In today’s world, human life is often accorded only an instrumental value. That is, if a human being is not (or no longer) seen as useful to society—or is seen as an obstacle to others—then it is considered morally permissible to end the individual’s life, as in, for example, abortion or euthanasia.
In traditional religious thinking, human life is thought to have intrinsic value, which means that human beings are held to be valuable in principle, whether or not they are perceived as useful. Intrinsic and instrumental value are considered to be at odds with each other.
But is it mathematically possible to claim that all human life has intrinsic and instrumental value? It seems at first sight that such a claim is impossible to maintain. A person in a vegetative state or otherwise irreparably handicapped can in no way provide useful labor. Thus the phrase “instrinsic instrumental value” seems like an oxymoron. If value is based on usefulness, how can it be intrinsic?
First, we need to identify a basis for instrumental value. A ready basis is money. Presumably, if human beings are producing something that they are paid for, they are doing something of value, and they thus possess instrumental value. Of course, that does not mean that everyone who is making money is doing something of value. What if a person is paid to dig holes and fill them in again? A counterfeiter is by definition decreasing the value of money value by criminal activity. The thing to note is that, while money can indicate value, it is not by itself a source of value. Money is merely a tally mark of value.
This problem raises the question, what creates the value being measured? We value many things but in every situation where money changes hands, there is a common element: The common element is some degree of human ingenuity. It may simply be labor, which has gone into acquiring and/or producing a good or service that another human considers valuable enough to purchase. Another way to describe the human ingenuity is that it creates something new. So, the source of value is the human ability to create something new.
The technologist’s dream is to mechanize innovation, the ability to create “newness.” This dreams fuels the concerns we hear about machines eliminating most jobs. However, as many articles here at Mind matters point out, that dream is impossible because machines can never create anything new. Humanity has a unique ability to create. We can say that creativity is intrinsic to humanity.
Creativity has significant implications as the engine of our economy. First and foremost, it means that the only way to power our economy is through people. That makes the case for the intrinsic instrumental value of humanity. It also has a second order effect. What about humans who currently cannot be creative or have impaired creativity, like infants, the disabled or people who are asleep? Do they cease to be valuable because they are not currently creative?
Because creativity is unique to humans and irreducible, all human beings have the ability in principle. The fact that a particular human being’s creativity is not in use or is perhaps unusable at present does not mean that that person does not have the ability. Consequently, all humans have at least latent intrinsic instrumental value.
A final question: Suppose a human being’s valuable capability cannot be exercised, does that human being still have instrumental value? Consider the person reasonably believed to be in a permanent vegetative state. The answer, suprisingly, is still yes.
Based on the principle that the cause must be greater than the effects, the creative spark that resides in all humans—and is the source of all the value we generate—must itself be recognized as even more valuable than its effects. So, insofar as we derive value from human creativity, we must ascribe even greater value to the creative principle itself. And the creative principle, as we just proved, resides in all human beings.
The counterintuitive result is that even if a human being is completely incapable of exercising the creative spark, the human being must herself be considered more valuable than anything she may have created and her life must be protected even if she cannot do anything.
Eric Holloway has a Ph.D. in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. He is a current Captain in the United States Air Force where he served in the US and Afghanistan He is the co-editor of the book Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies. Dr. Holloway is an Associate Fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.
Also by Eric Holloway: Will artificial intelligence design artificial super-intelligence?
Human intelligence as a halting oracle