates when we encounter someone who is more accomplished. Similarly, we might be feeling quite content with our figure until we take a trip to the beach and see fit, toned figures frolicking in the sand. We are extremely susceptible to feelings of inferiority, which likely explains the reason we tend to associate with those who share a similar level of talent, success and beauty.

Finally, when the potency and blatancy of our shortcomings is so overwhelming that we cannot extract worth from our qualities, the hollow nature of such appraisals becomes undeniable. It’s true that everyone has feelings of inadequacy from time to time, but what about those who have no basis to deny that inadequacy? What about the destitute man sleeping under the overpass? What about the woman whose face is gruesomely disfigured? We cannot tell these people that they are successful or beautiful because the truth is nothing of the sort.

Regardless of its subjective nature, this system of individual valuation fails to offer relief to the the poor and unsightly, and in doing so, exposes the cruelty behind encouraging one another with the fleeting physical. When we console someone by describing properties that others do not have, we covertly devalue those who do not have them, for this implies that our value comes from a source that is not universally possessed. In order to avoid these difficulties, we must change the way that we value ourselves and others.

Earlier we made the distinction between collective (or intrinsic) value and individual (or acquired) value, and it was an important one. Although we are primarily concerned with our acquired value, it is actually our intrinsic value that secures our most basic and important rights and freedoms. In the eyes of the law, we are all given equal weight based solely on our membership in the human race. To endow or retract privileges because of physical criteria such as wealth and beauty would seem unjust, yet we continue to value ourselves in this way. It may be difficult to abandon a focus on our individual qualities, but it’s the only way to ensure that everyone is able to build self-esteem from an equal footing.

There is a problem with this approach as well, a question that has gone unanswered since the dawn of civilization: how do we determine the intrinsic value of humans?

As humans, we assign value to animals based on attributes that we determine to be significant. We do this because we are attempting to determine the value of the animal to humanity. It is from our perspective as the superior creature that we bestow fish, birds and insects with worth. Without the ability to communicate or process complex thought, animals are unable to protest our authority, but humans are a different story. If we are indeed valuable, then by whose authority and to what degree are we endowed with intrinsic value? How can a creature determine its own worth?