Today we bring into our documents section another article from "Pensamiento provida", presented in the First PWC (Madrid, 2003). It is an article worth to read and reconsider now. Presently, 5 years later, we prolife advocates keep falling into the trap that Richard Stith warned us about in this essay: talking about the great "value of human life". We should reject that expression, and propose instead "respect for human life". 





Richard Stith  J.D. (Yale), Ph.D. (Yale)

Professor of Law

Valparaiso University School of Law

Valparaiso, Indiana 46383-6493, USA

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Pro-life World Congress

Madrid, 6-8 November 2003



In this essay, we notice that the absolute priority of persons, the unbridgeable gap between persons and mere things, corresponds to a special sort of moral and legal treatment for persons, namely, as irreplaceable individuals. Normative language that erroneously conflates the category of person with fungible kinds of being can lead to disastrous results--to abortion, euthanasia, and other forms of killing. Such lethal consequences may result, for example, from a common but improper extension of the word “value” to persons.  The attitude and act called “respect” brings forth much more adequately the distinctively individual priority of persons, allowing our common humanity to be a reason for each person's separate significance.

Unless we pro-life advocates focus on the inherent respect-worthiness of human life, rather than only on its value, we will not be able to argue coherently against those who seek to kill human individuals.



Human beings and the things that are good for human beings are very different, yet we often group them together.  For example, people may use the word “value” and argue that human beings have value.  We also say that things have value. But using the same term for human beings and for things may be a very serious mistake.

Inviolable Subjects, Fungible Objects


Law exists for the benefit of human beings.  The goal of law is to produce and preserve whatever is of benefit (or of “value”) for human beings.  Human beings themselves are thus not a result of law, but its starting point.  The individuals who form our community are not an end nor a means, but a beginning.  Since these individuals are a given, the law need not ask whether they are of value.  Law needs to ask only “What is of value for them?”  Human beings generate our legal values.  They are the sources from which we understand what is valuable and what is not valuable.  The logic of law does not include a decision about whether they themselves are valuable. 

Why is this important?  It is important because, in the structure of political thought, things that are merely valued are fungible, replaceable, substitutable.  Things are not inviolable.  For example, since shelter is of value for people, the law should facilitate the construction and conservation of housing.  But particular houses do not thereby become inviolable, for houses can be torn down and new ones built without going against the aim and value of shelter.

However, the human beings with which the law begins are not fungible but rather are inviolable.  They have individual dignity in a stronger way than can ever be possessed by things of value.  We can never purposely sacrifice some of our neighbors, even in a good cause, because it is only the givenness of our neighbors which tells which causes are good.  Human beings are not so much to be valued as to be sources of value.  Even when they are not themselves of value, they tell us what is of value.

Valuing Life Equals Valuing People

Nevertheless, contemporary discourse often erroneously lumps people and things together and says that people, too, are of “value”.  Sometimes this is said directly — for example, in the frequent pro-life claim that each of us is infinitely valuable. More often it is said indirectly, by making the claim that someone’s “life” has greater or lesser value.  But, in this world, existence and organic life are the same thing. Hamlet said it well: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” To say that Hamlet is alive is simply to say that he is, that he exists. If Hamlet’s life no longer has value, then his existence has no value and he himself has no value.

Dangers in Valuing People

The concept of value can be very dangerous to vulnerable people.  For example, suppose we say that killing is wrong because human beings have great value. Our pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia opponents may remind us that there are times when additional human beings and more life do not, in fact, have much value even for us. Our families and nations may decide at some point that they do not wish an ever-expanding membership.  And a few additional weeks or months of life may not seem to us to have enough value to justify an “extraordinary” or “heroic” heart operation in a dying person.  If only life’s value were at stake, our anti-life opponents could argue that the deliberate killing of low-valued babies, or of dying persons for whom an extension of life would have low value, would be justified whenever necessary to avoid high future costs.

Even when something has a very high value, it does not thereby become inviolable. Corvette car collectors may well cannibalize some vehicles to keep others going. If the price of sheep skyrockets, a sheep owner will be more, not less, ready to kill infertile ewes. Similarly, even if we believe human beings have infinite value, we could be led to kill.  For example, if two siblings would die unless a third were killed for his organs, our opponents could well argue that the high value of life itself demands that he be killed.  (One counter-argument would be that the organ transplant would result in no net gain, in that one infinity is much as two infinities.  But then there would be nothing wrong with killing two or fifty to save one, since an infinity of value would still remain.  Either way, even infinite value does not stop killing.)

Instances of What We Value Are Replaceable

In order to claim that intentionally killing a particular individual is wrong, even when the killing may save more than one other life, we need to explain why the individual matters. The problem with saying every human being has value, even infinite value, is that such value talk speaks only in generalities. It does not explain why individuals  No amount of "valuing of human beings" can do this because particular instances of things of value are always fungible.  People don't need a particular house for shelter; they only need some house. matter.

Saying that every human is valuable because she is unique would not solve this problem.  Unique beings are the same in being unique.  Why not kill one unique human being if we can thereby save (or generate) two (or more) other equally unique persons?

Nor could we escape our conundrum by claiming that we do not really value human beings but rather Jerry, Mary and Martha. We would not have explained our reluctance to kill strangers, people of whom we know nothing except that they are human beings.

The Fundamental Problem

We need to explain how what we have in common can make us matter as individuals, how that in which we are the same—our humanity—can ground our separate significance.

Respect Defers To Every Individual

We need a word and an attitude that can express the individual dignity that most of us perceive, and that is the starting point of law.  This attitude should treat people not as things of value but as sources of value; not as ends or means, but as beginnings.  One such word and attitude is “respect”.  (Another would be “reverence".)

The idea of respect is not so much to produce or preserve its object as to acknowledge and defer to its object, to let it be.  Because we must step back before that which we respect, we must step back before every individual instance of that which we respect. We cannot leave something alone without leaving every part of it alone.Respecting humanity thus requires treating human beings as individually inviolable in a way that valuing humanity does not and cannot. Our fundamental problem is solved: Each individual has significance as an instance of the humanity we share. In recognizing our individual inviolability, respect matches up better than valuing both with our moral intuitions and with the political theory with which we started.

Practical Implications of Respect

We can now avoid the ominous contradictions encountered earlier in this paper.  How can we sometimes omit producing more children and yet never consider a lethal act aimed at killing them once they are conceived?  Obviously, in such a situation we do not highly value additional human beings, but we still respect them once they exist.  Why do we not expend extraordinary effort in keeping someone alive a little longer, and yet refuse to kill him?  We may simply think that our costly efforts confer insufficient benefit.  This does not mean that he has become an obstacle that we aim to remove from the world.

We ought not turn against those who seem to lack value, even all value, for they retain their human nature and the respect thereby demanded.  A person who "vegetates" is a person who vegetates. Only thus is his condition tragic. If he had somehow changed his nature and had really become a vegetable, he would no longer be pitied. We do not pity grapevines.

To sum up: unless we pro-life advocates focus on the inherent respect-worthiness of human life, rather than only on its value, we will not be able to argue coherently against those who seek to kill individual human beings.


[For a more detailed presentation of these ideas, see On Death and Dworkin, 56 MARYLAND LAW REVIEW 289-383 (1997) and The Priority of Persons, INTERNATIONAL PHILOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY (2004).Vol. 44, No. 2, Issue 174 (June 2004) .]