Inherent Worth

Who (or what) has inherent worth and dignity? Only humans of my race? Only humans of my gender? Only humans of my nationality? All humans? All primates? All mammals? All vertebrates? All animals? All living things? All things?

Well, yes.

What is “inherent worth” anyway? Inherent worth contrasts with instrumental worth: something with only instrumental worth is valuable only as a means to an end; an entity with inherent worth is an end in itself.

On what grounds, then, can we say any being lacks inherent worth?

Vertebrates, nonhuman as well as human, are subjects of their own lives. They have a biography, not just a biology. They care about their own lives, have the capacity to experience pain and suffering, and can be harmed. Their lives can go better or worse for them. If human pain and suffering counts morally, then so does the pain of other vertebrates, and we should never cause them harm without a sufficient reason.
“The question is not Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?” (Jeremy Bentham)
Because they can suffer, and are subjects of their own lives, we cannot legitimately use then solely as instruments for our own purposes. The world is not a stockpile of resources for human exploitation.

All animals, including humans -- indeed, all lifeforms -- share a common biological ancestor. Advances in our scientific understanding have shown that neither rationality nor intelligence is uniquely human, nor is having language, nor is exhibiting morality. (Besides, as Bentham pointed out, these aren't the pertinent questions anyway.) The work of biologists and ethologists (Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Frans De Waal, and Jane Goodall, among many others), challenges us to expand our understanding of nonhuman animals’ amazing cognitive, emotional, and even moral capacities.

Humans are in some ways more advanced, or at least more complicated, than any other species when it comes to cognitive, linguistic, social, and moral capacities. These differences, however, are not morally relevant. First, they are differences of degree not of kind. Second, every species has its uniqueness. After all, humans cannot echo-locate like dolphins or bats, nor track scents like canines, nor photosynthesize like plants. Different beings aren’t better beings any more than different humans are better humans.

Can we not affirm, then, that “all beings have inherent worth and dignity”? This would not mean all beings have the same value or have equal worth. It simply says that even tapeworms, cockroaches, and dustmites have some worth that is inherent and not instrumental. Indeed, even plants and fungi warrant moral concern, for they, too, are integral parts of the interdependent web of life affirmed in the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle, as well as in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic:
“A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it...it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
The world into which we are born is much older, complex, and complete than we are. We are just beginning to understand the complex balance and intricacies of our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly realizing that the web of life as a whole has intrinsic, inherent value far beyond merely instrumental worth.

I'm not saying we are never justified in using some beings for our own vital needs. We are within our moral rights to eat carrots, cut down trees to build a house, or use antibiotics to cure an infection. Arne Naess, founder of the Deep Ecology Movement, acknowledges that
“any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.”
I'm not asking for an unrealistic praxis. We must harm to survive. I'm just urging that, along with our needs for instrumental use of other beings, we also recognize they have inherent worth. Let us expand our circle of moral concern and compassion. Let us celebrate the truth that we are members of the larger life community that has value in its own right. The beings of that community had value before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, and they still do now.

When our legitimate interests conflict with the interests of other beings, we must make difficult decisions. We face such difficult choices not merely when human interests conflict with other human interests, but also when human interests conflict with nonhuman interests.

When human interests conflict with interests of other beings, factors to be considered include:

1. Sentience (the ability to feel pains and pleasures.) Cows? Yes. Carrots? Probably not.

2. Consciousness (self-awareness). Conscious beings have a sense of self that persists over time and interests in how their lives go. Ten species so far have passed a particular (human-devised) self-awareness test (humans, orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants, and European magpies), but many others may also have a form of self-awareness.

3. Sociality. Social beings have more complex capacities for relationships and experiences. It means that a harm to a member of the society causes pain to other members. The death of a social being is occasioned by mourning among survivors.

4. The importance of the interest to the being who has it. Vital interests trump non-vital interests. The interests of beings with sentience, consciousness, and sociality count for a lot – but not all their interests are vital. The human interest in eating a cow, when alternatives are readily available, is a preferential taste. That interest would normally be outweighed by the cow’s interest as a sentient and somewhat conscious being.

Recognizing the inherent worth of all beings entails recognizing that the rest of nature has value which does not depend on what use humans can put it to. Spiritually, affirming that principle expands our circles of compassion by opening our hearts and our arms to embrace the more-than-human world in which we live.

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(Appreciation to Mark Causey, whose "Inherent Worth" essay [CLICK HERE] also makes most of these points, and at greater length. In particular, I'm indebted to Mark for the Leopold and Naess quotes and the factors to consider when human interests conflict with interests of other beings. Thanks, Mark!)

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See also other posts by Rev. Meredith Garmon related to animal issues. Click on title:
"Does 'Appeal to Nature' Justify Eating Meat?"
"The Spiritual Path of the First Principle"
"Expanding the Circle" (Sermon posted in 4 parts)
"Instead of Guilt" (Sermon posted in 4 parts)
"On Being Animal"
"Engaging Jennifer"


  1. Replies
    1. Bill: Sure. All things. Fetuses, unfertilized ova, sperm cells ("Every sperm is sacred," as the song says), liver cells, skin cells, dustmites, fungi, rocks, rivers, stars. And when interests conflict, use the four factors listed as a guide.