Does human life have inherent value?

This question comes out of a post I made in the pit. Here is the post in question. The thread is about a Katrina refugee who is still living in a NYC hotel on the taxpayers dime, drinking booze and watching TV all day. He thinks the government should give him more money to continue in this lifestyle. What I posted was this:

Needless to say, there was no shotage of posters eager to flame me for my misandrist remarks. I meant what I said as more of a great debate type question, so I am reposting it here, along with my answers to some of the replies in the pit.

Obviously, you’ve put your finger on the biggest problem in implimenting a “kill all worthless humans” policy. Who decides indeed? I have no answer to that, but I would like to make a (probably futile) request that people notice that I did not say “We should kill all the XXXX”, I simply posed the question in response to a poster who stated “Just letting them die would be cheaper, but that choice has its own drawbacks for society.”. The question is, what exactly are these drawbacks?

1: Isn’t that just a racial conceit? Humans can think about this kind of stuff, and because we are able to understand the concept of “life” and “death”, and we know what life is while having no concept of what death actually is, we hold on to life. We have no problem putting terminally ill dogs to death by the score, but suggest that we euthanize terminally ill humans and there is a huge outcry.

2:This is an excellent point. An excellent point. However, people with disabilities I see as being a “drain on society” (so to speak) through no fault of their own. This is quite a different thing from an individual who choses to fuck off in a hotel room on the taxpayer’s dime or a criminal who *choses *to repeatedly harm others.

  1. Another excellent point, but I think there is a destinction that can be made between someone not having “worth” and someone who is actively harming other people. Ann Coulter might not have much worth in your eyes, but she’s not directly harming anyone either.

4: Fine. Agreed. But what’s the statue if limitations here? The guy in the article is 49 years old. Hasn’t he had his chances? At what point is potential finally wasted?

5: Big deal. See my reply to Jakeline below.

This is a dumb argument, and even more coldblooded than the question I asked. Parasites should be kept around to serve as cannon fodder so that you and I aren’t targeted by predators? Jesus, I just asked what would be the cost to society if parasites were removed, you want them to hang around and suffer so you don’t have to! Furthermore, I am much more in favor of executing the predators rather than the parasites. Remember, in my question value is linked to what people actually do, and repeat violent offenders are doing far more harm to innocents that bums like Mr. Johnson. You think my mindset is warped? Jesus Christ!

I addressed potential above, but the funny thing is the last part of your question is one of the things that has me thinking these thoughts. I have an 18 month old sn who is the light of my life. AFAIC, the son rises and sets around him. But if he were to die tomorrow, while I would be devistated, would it affect you at all? Would it affect 295 million other Americans, or 6 billion other humans? I don’t think so. Now you can argue that society has a duty to minimize the potential grief of each individual, and I would agree with you, but if Jimmy grows up to become a mass murderer, and is caught and executed for his crimes, should my grief override the benefit society derives by removing him from it’s midst? Once again, I don’t think so. Again, it boils down to racial conceit. We’re human, we can think, we matter, damnit! But do we as individuals really matter? Religion says we do, but take that out of the equation and what’s left? That’s a big part of this debate.

Was his music more important than the right the people he murded and assulted had not to be killed or beat up? Does a blues riff in B trump a bullet in an innocent person’s back? I’m not sure that it does.

And right there is the debate in a nutshell.

As I posted over there, there are two inter-related reasons.

-Social animals have developed instincts to protect even the least valuable members of the herd. In that these instincts provide a competitive advantage, the perception that human life has intrinsic value is good; therefore, human life has intrinsic value because it provides the opportunity for another to have the perception that human life has intrinsic value.

-Even if you are able to objectively measure an individual’s worth, you never know what value an individual may have tomorrow.

And if you think the replies you posted were flames, you’ve got a persecution complex. They were honest answers to a pretty crazy question.

I don’t think you were so flamed as you make yourself out to be. Indeed, what I saw were generally reasoned responses. Maybe you expected flames, and read some combustion into the replies.

Good question, Dave.

I actually feel that, no, human life does not have inherrent value. As you say, I as an individual might hold the lives of various other individuals as valuable to me, but this doesn’t impart an inherrent value stamp on all human life everywhere just for the sake of it being life.

Interrestingly, this is why I tend to not participate in abortion-related debates. I think the question of when a fetus is or is not a person is pretty irrelevant; the question is what value the parents/potential parents give to the life (or non-life, depending on your particular take on the biology of it all).

There are all sorts of other rational that generally keep us from killing eachother off willy-nilly; sanctity of human life is certainly not necessary for keeping an orderly society. And, while there are benefits to trying to provide an environment where as many people as possible can live free from the fear of death as possible, there’s no reason why every life must be prescious to society.


We’re not a dog-eats-dog society in modern times. We have the spare resources to be charitable and keep people up and going who otherwise would let themselves rot. So why not do so?

Certainly, they would be of more value if they were producing something–and of course for this reason, you can’t make it too easy nor pleasant to live off of charity–but there really is no knowing when or if that is going to happen. But, given that the vast majority of people do end up as productive members of society, and that 90%* of those who do fall to welfare (though the example in the OP would be more akin to refugee upkeep) end up back in the economy making a living within a year. So:

Given that we have the dough
That we don’t know that the person is going to stay as a draw on society
And that usually they won’t be
Keep them upright, and push them to get back on their feet and go to it

  • Might be the wrong figure, but not too far off if I recall correctly.

So we would execute people based on how many people would not miss them? Sounds like a wonky system of justice to me.

This atheist disagrees that the jobless should be executed.

Don’t take this as a flame, nor a Godwinization, but what you are suggesting smacks of what the Nazis did.

One more quick thing to add: We do not apply the death penalty to thieves, drug dealers, or rapists. We reserve that for murderers only. Even then, there is a huge debate about whether or not it is moral, and a good number of states have decreed that it is not. Even so, even in Texas, there is a major effort to provide defendants with representation.

You seem to be advancing the idea that vagrants are as bad as murderers. Care to defend that viewpoint?

And let’s say you do so successfully. Then what sorts of legal protections and representation will said vagrants get?

…or what danger that individual might pose. While I do believe a bit in:

“Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

… I also don’t think that in a real world situation you can always make decisions today based on all possible outcomes for the future.

don’t really care to address the rest of the stuff.

  1. So? your question wasn’t “does all life have inherent value?”. So our species values itself more than other species, sounds pretty standard to me, although I would point out that there is that whole concept of life thing (opposable thumb, use of tools, creation of the perfect martini) iow evidence that we do have inherant value over other species (will concede that we’re also capable of screwing things up mightily).
  2. Some would argue that many disabilities are in some way self inflicted (diabetics loosing limbs after life long poor eating habits, smokers loosing a lung due to lung cancer etc). From experience, many of the criminals who are repeat offenders have documented substance abuse issues leading to their criminal behavior. You can argue all you want about substance abuse being a self inflicted condition, but it is also a treatable one (and frankly unless you’re also arguing that any substance use would also diminish your worth in society, then the unlucky SOB who cannot use mood altering substances w/o addiction is then being punished for something outside their control).
  3. Harm is also another ‘eye of the beholder’ thing - after all the wretching I felt when hearing her harpy voice this am certainly caused me some moments of harm. trivial? sure. But then, that’s another scale o’ things ya know? Not all criminal behavior (for example) has a quantifiable amount of “harm” done (excepting that whole ‘costing $$ stuff’ - but then too, teh criminal justice system gives quite a number of folks jobs - hmmm does that benefit get weighed in???)
  4. Statute of limitations? on potential for change? I dunno that I’d agree w/your timeline. My dad was a righteous SOB for most of his life. Not criminal, but not particularly nice, either, including to those in his immediate family. His last years, however, he opened up, was still acerbic as hell, but much nicer to his family. Not that I"m arguing that dad shoulda been in prison or we shouldn’t imprison folks while waiting for this magical transformation).
  5. It is a big deal, and especially in how you framed your argument. After all you cited the amusement factor for other folks on message boards as a reason for value. Certainly the child who loves their mommy deserves no less than you afford yourself. as for what if he turns out to be a mass murderer - well my preference (no suprise) would be to lock him securely into a facility, perhaps attempt to discover why he ended up doing what he did, but never, ever let him out.

Shamelessly crossposted:

What I’m saying is more like, regardless of what Leadbelly did personally, his music, and the music he inspired and enabled after him, stands on its own as an absolute good. It’s a seperate entity, but one that could not be realized without the man himself. A conundrum, that something so perfect could come from someone so deeply and thoroughly flawed…but that’s the basic truth. We’re all flawed, and we all (well, most of us) have enormous potential that can usually be harvested…therefore, how do we judge? How do we say that the lazy asshole bum living off the government dole in NYC is absolutely worthless, and, in Dave’s words, should be shot?

We don’t. It’s ridiculous.

So does a blues riff in B make up for it? No. But that’s hardly the question. It’s not simple, because we have both things. He killed another person, but does that make him utterly worthless? Clearly not, since we have an enormous body of music called blues and rock and roll that may very well owe their existence as a worldwide cultural force to Leadbelly.

It’s not a simple issue.

Save the death threats, natch.

I DO feel human life has worth outside of what that particular human meant to other humans, which is why I’m so anti-murder. Do you (Dave, Eonwe, etc) think that someone’s death shouldn’t be avenged as much if they don’t have a family or friends? I think we have to decide what a “parasite” is. To me it’s someone who either 1. causes either physical or emotional injury to someone else or 2. contributes nothing to society without a compelling reason (i.e. disability) to do so, which causes indirect injury to the contributors. Is there anyone who really contributes nothing at all to society, not even in the form of being a good friend or a guy who keeps a tidy yard? I would still say that their life has value, but that the lives of the contributors are worth more. (And for all those saying the Katrina guy is depressed, cite? One can be lazy without being depressed, and personally, I didn’t see any signs of depression in that man. He seemed to have quite a high estimation of himself.)

And either Askia’s post was sarcastic or that is one of the most cold-blooded things I’ve read on this board, and that even includes Weirddave’s posts.

Hold on – I do not believe that we are talking about dangerous criminals here. We are talking about welfare cases.

Or are you saying that welfare cases should be executed for pre-crimes? I don’t think you are.

Let’s stay on-topic, folks!

Yeah, though I usually like Askia’s posts, that was a very strange one.

Well, for me, I don’t think that the consequences of murder should have anything to do with how beloved a person is precisely because on an institutional level that would have no meaning. I rankle at ‘victim statements’ in courts because it implies that a person’s life has an objective value related to how much he/she was liked.

As an individual I might have hundreds of friends who think I’m the bee’s knees. I don’t see why that should have anything to do with sentencing against my hypothetical murder.

My point is that you don’t know about a person’s potential to have an effect for good or bad later on, so arguing on the fact that ‘we don’t know about what may happen in the future’ seems to be a bit shaky.

And, to be clear, I’m not advocating executing folks on welfare; I’m just chiming in on the question of the inherent value of human life.

Without getting into the whole “should we execute social parasites” issue, I’ll just say that, no, human life has no inherent value. Neither does animal life, or plant life, or material things, or abstract concepts or anything at all. Nothing has any inherent value; things only have the value that we perceive them to have.

Gotcha. Thanks for clearing that up.

I’ll buy that. But if we are going to start killing citizens, we’d need some justification more than “He might do bad in the future.” NOT killing people should be the default, both for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons.

Like Amok, I don’t think anything has inherent value. Value is something that humans assign to something or someone.

That said, I think all life has value, even if only to serve as Askia’s buffer. But that doesn’t mean the value assigned to it has to be higher than that I would assign to dryer lint. Everybody’s mileage varies on this question, which is one of the reasons we have wars.

First, a note: if I got to choose between preventing the death of Leadbelly’s victim and giving the world his music, I’d almost certainly choose the former (unless, on finding out more about his victim, I decided the victim needed killin’–something pretty unlikely for me to conclude). However, that’s not a choice I or anyone else got to make: the choice was whether his victims death, plus his death, was more important than his victim’s death, plus his music. We don’t get to weigh the murder against the music; we only get to weigh the punishment against the music.

Second, I’ll reiterate what I said there: when we let the worthless die, we also let them deteriorate until the’ve got nothing left to lose. And when folks reach that state, violence becomes increasingly attractive to them, as they can see the tremendous status differential between them and other folks, and as they can see their own death looming. When we smooth out the status differential via a social safety net, we remove an incentive to violence; when we lift people from the ground, we give them something that they risk losing through antisocial behavior. It’s good public policy for the haves, even if they don’t care about the have-nots.


The OP presupposes that the species has value; it asks the questions do some individuals have none, or is value ‘inherent’ in any individual?

Starting from the pretext that the species as a whole has value, then humans have inherent value as individuals.

Humans’ species-long bet has been that it’s more likely to be good than bad. Based on our track record as a species, that seems to be a pretty good bet on average.