Two Fallacies Concerning the Value of Human Life

The migration crisis unfolding at present in the Mediterranean has thrown the political and social institutions of Europe into turmoil and revealed their inadequacy, in their present form, to deal with the realities of a world in rapid transition (1). Sooner or later, solutions of a pragmatic nature will have to be found to the issues of processing the thousands of migrants finding their way to Europe, policing the trafficking routes and addressing the political morass in the countries they are exiting. However, the crisis has also exposed a deeper, more fundamental issue: that of understanding and conceptualising the value of human life and, I believe, highlights two fallacies concerning this which are embedded in European culture and of which the responses manifested towards the plight of these people are symptomatic.

In European thought – that of the ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment and the Reformation – the value of human life is considered in the context of what can be called the good life. There would probably be almost universal agreement that many of the conditions of the good life are well understood: a secure supply of the essentials of life such as food and water, a secure territory and dwelling, family and friends, and some meaningful activity through which one’s own and that of the common good is secured. Beyond that things become more complicated. As society has developed, the sense of what is required for the good life has also become more complex, informing a concept of the good society. This includes such freedoms as the right to hold certain beliefs and to speak out and act in defence of them, expectations about health and lifespan, evaluation of worth based on quality and quantity of possessions, or the belief that we have the right to be respected, all of which are problematic and questionable to some degree.

Though the question of what constitutes the good life is one which is a source of ongoing discussion within philosophy, politics, psychology and sociology, there is nothing particularly contentious about the idea that happiness is an important parameter of the good life and the good society. The Greek philosophers gave much thought to the matter of what constituted happiness (eudaemonia – literally ‘in good spirits’). Aristotle proclaimed the cultivation of the virtues as the route to happiness, the virtues being the via media between opposite extremes, for example asceticism and gluttony, or cowardice and recklessness. One of the great fallacies of the present age, however, which has emerged from European humanism, is that a political calculus can be applied to the question of the value of life based on the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the so-called utilitarian principle (2). Yet it is such a calculation which is obvious in the hesitation with which the European leaders have grappled with the refugee crisis in their midst, balancing the humanitarian impulse of most people – and indeed enshrined in the European constitution – with the financial, political and demographic costs of absorbing this tide of humanity.

Yet there is an equally fallacious argument about human value which comes from the other end of the philosophical spectrum, which is that human beings have intrinsic value. On the surface it is admittedly an attractive proposition, that people have a value – and an equal value – simply because they are human, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what they do (or have done). Nevertheless, there are a number of objections to the idea of intrinsic value. I will concentrate on two related ones. First, there is a paradox at the heart of the concept: value arises in the relationship between consciousness and an object, in the discovery that there is something that can be positively affirmed in that relationship, but the idea of implicit value denies this, by claiming that value resides solely in the object, which means that the idea of ‘relationship’ itself becomes problematic rather than coherent. Secondly, the extension of this paradox into social theory means that there is no specific requirement for action based on free-willing on the part of the beheld that might generate value in the eyes of the beholder, nor any relationship between members of a society for them to be considered valuable members of that society. Insidiously, as this is essentially a dogma, this necessitates ethical decision being eliminated from the natural relationship between social actors and usurped by ideological elites, such as state religions and totalitarian governments. However, this is also manifested in ostensibly democratic societies when discussion of certain issues becomes politically taboo.

It is better to think of the value of human life as constructed along two axes, that of belonging and acting, both in terms of the value which we ascribe to ourselves and others and, reflexively, the esteem in which we are held by others and the wider society. Clearly we belong to ourselves, fundamentally if not exclusively, and our sense of uniqueness is the basis upon which we can empathetically identify the uniqueness of others, their value to themselves and others. But it is within social groupings that value is made manifest, both through belonging and the signs of association that that implies, but also through action for the common benefit of those with whom we are most closely associated, and the extension of that benefit into the more abstract ‘common good’, in areas of the economy and culture for example.

It is, of course, outrageous that the European nations fail to act adequately in rescuing those adrift at sea. Basic decency and humanity means the recognition that with the death of a single individual ‘an entire universe is extinguished’ (3). But the necessary action goes further than simply rescuing these people and then allowing them to live at the margins of society or in monocultural ghettoes. To believe that Europe embodies the ideal of the good society is to ensure that those rescued are given the means not only to attain the basic necessities of a good life but to embody European values as full participants. The status of refugees is closer to that of family, unlike economic migrants with whom there is – or should be – a contractual relationship, and the price of a closer belonging is a fuller participation, not just, or even primarily, in the economy but in the wider culture. Often too little has been given or too little demanded in this respect and both lead in the end to alienation from a common life.


1. Leader: ‘Europe’s boat people’; Briefing: ‘For those in peril’. The Economist (25/4/15), Vol 415, No 8935, p.9, pp.18-21.

2. There have been many critiques of Bentham and Mill’s Utilitarianism. The most persuasive, from the perspective advocated here, is that in aggregating human happiness it ignores the individual pursuit of happiness and national governments’ duty to provide at least the basis for the pursuit of the good life. From a similar perspective, Rawls critiques Utilitarianism for its sidestepping issues of justice. In response, a distinction is commonly made by some thinkers between Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy – as an explanation for moral choice – and Utilitarianism as a basis for social policy, which is in any case delimited by law.
-Jeremy Bentham (1781). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Batoche Books, Kitchener (2000), Online at:
-John Stuart Mill (1998). Crisp, Roger, ed. Utilitarianism. Oxford University Press.
-John Rawls (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

3. The ultimate source of the quotation is the Austrian inventor, writer and social theorist Joseph Popper-Lynkeus. It was used by the philosopher of science Karl Popper (no relation) in his repudiation of epiphenomenalism, a reductionistic theory of the mind, and his commitment to humanism.
-Karl Popper (1963). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge.


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