Mini-Feature: Do Actions Determine Personal Value?

Do all people have equal value regardless of their actions or is a person’s value based on their actions?

Value is one of those words that pushes people in the direction of making and accepting bad answers to good questions.

Of course, trivially so, is someone’s value dependent at least in part on their actions. People make themselves “useless” all the time, and their stock in all regards—economic, cultural, political, spiritual, etc.—tumbles accordingly.

But we also know and relish the facts that value is irreducible to use and worth is irreducible to value. Having a “useless” baby around the house is often (although, heh heh, not always) a great delight. We all have friends and family members whose inactivity, while sometimes annoying or troublesome, does not lessen their value to us, even in an instrumental sense.

And we all know people whose bad or counterproductive actions do not make us love or even need them less. In some cases their very errancy reminds us so deeply about ultimate things that we value them more highly than the reliably well-acting functionary or flunky.

It would appear best to say not that all people have equal value despite their actions, nor that their actions determine their value, but that nobody has equal value to us regardless of their actions. Yet this insight is hopelessly inapplicable to the basic questions of public morality and justice.

The ineffable mysteries of our relationships as we experience them in our secret hearts can’t possibly provide the ethical foundation for a political order, other than in the knowledge that they are this way, and that no political order can regularize, routinize, instrumentalize, or master them without in some way disfiguring us even more than we routinely disfigure ourselves and one another.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


Talking about people and "value" implies a question of evaluation and worth. It presumes that you have some plans to use them, either as a boss or king or manipulator. In this limited sense, then clearly some people are more valuable than others. 

For instance, if you run a grocery store and are hiring staff, then able-bodied strong people are more useful and valuable than others. A skilled and experienced butcher is more valuable than someone who doesn't know how to cut meat, and a cashier who can make change accurately is more valuable than someone who can't add correctly. You will hire and promote people according to their skills and commitment and pay them in accordance with their value to the enterprise. 

In a less utilitarian sense there's the ways in which we ascribe value to members of our immediate family or people we know. We tend to assign worth to people concentrically, starting with our own household, then neighborhood, and in broader overlapping circles of value corresponding to sectarian or national considerations. Look at how nations distribute their stores of the vaccine. Belying claims of universal care, foreigners are not given primary consideration in the vaccination queue—the principle is that all Americans have priority to American stores. 

There has been remarkably little opposition to this policy even from people who are ostensibly most committed to open borders and anti-nationalist thinking in other realms. Even our close neighbor and ally Canada, which is suffering a vaccine shortage, isn't getting on anyone's concern list. It's true that we are now sending some extra vaccine to India, which is suffering badly, but does anyone think we would be helping them out if domestic vaccine demand was higher than supply?

These are fairly simple and reductive way to look at the question, and it wouldn't get much argument from most people. But I suspect that the intention of the question is not to talk about relative value in an operational context, but to ponder the value of people in an absolute sense. Well, sure—from the perspective of eternity, we all have equal value. Which, depending on your theology, is binary—either all or nothing.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind


Value, like justice, is a relative term: value for what? For whom

The Latin word valēre means “to be strong, to be good [for or at something].” This comes into French as valoir, “to be worth,” and that is where we get our English word “value.” Questions of value are questions of worth. 

In certain contexts one’s actions very much affect one’s value. For example: if you build a lot of things, if you study taking things apart and putting them together for a long time, you increase your value as an engineer. All the things you have done before you approach a potential client affect your value at the moment of your being contracted: had you acted differently, you would have different value. 

Even in one’s personal life, one’s actions affect one’s value: one can have value as a lover, though it’s uncomfortable to put it that way. The choices you’ve made, the attention you’ve given to financial security, the things you’ve taken it upon yourself to learn: these things, too, make you more or less choice-worthy as a mate. 

But it’s interesting that none of this is the primary thing we mean when we talk about a person’s value. True, when we say someone is “value added” we mean he contributes worthwhile skills and attributes to a project or organization. But we sense that we have a kind of value that is more even than the sum of all our qualities and aptitudes. The questions are really: can that absolute value be quantified, and does it change? 

Our instinctive answers, which we most certainly inherit from Christianity, are “no” and “no.” We have seen (and are seeing) how appalling are the consequences of giving any other answer. We want to believe that human beings are totally worthwhile, and matter infinitely, regardless of their history—that whatever we've done, it is never too late to come home, to be forgiven and loved. Otherwise we are trapped in a hellish tablature of faults and merits past and present, according to which we may or may not be considered any good to anyone. None of us could get out of that kind of world unscathed.

In some final sense, then, we must all of us have inestimable and irreducible value. But...value to whom? Value for what? It is curious that we have this deep and inescapable intuition of possessing an absolute quantity of a relative attribute. For that intuition to be real, for our civilization to function, for any of our admirable moral aspirations to be more than pretty fantasy, there must be someone to whom we are all worth everything. I know who that someone is, and so do you. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind