Human Value Isn’t What It Used to Be

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 04/22/2013

Alan’s monthly letter for March 2010

Dear Friend,

Why would an alcoholic father, strapped for cash, sell his son and daughter for $30? Why would pediatricians at the University Medical Center of Gronigen kill 20 disabled newborn children each year? Why is it legal in Oregon and Washington for your doctor to help you commit suicide? These acts of injustice are possible because of a subtle, yet profound shift in how we value human beings. Our culture is abandoning intrinsic value for instrumental value.

Something has intrinsic value if it has value in itself. Its value is inherent in virtue of the kind of being it is.

Human beings have intrinsic value for one reason: They are made in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

This verse implies two things. First, our worth is not based on what we can do or who we can become, but on who we are as an image bearer of God.

Second, our value as a human made in God’s image is not a degreed property. That means your value does not diminish if you lose your limbs, your physical abilities, or your mental faculties. Your value remains constant even if your contribution to society changes. It doesn’t even matter if you’re perceived by others—or even by yourself—as less valuable.

The concept of intrinsic value, instituted in the first few paragraphs of Genesis, has been the bedrock of Western Civilization for over 2,000 years. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Every human being has an equal amount of intrinsic value.

Unfortunately, the culture is shifting to an instrumental value system. Something has instrumental value when it’s a means to an end. It doesn’t have value in itself. Rather, it’s valuable because it can get you something else that has value.

For example, a lottery ticket has instrumental value. That paper you hold in your hand is not valuable on its own even though you bought it for a dollar. It’s valuable because it can get you something else that has value—the chance to win the lottery. Imagine your lottery numbers don’t match up to the winning numbers. Now, that very same piece of paper in your hand is worthless. It’s no longer worth one dollar because it lost its ability to give you a chance at winning the lottery. The ticket can be thrown away.

Unlike intrinsic value, instrumental value is a degreed property. You can have more or less of it. That’s bad news for people who are seen as only having instrumental value. As their value dwindles, it reaches a threshold where a person is no longer valuable. Some people refer to this scale as quality of life, especially in instances of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. When someone’s quality of life has dropped below a certain point, his life is not worth living.

Human trafficking, infanticide, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research and many other social injustices all have something in common: They treat human beings as having instrumental value. And when humans are treated this way, the strong prevail and the weak get discarded.

Human trafficking victims are valuable because they are a means to some other valuable end: Money, labor, or sex. Once they no longer deliver on these things, they’ve lost what makes them valuable and they can be thrown away.

Disabled newborns, according to some ethicists, can’t bring happiness to their parents. They’ve lost their instrumental value, which is why pediatricians in the Netherlands kill some of them.

The elderly are sometimes encouraged to kill themselves because they’ve lost their ability to drive, walk, and work. Many times they’re considered a “drain on society.” If the only value they had was instrumental and they’ve lost it, then they can be thrown away.

We’re dealing with a culture that increasingly values humans as means to other valuable ends. My training and outreach, especially in bioethics, will, God-willing, help reverse this trend.

I’m privileged to have you at my side to help me defend the weak, the devalued, and the defenseless. And no matter how little instrumental value they may have, their intrinsic worth as image bearers of God is more than we’ll know this side of the resurrection.

In defense of human life,

Alan Shlemon