How much are you worth? That depends on who is paying the bill. A chemist could get about 50 dollars out of your body (though the cost of extracting the chemicals would be prohibitive). Airlines value a person at about two-and-a-half million, for insurance purposes. Your employer assigns you a value in the form of the salary and benefits package he provides.
The seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes stated bluntly that a person’s worth was equal to the amount society was willing to pay for what he can do. “The ‘value’ or ‘worth’ of a man,” said Hobbes, “is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power.”
Using an economic scale to gauge human worth has a long history. It is, I think, the way Americans routinely assess worth, but it is hardly the only way. If I give my time to someone, I am making a statement about that person’s worth. Listening is a powerful expression of another’s worth. Even the exercise of good manners makes a statement about the value of those with whom one comes in contact.
But in America, it is hard for us to escape the idea that a person’s value is tied to his wage or, as Hobbes put it, “his price.” This way of thinking shows itself in the ongoing debate about raising the minimum wage. It is a hotly contested and complex debate and both sides make important points. Yet it seems to me they both begin with the assumption that a person’s worth is primarily instrumental – that is, tied to his usefulness – rather than intrinsic.
I believe that assumption to be false and harmful. False because it mistakenly regards society as the final authority on human worth and harmful because it leads the wealthy to disregard the poor and the poor to discredit themselves. Worse, because it measures worth in terms of production, it sees the unborn, the elderly and the mentally challenged as lacking value.
The national disgrace of 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade is evidence that some Americans do not value the unproductive (and potentially costly) unborn. The growing number of states in which assisted suicide is legal suggests that Americans increasingly devalue the aged and infirm. Or it might be that the aged and infirm, rooted in a Hobbesian appraisal of value, believe themselves to be without worth.
One can easily imagine a chronic sufferer in Oregon deciding to commit suicide not because he wants to die – he really doesn’t – but because he doesn’t want to make his family pay (in time and money) for a life which he has been taught is without value. And it is frightfully easy to imagine people who subtly communicate that assessment to their aging family member.
To assign individual worth on the basis of usefulness is to regard people merely as a means to an end. As such, they cannot be the objects of love but only the instruments of advancement. Are there no grounds upon which we can say that every person is valuable?
There are grounds for affirming the worth of every human being, but they are mostly hallowed grounds – that is, religious – and society is reluctant to stand on them. Most religions consider human life sacred, though some only reluctantly ascribe worth to those outside their creed. The one with which I am most familiar, Christianity, assigns great value to all human life, Christian or otherwise.
The basis for this assessment does not lie with society’s appraisal of human life, but with God’s. He values human life as its creator and guardian, but also as its redeemer. So the apostle Peter writes, “…it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you … but with the precious blood of Christ.” As humanity’s creator, God alone has the right to assign a value to human life, and he set it as high as is possible. That means you are worth more than you think – much more.
Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, August 23, 2014