...or, The Value of (Even) the Vastly Imperfect
by Troy Chapman
Someone left a comment on this blog based on my previous post “What About Bob”: “How can it be moral to think the Dalai Lama and Jim Jones are of equal value to the universe?”
Thanks for your good question. It is indeed moral to think Jim Jones has the same intrinsic value as the Dalai Lama. Intrinsic value is built in, and cannot be reduced (or increased) by anything people do. Extrinsic value, on the other hand, is based entirely on what people do, on how useful they are. Both are real, but moral thinking is all about prioritizing, so the moral question here is: Which of these types of value (or ways of measuring value) takes precedence over the others?
If we elevate extrinsic value to the top spot in our thinking (and we often do) we measure the value of all things according to their usefulness. This is morally disastrous.
Extrinsically speaking, old people are less valuable than young people; people with severe brain damage are less valuable than healthy people; criminals are less valuable than law-abiding citizens; poor people are less valuable than wealthy people; the homeless, who don’t contribute to our society, are less valuable than those who do contribute; and animals and nature are valuable only insofar as they serve human interests.
Measuring value extrinsically is ultimately an egocentric way of thinking, because when we ask “How useful is a thing?” the very next question is “Useful to whom?” We all have different agendas, and if we measure value extrinsically then we’ll value everything according to how it serves our agenda. Thus, in America, people’s value would be determined by how economically useful they are. We couldn’t complain if Hitler decides to measure value according to how people serve the ideology of racial supremacy. We couldn’t complain if China decides that baby girls aren’t useful to the Communist social agenda and so disposes of them.
This thinking is morally repulsive when we bring it out into the light and examine it. Agendas and notions of usefulness change from place to place and time to time. And if we value things according to these notions we might as well define goodness as “That which serves me at the moment.”
The idea of intrinsic value says “no” to this thinking. Yes, we consider extrinsic value because we live in the physical world but it’s not the ultimate measure of value. Things have value whether they serve our agendas or not — they have spiritual value. The moment we deny that value for any one person, we deny it for all — including ourselves.
If you asked the Dalai Lama or Jesus if they were more valuable than any other person on earth they would tell you no. Indeed, Jesus taught this constantly — see the story of the prodigal son, the 99 and 1 sheep, his teaching that “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me” — and the scriptures even recommend a sort of affirmative action to correct our tendency to measure things extrinsically. See Paul’s teaching that the unseemly parts of the “body” should not only be considered equal but especially honored, for example (I Corinthians chapter 12), and countless teachings about the poor and the weak being treated with special honor. To find them, go to any good concordance, and look up “poor” or “weak” and other similar words. These teachings are all about the value of “useless” people to God — i.e., about intrinsic value.
In the end, intrinsic value is based on our profound interconnection as a whole and our value as individual parts of this whole. It also arises from the idea of reverence — true reverence is impossible without the knowledge that things — all things — have a built-in value.
What do you think?