Human Lives Have Intrinsic Worth

Eli Dourado writes, “If one accepts Tyler [Cowen]’s premises and his reasoning, one ought to accept his conclusions, even if they sit uncomfortably with one’s prior ideological preferences.”

As a philosopher, I could not agree more. I would, however, emphasize that this principle goes not only for Tyler’s reasoning but also for mine.

So, for instance, when Eli writes, “we should accept some level of commensurability among civilizations just as we do for individual lives (I agree with Tyler that we all do)” (emphasis mine), he conflates questions we ought to keep apart.

In an earlier post, I gave an (admittedly abbreviated—I am happy to expand on it!) argument as to why we should not accept commensurability, namely that human lives are not, in fact, commensurable. Those who are antecedently inclined to accept commensurability must either respond to that argument, denying the existence of human dignity, or revise what they are inclined to accept, even if the result sits uncomfortably with their prior ideological preferences.

As I see it, the argumentative issue is very simple:

C: We should spend less money on medical care for those with fewer years left to live (call them “time-poor”).

P: The lives of the time-poor are, as a matter of fact, worth less.

In Stubborn Attachments, Tyler presents P as the justification for C.

So if P is false, then that undermines Tyler’s assertion of C.

When Tyler writes, “life valuations perform an allocative function (where to spend money and how much?) and also an ‘advertising function,’ reflecting social values about human dignity,” he is presenting C (allocation) as though it has nothing to do with P (evaluation). But this is a way of jettisoning his own argument from P to C.

Because of course “social values about human dignity” are in fact simply common sense moral views about how to assess the value of a human life. These views are either true or false, and Tyler’s mode of argumentation (i.e., basing C on P—which, as I argued in another post, is not the only way to go!) prevents him from treating these as separate issues.

One way out of this tangle would be for Tyler and Eli to come out as Government House Utilitarians.(See this post) Perhaps when Tyler refers, throughout the book, to “common sense morality,” he classifies that among the useful beliefs (religion, faith etc.) that might give rise to more utility than direct attempts to maximize utility. If he is not prepared to use such beliefs to guide social policy, then what he thinks is that they are useful fictions; they are not just advertising or PR but false advertising or propaganda by which utilitarians cover their own tracks.

One problem with esotericism of this kind, or any other, is that its proponents are unwilling to come clean about what they believe. (That is, of course, the whole point.) Which is a shame, because if they would come clean, I could refute them. Easily, since I have the truth on my side: human lives do have intrinsic, incomparable worth.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.