A Secular Argument for Intrinsic Human Value

I’m skeptical of the possibility of convincing people who don’t believe in God that human beings have intrinsic value (see “Atheism and Universal Human Rights” for more on why I’m skeptical). But Wesley J. Smith keeps insisting it’s possible, and I can’t help but hope he’s right when he says things like this:

Happily, human exceptionalism does not require belief in a transcendent God, or indeed, spiritual allusions of any kind if we understand that what matters morally is not the capacities of the individual—which, after all, are transitory—but our intrinsic natures as human beings—which are innate.

If we can convince people our value comes not from the abilities we’re expressing at a particular moment in time but from the kind of being we are—and that’s a big “if” that Smith doesn’t make a case for in his following argument, though you can read an argument for it here—then a case for universal intrinsic human value can be made.

From Wesley J. Smith’s “More than ‘In God’s Image’”:

[A]s recent headlines about Planned Parenthood and the push for assisted suicide demonstrate, now is the time to defend intrinsic human value….

A belief in human exceptionalism…does not depend on religious faith. Whether we were created by God, came into being through blind evolution, or were intelligently designed, the importance of human existence can and should be supported by the rational examination of the differences between us and all other known life forms.

After all, what other species in known history has had the wondrous capacities of human beings? What other species has been able to (at least partially) control nature instead of being controlled by it? What other species builds civilizations, records history, creates art, makes music, thinks abstractly, communicates in language, envisions and fabricates machinery, improves life through science and engineering, or explores the deeper truths found in philosophy and religion? What other species has true freedom? Not one….

Perhaps the most important distinction between the fauna and us is our moral agency. The sow that permits the runt of her litter to starve is not a negligent parent, but a human mother doing the same would be branded a monster. The feline that plays with a fallen baby bird before consuming it is not being sadistic; she is acting like a cat! But any human who tortures an animal is rightly seen as pathological. 

Read the rest of his article here.

Amy K. Hall

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