THE SO-CALLED 'INTRINSIC VALUE' OR
'SANCTITY OF LIFE'
To say that something lives or is alive is one thing,
to say that it should live or be alive quite another. Now,
it does not seem to make sense to assert that things should live,
or be made into living beings, in a nontemporal sense,
because even if we knew what this were to mean exactly, we would
not have the power anyhow. But to say that living beings should
remain alive on the temporal view is a meaningful statement
which deserves further attention.
Those who claim this maintain that life or living beings have an
'intrinsic' --that is, noninstrumental,
nonderivative-- worth, that life is of supreme
value, or that it is sacred. If this is true, there is always
something against killing a living being, because on this schema
a dead thing is worthless. (If not, then the value of a dead thing is
based on a different principle, a principle which theoretically may
decrease or outweigh the value of life at the same time.) To
believe that living beings have a value merely as living beings
(a value nonliving beings do not have) is to adhere to an
independent or ultimate principle of life, whether it be labeled
"respect for living beings (but not for nonliving beings)", "the
supreme value of life", "the sanctity of life (but not of nonlife)"
or something similar. At this place we will only consider
identity-dependent interpretations of this principle.
On such interpretations individual living beings are, normatively
speaking, not replaceable by other living beings.
Taken literally, the traditional principle of life states
that (being a) living (being) is 'intrinsically' valuable,
whereas (being a) nonliving (being) is not. In the nontemporal
view of life this would mean that a virus has a worth if it is a
living organism, but that a molecule which is not a living organism
has no intrinsic worth, regardless of the question whether it is
more complex or not. And, according to such a principle of life
itself, no distinction can be made between a living organism
such as a bacterium and a living organism such as a human being.
Any difference in value between these two organisms must be
attributed to another factor and another principle. According to
that other principle nonliving beings have either no value at
all or they do. If they have no value at all on the basis of
that other principle, then the first principle (that of life) is
superfluous, and those talking about 'a supreme value' or
'sanctity of life' should let us know what principle they are
really thinking of. On the other hand, if nonliving beings have
a value too according to the hidden principle with which
different types of living beings are compared, then the principle
of life is, perhaps, not superfluous, but the theory it is
meant to support is in that case pitifully deprived of all
practical significance. The reason is simply that on balance
both nonliving and living beings have a value now. The question
remains what factor would determine the difference in value of
the different types of living and nonliving beings.
In the temporal view of life, a true principle of life
would make a life of permanent coma of equal value as the fully
conscious life of a person. It would entail that killing a
person were wrong, but not putting
'er body in a permanently
comatose state, since such a transition is only one between two
forms of living. The same applies to the comparison between a
fetus and a conscious, adult being. And again, should the
'ultimate lifer' object that fetuses and conscious, adult beings
and permanently comatose beings are all of intrinsic worth but
of a different intrinsic worth,
'e employs a different
principle, a principle which either makes the principle of life
superfluous or entirely vitiates it.
Combining the nontemporal and the temporal aspects of life,
someone who believes that the lives of fetuses and permanently
comatose beings have an intrinsic, nonderivative value must also
admit that the lives of plants have an intrinsic, nonderivative
value, and an equal value (as far as the principle of life is
concerned). On the principle of life in itself the life of a
plant is of the same value as the life of a human vegetable and
as the life of a conscious person. Consistence requires also
that the life of a virus is of intrinsic value, and of the same
intrinsic value as that of a fetus or spermatozoon which cannot
stay alive outside another living body or without artificial
means. Either all of them are living organisms or none is.
In an attempt to save the principle of life as an independent
principle it has been rejoined that it is not life in the
broadest sense but that it is really being conscious which is
intrinsically valuable. However, this amounts to a confession of
defeat, because what we are then talking about is a principle
of consciousness, not a principle of life anymore. For life
encompasses both conscious and nonconscious (including
unconscious) living beings.
But, for the sake of argument, let us say that this is only a
terminological question. And yet, if consciousness is mere
consciousness, then those who adhere to a principle of life as
consciousness must assign the same value to the 'lowest'
conscious living beings as to the 'highest' conscious person
-- lowest and highest to be
understood in the purely descriptive terms of some other factor than mere
In cases of conflict there would be no reason to give priority to
the one conscious being over the other. It would make no
difference whether to kill a lower or a higher, conscious being.
On the other hand, if the consciousness referred to in the formulation of
the principle admits of degrees, then --as has
already been pointed out-- certain nonhuman
animals may in a number of respects be more conscious than human beings.
It may then be worse to kill these animals than to kill conscious human
But even if this
supranthropic conclusion were accepted, why
would consciousness be an ultimate or perfective value, or a higher degree
of consciousness of a higher perfective value?
Not only is the latter view
extremist, but if consciousness
is a matter of the presence and acuity of different senses, one would
expect it to be of instrumental value.
(On this reckoning the charge of
extremism could no longer be
When talking of "a principle of life" or "consciousness", however,
this principle is presented as a fundamental principle, not as
some derivative principle, and the value of life or consciousness
as an (ultimate) perfective value, not as some derivative
(Note that a derivative value may be either a single nonultimate or
nonperfective value or a value derived from a blend of
perfective and corrective or
In another attempt at saving the principle of life, it has been
claimed that it is being human which is intrinsically valuable.
Such a principle of human life is of course blatant
anthropocentrism, one of the
manifestations of exclusivism.
If, and insofar as, human refers merely to a biological
species, the principle does not deserve our further attention,
but what if it is person which is meant in a sense different
from that of human being? Those adhering to such a principle
of personal life may define person as self-conscious
or self-aware being. Such a being is aware of itself as an
individual, distinct from other entities in the world, and
--as has been added--
it must also be aware that it exists over a
period of time. On this account certain nonhuman animals can be
'persons', whereas, for example, human vegetables are not. The
category of living beings which are of 'intrinsic' worth would
be much smaller than that of conscious beings and there would be
no differentiation between self-conscious beings. This principle
of self-consciousness hardly resembles the original, genuine
principle of life anymore. That is why it does not suffer from
the defaults of a belief in the intrinsic, ultimate value or
sanctity of all life as life. Nonetheless, the question remains why
self-awareness would be of any noninstrumental, nonderivative
worth. Has the sanctity of human life, perhaps, merely been
replaced with the sanctity of self-awareness to better accommodate
the needs of self-conscious human beings who do not want to be
accused of speciesism?
substitution may be an improvement, the relevance of the distinction
between beings which are self-aware and those which are not, cannot be
made plausible in this context.
(There are also people who, enchanted by the idea of immortal souls, may
suggest that it is the life of a being with an immortal soul which is
But in questions of killing it is the 'mortal' life which is at stake and
therefore it should rather be the killing of beings without an
immortal soul which is wrong in the first place.
Such a consistent scheme is not what these supernaturalists envisage,
however, because for them it is exclusively or particularly the killing of
the bodies of human beings which is wrong, even tho they are claimed to
have souls which survive every killing.)
In short, our conclusion is that it is vital to the cogency of
the DNI that we forget about a
separate, fundamental principle of life altogether.
And we have, then, even not yet discussed the actual conduct and historical
record of those who have always so religiously preached on the sanctity
of life or, more narrowly, on the sanctity of human life.
Such a discussion may not be appropriate in philosophy, it is certainly
appropriate in the field of
comprehensive ideology where it
is not so much theories without any individual or social commitment but