There is a nagging concern to this approach because if all individuals have inherent worth, how then are we to apply ethical principles or make moral decisions if all lives have worth, and especially if they have equal worth?
I answer this in part by inviting one to imagine life on another planet that does not have humans. We would travel to such a place and as an impartial observer would find delight in the very smallest of microbes up to the most complicated social being. All would be a marvel to us and we would experience reverence and awe that there existed life at all outside of earth with no enmeshment with human concerns. We would be hard pressed to deny that each and every individual has inherent worth, for we could not easily discern the reasons to say this collection of molecules and processes has worth, and another not, or that some have more worth than others. Then imagine that we humans will colonize the planet. Once we enter the mix a strange phenomenon occurs. We wish to strip away the worth from individuals because we know that they might have a negative impact on our life, or because we desire to use them instrumentally for our own benefit. Perhaps we do this because we desire to act in ways consistent with our values, and desire principles to guide our actions and to simplify our lives. Surely a being must have less worth if we use them, objectify them, and even harm them. If they did not have less worth, then how could we ever justify what we do to them?
This other planet is our planet Earth, and we have colonized it, not from arriving from outer space but by evolving. When, on our path from one celled organism, to small rodent like mammal to hominid did the world suddenly and fundamentally change so that other beings did not have inherent worth? What did alter was that we became increasingly aware of how we valued others, and wished to communicate this with others of our kind so that we could build communities where life could prosper, mostly of the human kind. We need to keep on this path of understanding how we communicate value so that life of all kinds has the best chance to prosper.
For that aim I suggest adding to our vocabulary when we talk about the Unitarian Universalist principles the concept of intrinsic value and extrinsic value. Both of these terms denote value that comes through a human filter, as opposed to inherent value which exists whether we are on the planet or not. Intrinsic in the Merriam Online Dictionary means "belonging to the essential nature of a thing : occurring as a natural part of something." Intrinsic value then means value that derives from the nature of an individual, and can differ based on their experiences, particular genetics, and cultural influences (flock, herd, ecosystem influences). We might then describe the intrinsic value of chimpanzees and whales as being quite different than that of amoebas or dust mites because of the differences in their subjective experience, and mode of operating and relationships within the web of life. It is we humans who characterize this intrinsic value.
We also characterize extrinsic value, which assigns value based on whether something is good for something else. For instance, we might say dogs have extrinsic value because they are good for humans. As social predators they help us hunt and guard our homes, and have a number of genetic adaptations that make them particularly good companions for humans. Dogs are good because they are good for us (extrinsic value) and also because they are well, just dogs (intrinsic value). Extrinsic value gives us room to say that not all dogs are good, and that dust mites are bad because they are not good for humans. These things we may need to say so we can know how to manage our lives around dogs that trouble us by biting and chasing, and mites to which our children are allergic.
It is to the realm of ethics then that we assign intrinsic and extrinsic value, for we humans will always seek ways of thinking to explain, rationalize, and guide our behavior. There is a deeper understanding, however, that does not hinge on what we would make of life, and that is inherent worth. It is a transcendental claim on our part. We cannot explain it (as much as I have tried in this blog!), master it, or harness it for our own use, much as we cannot define God. Inherent worth is that which calls us beyond our human imaginings, projections, and limitations into a world of mystery, reverence, beauty and awe. It is a compelling invitation to live humbly and to walk in all the ways of love along a path forward we have yet to discern, but for which we long. As part of the First Principle, inherent worth makes explicit our vision of a world not yet obtained, but worth striving for, worth covenanting for. For as we check our assumptions and ego rationalizations against a wondrous existence, we enter the undiscovered country where we and the many others may live well.
Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM
First Principle Project Facilitator