What Gives A Person Value?

There are several ways to appreciate a person. People have many different ways that they can make a positive impact, either to an individual, or to society as a whole. To add value to existence.

Some individuals are titans of industry, creating jobs and wealth. Some are scientists, advancing our knowledge of the unknown. Still others are good friends, or good parents, or good neighbors. And, of course, it is possible to be more than one at the same time.

Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where Lee and Michael discuss this question: ‘What gives a person value?’ We also discuss another question as well, ‘What makes you you?’

Of course, different people appreciate different things in others. To one person, punctuality might be a valuable trait, but to another it is unimportant.

What about you? What do you think gives a person value? Is one person more valuable than another? What makes them so? Is there a difference between value to an individual versus to society?

However, there is also the idea of negative value. Some people might take more from others or from society than they provide in return. They might steal, or be selfish, or harm others in some way.

Is there a point at which the value of an individual drops to zero? Or does everyone, no matter how bad, have some value? What does our societal institutions, like the law, our government, and religion have to say about human value?

Related questions: How do you define success? What are our responsibilities to others? What makes a community? How do you judge yourself?

15 thoughts on “What Gives A Person Value?”

  1. I’m going to first answer this question by sharing what I think would make me the most valuable to others. I want to proactively bring the following virtues to my relationships: accountability, curiosity, dependability, empathy, gratitude, honesty, humor, joy, kindness, sincerity, and trustworthiness. Now, as to what I look for in others, I would like to be surrounded by people who care and show respect for one another, who are intellectually curious, adventurous, and fun.

    1. I should note that I think nearly all humans have value. Most, I presume, would agree. That said, those are really empty words. What are we doing — what am I doing — to show value in the millions of those living and dying in refugee camps; or those dying of starvation, often because of political strife in their countries? A bit closer to home, we don’t value everyone equally. What of the homeless? Or children whose lives we devalue by letting poverty’s impacts stunt their development?

      1. Michael, your words “nearly all humans have value” got me thinking. I believe all humans, by definition, have value. But then what about people like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and their supporters and enablers, and those who looked the other way? I’m against capital punishment, but I’d like to see more war criminals brought to justice – people like Assad in Syria an, perhaps Putin, the people responsible for the situation in Yemen, the Rohingyan refugees from Myanmar, the corrupt governments in Central America, etc. etc. So what can we do? Support Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations that investigate and report crimes against humanity? Maybe you and others have some ideas on things we can do. By the way, thanks to Lee and EMG for teaching me about the social credit scoring program in China. I had no idea!

        1. Tom: I have no idea what to do about war criminals, “leaders” starving some of their “subjects” for political gains, etc. What I do know, as I noted above, is that I am often saddened that we turn a blind eye to the injustices like those you raise. Nationalism allows us to say it’s not our worry. But if we only need worry about those living within our borders, doesn’t that cheapen the claim that all humans have value? Or, more truthfully, doesn’t it just prove that we use borders — and other excuses — to say that some people are more valuable than others?

          1. Michael, your comment about borders reminds me of one of my favorite stories from the bible – about the Good Samaritan. It didn’t matter to him that Jews despised Samaritans. He saw someone in need, and he went out of his way to help him.

  2. This seems to border on a utilitarian calculus — “value” based on an assessment of what someone puts in, or takes out, of the social body. One must tread lightly lest one conflate the individual with an illusory “collective” comprised of individual human beings, as if the latter depended upon the former, or vice versa. They are incommensurate. Useful as a thought experiment, perhaps, but unworkable in reality when dealing with singular instances of human life and consciousness.

    There is no zero point with human life; you cannot measure the human soul, or character, or *being* itself with an instrument designed to measure the well-being of a *set* of individuals. The individual elements of a set are not the set in toto, yet without them, that set would not exist. Perhaps this is something of a paradox. Yet time and again we make the mistake of equating the two, usually placing the set’s integrity over that of its elements, forgetting that it is only the individual himself or herself who makes that set even possible to postulate. Human consciousness is all we have.

    Furthermore, character, virtue, vice, honor, respect: these are all terms that resist financialization, assessment using metrics, or any of the other modern management techniques of net positive/negative, gain/loss, et alia. The spurious use of rationality-cum-scientific managerialism now threatens to wrest democratic control of our institutions away from the people, and into the hands of elites who will, in future, be the arbiters of such calculation and decide who does, or does not, deserve to be incorporated or expelled from the political community. To provide one example: the rise of the social credit score in China. I would urge anyone who reads this to think deeply about the fact that this will soon come to the United States, and what it will mean to those without work, with disabilities, who are old, frail, and abandoned, and who are indeed — in the calculus of the utilitarian — net losses for the polis. How will you defend them when faced with the cold, bottom-line scientific estimation of their worth that comes from those in power? Scientists are no better equipped than a poet or theologian or artist or coffee barista to make determinations of “value,” other than having a talent for mathematics and a superior understanding of physics or the human anatomy or chemistry, to name a few examples.

    I am very worried about this train of thought becoming a de facto religion in the West. And that is what it is, despite the shield of “rationality” under which it advances. The introduction of value into our common linguistic discourse by John Dewey and his disciples has led to the bureaucratic and totalitarian monstrosities of the 20th century, and those who use it do not understand the historical end-point of this path. One is free to assign values to matter — we do it all the time with objects, with land, with pieces of paper called currency — but it must not be applied to to the human being. After all, who is the one making the value assessment? We are. And we are all guilty. As Hamlet said:

    “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in.”

    1. I’ve watched the introduction of the “social credit score” in China with equal parts fascination and revulsion, and I agree that reducing a human being’s contribution to a single number is an act of simplifying to the point of losing any useful information. I certainly don’t want it adopted outside of China (or inside of China for that matter, although that ship has already sailed).

      And yet, I wonder about your assertion that “character, virtue, vice, honor, respect” are things that can’t be measured. These things certainly exist, and they are called upon frequently in our culture. It seems to me that we have some sort of innate understanding of what each of these concepts mean and how to measure them. The problem is, each person has their own personal formula, and different formulae means that, in effect, we are all speaking our own distinct language.

      And that’s the nub of the problem when talking about an abstract concept like “value”: what you mean when you use the word, and what I mean when I use the word, are different. And I assume you mean what I mean (which is incorrect), and you assume that I mean what you mean (also incorrect).

      [Note: the “you” in this case is an abstract other, and not you specifically, of course.]

  3. On an individual basis it is natural to place a higher value on those we love.

    On a general basis though, I believe value in an individual is based on how that person values others. If one cheapens the lives of others they devalue themselves. If one sees others as less valuable or inferior because of their race, physical appearance, financial stability, mental/emotional issues, physical disabilities etc…etc.. then they end up making themselves less valuable/inferior.
    Human life is valuable and sacred, simply because it is human life.

    I am reminded of the scripture found at Matthew 10:29-30
    “Two sparrows sell for a coin of small value, do they not? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So have no fear; you are worth more than many sparrows. “

    1. Great comment, Cecily. Thanks! I totally agree with your comment “if one cheapens the lives of others they devalue themselves.”

  4. Thinking about my own experience, I’ve served others both in a one-on-one capacity, visiting sick and home-bound individuals, and also in groups. I’ve also tried to leverage my efforts by working for justice in my community and beyond. Our world needs both charity and justice. As Pope Paul VI said, “if you want peace, work for justice.” My bottom line is the Great Commandment: Love God, neighbor, and self. This can be difficult, but when we do that, good things happen.

    Many years ago, I read a book by Henri Nouwen called “The Wounded Healer”. It convinced me not to wait until my life was in order, or until I was “good enough” to start serving others. Part of being human is being imperfect, or “wounded”. We’ll never get it all together, so let’s start now.

    Questions or comments?

    1. I am exploring Christianity at this time and came across a church whose outreach is specifically for college students, Gracepoint Church that originated in Berkeley, CA led by Pastor Ed Kang and his wife Kelly Kang. (their website & online sermons at https://www.gracepointonline.org/)

      In a sermon about Genesis 4, Pastor Ed seemed to heavily emphasize on
      1) importance of boundaries in preventing sin

      2) God disapproving of Cain’s children being accomplished in many fields eg metallurgy etc (whereas when I searched up anything about Cain’s children, the only thing that comes up, is the story of Cain & Abel —which begs the question, is this overt manipulation of the young minds? overblowing lines in the Bible)

      3) one should not strive to achieve with ones talents and creativity, if not for serving God. And that values passed from generation to generation, when it turns one into just caring for the next generation, is meaningless.

      The following is a brief snippets of the transcription, where myself as a parent of a child still actively involved in this church felt attacked — parental love pitted against Jesus’ love.

      Sermon begins at minute 04:23
      MINUTE 25:54 begins about family”A sinful man tends to be quite productive, even impressive..
      26:19 (Cain’s only inspiration..nothing except his family..)

      That’s all he has. It’s all about pouring into the next generation.

      Nothing wrong with that, of course. We are meant to love our family for sure.

      But family love is an odd thing.

      It is reserved only for your family. Like a mother’s love for the child.

      It is only uniquely for that child.

      The greatness of a mother’s love for child could actually mean hostility toward other children.

      Because of your intense love for your child, any other child that would compete with your child,

      becomes an enemy. Becomes a competitor.

      Is there something that transcends that? That transcends the family?Something that is greater?

      I think for the godless, it is hard to find a greater purpose than just family.

      MINUTE 28:14..Families after a while tend to be stifling, maybe places of dysfunction…

      For those who either would like the full audio transcript of Pastor Ed Kang’s sermon:


  5. p.s. After submitting my earlier response, I came across this on a holiday card we received. It’s an example of how God multiplies our service: “Because of you, our teams were able to push past exceptional odds and provide lifesaving care to millions of people in crisis.” – Jason Cone, Executive Director, Doctors Without Borders, USA.

  6. What we “value” in others or in ourselves will vary greatly from person to person based on our unique experiences and ethics.
    We can make alot of judgments how others behave, or even what they believe.
    That does not negate the importance or the value of anyone.
    We have value simply because we are.
    We all are useful to someone. At home, work, even to the stranger who we may hold a door for.
    On the road when you use your blinker. (To over simplify). You can put value on almost every single thing you do out of simple respect in society.
    I wasn’t feeling very valuable today. This was the perfect question for me to ponder…
    My word for today at work was ethics… Don’t forget to validate your own ethics.
    Their valuable.
    I’m valued because of my strong interest in maintaining my ethical values.

    1. Cori, I agree, especially with “we have value simply because we are”, and “on the road when you use your blinker.” Thanks for your comment.

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