utility versus worth

What is a rock worth?

Well, it depends. It depends obviously on what the rock is made of. If the rock is made of gold, it will be worth much more than a rock made of limestone. But that doesn’t really answer the question of worth in any final way. Gold is not inherently worth more than limestone. Worth is decided by popular consensus. But worth isn’t binding and necessary. An infant who hasn’t learned the conventions of society wouldn’t know that he is to value gold over limestone any more than he would know that he is supposed to value the toy much more than the box it came in. Similarly, if a person were marooned on an island Tom Hanks style, a flint rock would be infinitely more valuable than a gold nugget or a pile of 100 dollar bills regardless of social conventions. To that person, utility trumps popular consensus. And this I suppose is the point. Worth is not inherent. Worth is ultimately about utility – whether that utility is socially or individually constructed.

In most cases, this isn’t a problem. I mean, this is how currency and economies works. We collectively decide what something is worth. Individuals can choose to either accept this consensus, or, if they don’t care about any potential social consequences, they can choose to assign their own worth to things.

But what about human beings? What is a human being worth? Well, that all depends on who you ask. Economists calculate your worth at as much as 9.1 million dollars. If you wanted to harvest all of your organs, you could be worth as much as 45 million dollars which would admittedly be difficult to spend. Taken as raw materials our bodies are worth barely more than three trips to the gas station. (Dinosaur bodies = much more valuable than human bodies.) But none of these kind of conclusions is satisfactory. In fact, they exist more as a kind of macabre joke than as serious proposals. To attempt to define a person’s worth in terms of utility or lack thereof opens the door to the darkest recesses of human nature. It brings to mind the appalling realities of slavery, genocide, and eugenics – practices that are neither confined to the distant past nor to those distant parts of the planet deemed by some to be uncivilized or unsophisticated. (If you want to observe a purely utilitarian definition of worth in a modern and supposedly sophisticated western country, please watch this video.)

There is something within us that grates against the notion that a person’s worth is determined by social consensus or individual whim. Human dignity is not up for a vote. A society could decide collectively that blonde hair and blue eyes make a person more valuable, and it still would not be true. A society could decide collectively that people of African decent can be bought and sold as animals, and it still would not be true. A society could decide collectively that people born with special needs like Down’s Syndrome have less worth as human beings and therefore should be aborted before they are born, and it still wouldn’t be true. Similarly, an individual unfettered by the conventions of society could act out a belief that certain humans are worth less than others, and it still would not be true.

Human worth is not determined by utility because utility is determined by others. I’m not valuable to the extent that I can or cannot be used by others, and I don’t judge the value of another person based on whether or not they are useful to me. Human beings are more than mere objects. It seems like there was a time when this was more obvious than it is today.

One of the complications of secularist thinking is that human dignity and worth becomes contingent. Jefferson, paraphrasing Locke, grounded inalienable rights in a Creator. We are endowed by our Creator with natural rights that cannot be stripped away (or given!) by any government or other institution. But what happens when the Creator is no longer a part of the equation? If there is no Creator who gives humans worth, then we are set adrift. The existentialists might say that now we are now free to create our own worth. Fine. But that’s sort of like a child finding a few different colored rocks in the backyard and trying to buy a video game with them. You have created your own worth. That’s nice for you. But there’s nothing compelling about that beyond the boundaries of your own experience.

The more popular answer (at least in my circles) comes from the secular humanists. They would say that we don’t need a Creator to give us rights. Jefferson, Locke, et al were just appropriating a useful myth. The Creator language is little more than a rhetorical garnish. We arrive at human rights collectively over time. But I can’t see how this is anything other than arbitrary. Human dignity, then, is always changing and never settled. Human rights are certainly not inalienable. Everything hangs in the balance in the next election since it is ultimately the government that doesn’t just protect rights – but actually creates them. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some people are so completely insane about politics. If human worth is not assigned by a Creator (either because we don’t believe in a Creator or because we’ve forgotten that we believe in a Creator), then worth must be assigned by utility. And utility is ultimately determined by other people – especially those people who are in political power. When you tie human worth to political power you also see a proliferation of rights (best demonstrated by the supposed right to abortion) because a human right has become the jurisdiction of the government and not of any higher principle. Combine the growing number of rights with the anxiety of these rights being determined by popular vote and all of a sudden politics becomes the only game worth playing. And people will lose their minds when they lose!

The only way we have inherent worth is if we believe in a Creator who made us all in his image. All people are priceless not because they are useful but because they were made that way by God. Without God, there are no inalienable rights. The further a culture drifts from God, the more it will be willing to trade worth for utility.

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