Can human beings have inherent value without the existence of God? The religious often say no. God, in creating you, gives you value. Without him, you have no intrinsic worth. (Despite some inevitable objectors, this writing will use “inherent” and “intrinsic” value interchangeably, as that is fairly common with this topic. Both suggest some kind of immutable importance of a thing “in its own right,” “for its own sake,” “in and of itself,” completely independent of a valuer.) Without a creator, all that’s left is you assigning worth to yourself or others doing so; these sentiments are conditional, they can be revoked (you may commit suicide, seeing yourself of no further worth, for example); they may be instrumental, there being some use for me assigning you value, such as my own happiness; therefore, such value cannot be intrinsic — it is extrinsic. We only have inherent importance — unchangeable, for its own sake — if lovingly created by God in his own image.
The problem is perhaps already gnawing at your faculties. God giving a person inherent value appears contradictory. While one can argue that an imagined higher power has such divine love for an individual that his or her worth would never be revoked, and that God does not create us for any use for himself (somewhat debatable), the very idea that inherent value can be bestowed by another being doesn’t make sense. Inherent means it’s not bestowed. Worth caused by God is extrinsic by definition. God is a valuer, and intrinsic value must exist independently of valuers.
As a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis put it:
+All human life has intrinsic value
-So we all [have] value even if God does not exist, right?
+No, God’s Love is what bestows value onto His creations. W/o God, everything is meaningless.
-So human life has *extrinsic* value then, right?
+No. All human life has intrinsic value.
That’s well phrased. If we think about what inherent value means (something worth something in and of itself), to have it humans would need to have it even if they were the only things to ever have existed.
If all this seems outrageous, it may be because God-given value is often thought of differently than self- or human-given value; it is seen as some magical force or aura or entity, the way believers view the soul or consciousness. It’s a feature of the body — if “removed [a person] would cease to be human life,” as a Christian blogger once wrote! When one considers one’s own value or that of a friend, family member, lover, home, money, or parrot, it’s typically not a fantastical property but rather a simple mark of importance, more in line with the actual definition of value. This human being has importance, she’s worth something. Yes, that’s the discussion on value: God giving you importance, others giving you importance, giving yourself importance. It’s not a physical or spiritual characteristic. A prerequisite to meaningful debate is agreeing on what you’re talking about, having some consistency and coherence. There’s no point in arguing “No person can have an inherent mystical trait without God!” That’s as obvious as it is circular, akin to saying you can’t have heaven without God. You’re not saying anything at all. If we instead use “importance,” there’s no circular reasoning and the meaning can simply be applied across the board. “No person can have inherent importance without God” is a statement that can be analyzed by all parties operating with the same language.
No discourse is possible without shared acceptance of meaning. One Christian writer showcased this, remarking:
Philosopher C. I. Lewis defines intrinsic value as “that which is good in itself or good for its own sake.” This category of value certainly elevates the worth of creation beyond its usefulness to humans, but it creates significant problems at the same time.
To have intrinsic value, an object would need to have value if nothing else existed. For example, if a tree has intrinsic value, then it would be valuable if it were floating in space before the creation of the world and—if this were possible—without the presence of God. Lewis, an atheist, argues that nothing has intrinsic value, because there must always be someone to ascribe value to an object. Christians, recognizing the eternal existence of the Triune God in perpetual communion[,] will recognize that God fills the category of intrinsic value quite well.
What happened here is baffling. The excerpt essentially ends with “And that ‘someone’ is God! God can ascribe us value! Intrinsic value does exist!” right after showing an understanding (at least, an understanding of the opposing argument) that for a tree or human being to possess inherent value it must do so if it were the only thing in existence, if neither God nor anything else existed! Intrinsic value, to be real, must exist even if God does not, the atheist posits, holding up a dictionary. “Intrinsic value exists because God does, he imbues it,” the believer says, either ignoring the meaning of intrinsic and the implied contradiction (as William Lane Craig once did), or not noticing or understanding them. Without reaching shared definitions, we just talk past each other.
In this case, it is hard to say whether the problem is lack of understanding or the construction of straw men. This is true on two levels. First, the quote doesn’t actually represent what Lewis wrote on in the 1940s. He in fact believed human experiences had intrinsic value, that objects could have inherent value, sought to differentiate and define these terms in unique ways, and wasn’t making an argument about deities (see here and here if interested). However, in this quote Lewis is made to represent a typical atheist. What we’re seeing is how the believer sees an argument (not Lewis’) coming from the other side. This is helpful enough. Let’s therefore proceed as if the Lewis character (we’ll call him Louis to give more respect to the actual philosopher) is a typical atheist offering a typical atheist argument: nothing has intrinsic value. Now that we are pretending the Christian writer is addressing something someone (Louis) actually posited, probably something the writer has heard atheists say, let’s examine how the atheist position is misunderstood or twisted in the content itself.
The believer sees accurately, in Sentences 1/2, that the atheist thinks intrinsic value, to be true, must be true without the existence of a deity. So far so good. Then in Sentence 3 everything goes completely off the rails. Yes, Louis the Typical Atheist believes intrinsic value is impossible…because by definition it’s an importance that must exist independently of all valuers, including God. God’s exclusion was made clear in Sentences 1/2. It’s as if the Christian writer notices no connection between the ideas in Sentences 1/2 and Sentence 3. The first and second sentences are immediately forgotten, and therefore the atheist position is missed or misconstrued. It falsely becomes an argument that there simply isn’t “someone” around to “ascribe” intrinsic value! As if all Louis was saying was “God doesn’t exist, so there’s no one to ascribe inherent worth.” How easy to refute, all one has to say is “Actually, God does exist, so there is someone around!” (Sentence 4). That is not the atheist argument — it is that the phrase “intrinsic value” doesn’t make any coherent sense: it’s an importance that could only exist independently of all valuers, including God, and therefore cannot exist. Can a tree be important if it was the only thing that existed, with no one to consider it important? If your answer is no, you agree with skeptics that intrinsic value is impossible and a useless phrase. Let’s think more on this.
The reader is likely coming to see that importance vested by God is not inherent or intrinsic. Not unless one wants to throw out the meaning of words. A thing’s intrinsic value or importance cannot come from outside, by definition. It cannot be given or created or valued by another thing, otherwise it’s extrinsic. So what does this mean for the discussion? Well, as stated, it means we’re speaking nonsense. If God can’t by definition grant an individual intrinsic value, nor other outsiders like friends and family, nor even yourself (remember, you are a valuer, and your inherent value must exist independently of your judgement), then intrinsic value cannot exist. It’s like talking about a square circle. Inherent importance isn’t coherent in the same way inherent desirability isn’t coherent, as Matt Dillahunty once said. You need an agent to desire or value; these are not natural realities like color or gravity, they are mere concepts that cannot exist on their own.
To be fair, the religious are not alone in making this mistake. Not all atheists deny inherent value; they instead base it in human existence, uniqueness, rationality, etc. Most secular and religious belief systems base intrinsic value on something. Yet the point stands. Importance cannot be a natural characteristic, it must be connoted by an agent, a thinker. The two sides are on equal footing here. If the religious wish to continue to use — misuse — inherent value as something God imbues, then they should admit anyone can imbue inherent value. Anyone can decree a human being has natural, irrevocable importance in and of itself for whatever reason. But it would be less contradictory language, holding true to meaning, to say God assigns simple value, by creating and loving us, in the same way humans assign value, by creating and loving ourselves, because of our uniqueness, and so forth.
“But if there’s no inherent value then there’s no reason to be moral! We’ll all kill each other!” We need not waste much ink on this. If we don’t need imaginary objective moral standards to have rational, effective ethics, we certainly don’t need nonsensical inherent value. If gods aren’t necessary to explain the existence of morality; and if we’re bright enough to know we should believe something is true because there’s evidence for it, not because there would be bad consequences if we did not believe (the argumentum ad consequentiam fallacy); and if relativistic morality and objective morality in practice have shown themselves to be comparably awful and comparably good; then there is little reason to worry. Rational, functioning morality does not need “inherent” values created and imbued by supernatural beings. It just needs values, and humans can generate plenty of those on their own.