By: Joe Pettit
Where does the worth of a person come from? To be clear, I do not mean any kind of monetary, or economic worth. I mean a worth that indicates a value and dignity for which economic comparisons are inappropriate. If such a worth exists, where does it come from?
Some might say it comes from our family. Parents, siblings, and relatives will often communicate the importance of a person, and so perhaps this is where a person’s worth comes from. However, this cannot be right for at least three reasons. First, some people are isolated from family for one reason or another, and yet we do not say that person has no worth. Second, some families can be abusive, and, rather than affirming the worth of a person, can actively reject it. Finally, if worth comes from families, that only tells me why I should value my family. It does not tell me why I should find worth in you, other children, or anyone else.
Others might say that worth comes from our relationships, which would often include family, but also would extend to our friends, lovers, and perhaps our colleagues. Again, however, this must be wrong as it would mean that those who are isolated from relationships have no worth. It would also mean that we can lose our worth if we are rejected by others, and it would mean, again, that I do not have to worry about honoring your worth if I do not have a meaningful relationship with you.
Perhaps our worth comes from our actions. I am tempted by this position, as I think our identity is largely defined by the choices we make. I am not my body, rather my body helps me make choices. Another reason to find this position plausible is that there clearly are better choices and worse choices; that is, some choices should be valued more than others.
However, if our worth comes from our choices, and if some choices have greater value than others, then we commit ourselves to a hierarchical understanding of human worth. Those who make the better choices are thought to have more worth than those who do not.
Hierarchical understandings of worth are at the root of all of the worst forms of human behavior. Racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, and all sorts of other -isms are predicated on the notion that some kinds of human beings are better than others, that is, have greater worth than others. Social, economic, and political life, when informed by hierarchical understandings of human worth are always skewed to benefit some and to oppress others. Hierarchical understandings of human worth should be avoided entirely.
Avoiding a hierarchical understanding of human worth does not require the denial of a hierarchy of choices. We can still say some choices are better than others. What we want to avoid is saying that some choosers are better – have more worth – than others.
Maybe our worth comes from some ability we have such as our rationality, or our ability to care for others. However, judging worth on ability has some obvious problems. It is vulnerable to hierarchical valuations because some people exhibit greater and lesser degrees of most abilities. This hierarchy becomes especially problematic when judging the worth of people who either have underdeveloped or impaired abilities, such as children or the severely disabled who cannot clearly demonstrate an ability such as rationality. Valuing one ability over others also has an air of arbitrariness about it. Why rationality? Why care? Finally, valuing abilities requires us to have confidence in the judges – us – and history leaves plenty of reason to believe that humans are too often terrible judges of worth.
Perhaps we have no worth. Perhaps, in the words of a character from Season One of HBO’s True Detective, we are just “meat.” Perhaps asserting the worth of some people is just a way to ignore the cosmic absurdity of life. Maybe caring for others is just an evolutionary trick that we are biologically compelled to act out so that our genes will get passed on for one more generation.
Although religious traditions have a long history of affirming hierarchical understandings of human worth, many of them have resources to affirm what I call a radical understanding of human worth. This understanding of worth is radical because it applies to all people, simply because they are human, and has nothing to do with the accidents of birth or social location. Radical human worth is the opposite of hierarchical human worth.
Mahayana Buddhism affirms that all humans have within them “Buddha nature,” the capacity to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. This nature is of greater worth than a wish-fulfilling jewel. Within Tibetan Buddhism, one finds the “Dearest Mother” tradition. This tradition holds that each of us has reincarnated so many times that at some point in our past lives each of us has been mother to everyone else. We are thus to greet each other and treat each other as if each person is our dearest mother.
Christianity has a tradition found in Matthew 25 of treating everyone, especially “the least of these,” as if that person is Jesus. I promise you that if Jesus ever did return, the behavior of most Christians would change immediately. If one reads the story of the separation of the sheep and goats carefully, one can see that Jesus anticipated this problem. Therefore, instead of only changing their behavior once Jesus returns, Christians are to behave as if he never left, and, moreover, they should behave as if he stands before them in every person they meet.
My favorite radical expression of human worth is found in Jewish scripture, specifically Psalm 8. In this text, the writer is looking up at the moon and the stars and feeling very insignificant. The writer wonders, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:3). The writer is asking about the worth of human beings. The answer given is an astonishing affirmation of human worth. “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (8:5). Notice, the “them” is human beings. Not some human beings, not humans with this ability or that ability, this characteristic or that characteristic, but simply human beings.
If each of us, simply by virtue of being human, has a worth that is “a little lower than God,” then it is impossible to imagine us ever gaining greater worth. Thus, our worth as a person is secured from the moment we are born. Where does this worth come from? It comes from our being created human before God. We are judged to be of great worth not by other people, but by God.
I once found myself reflecting on this text and noticed that we could think of all human beings as members of the “Slightly Less Than God Club.” We gain membership just by being human. We do not gain a different level of membership by making good choices, nor do we become lower members by making bad choices. Our membership has nothing to do with our status in society, or the care that others may or may not show us. Our membership is unchanged if we fail and it is unchanged if we succeed.
Our task as human beings is to treat each other as if every person is a fellow member of the Slightly Less Than God Club. We are charged with creating social, political, and economic orders that reflect a commitment to this equal worth. We must struggle to overcome all that encourages the belief that some people have greater worth than others, and all systems that treat people in accordance with hierarchical, rather than radical, notions of human worth.
Notice how difficult this can be. If everyone is a member of the club, then that means people we cannot stand are members. People who commit crimes are members. People from other political parties are members. If we benefit from systems that treat us as better members, we must work to dismantle those systems. For some, the greatest difficultly will be admitting that they themselves are members of the club.
One reason that I remain a religious person is that I think the value of human beings is found beyond human beings. I cannot locate my deepest confidence in anything human. I want, but too often fail, to see the source of human worth more clearly, love that source more dearly, and follow that source more nearly, day by day (thanks Godspell).