* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, January 27, 2014

Isaiah 15-16: Contextualization and Imagination

Recently, I've been accused of taking out of context some of the biblical passages on which I comment. This is a charge worthy of discussion, given the nature of books like Isaiah. Let's consider the context of Isaiah 15 and 16, for instance, in which some predictions are made about Moab, a nation neighboring ancient Israel (Judah) to the east. Moab and ancient Israel were not often friendly with one another, as we have seen in the way Moabites are represented in the Genesis narrative and in the myth of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Genesis mocks Moabites as descendents of Lot and his incestuous daughter, which would mean that the people of Moab have a common ancestry with Abraham and his children. Some archaeological evidence also points to conflict between Moab and ancient Israel, with the Mesha Stele proclaiming Moabite victory over one of the sons of Omri (9th century BCE).

Within the context of the ancient world, then, there is some evidence that the people of Israel had political reason to foster some prejudices against the people of Moab. The Moabites also held different religious beliefs than the Israelites. There is some mention of Moabite worship in 2 Kings, in which they are accused of human sacrifice to Chemosh. Then again, Solomon built a site dedicated to Chemosh too, and that site remained until Josiah's reign in the late seventh century BCE. (So, people in and around Jerusalem were apparently engaged in Chemosh worship during the time that the prophet Isaiah was alleged to have written these early chapters of the book that bears his name.)

Contextually speaking, honest readers must acknowledge that the Hebrew scriptures represent particular biased points of view by particular people in particular circumstances; these writings cannot be assumed to objectively represent the culture of their neighbors. Unfortunately, we have very little objective evidence about Moabite religion. It can be said that they were polytheistic, like most of their neighbors. Archaeological evidence indicates that, in addition to Chemosh, the Moabites revered the goddess Ashtar-Chemosh, and the god Nebo, which may have been the Babylonian god Nabu. The Israelite authors of biblical texts obviously expressed consistently negative opinions about these religious practices, based on the Israelites' beliefs about their own god.

This is a tricky statement to make, however. The Bible does not reflect a consistent impression of Yahweh, but rather suggests the growth and development of a belief system over time. As the people of Israel continued to experience different circumstances, their ideas about their god had to develop as well. The alternative would have been for them to abandon their religion and take up other practices, and there is some evidence that people did just that on more than one occasion. It's a major theme for some of the prophets, at least. So, Israelite belief about Yahweh is not an inflexible concept that leapt fully-formed from the minds of the earliest religious practitioners. We can see throughout the Hebrew scriptures that their religious concepts evolved over time.

That being observed, one cannot simply assert that there is a fixed context within the Hebrew scriptures. The writings were composed and assembled over centuries, and they reflect centuries of development in terms of thought and practice. Some attempts by later editors and compilers were made to harmonize the material, but even that process is something we can't accurately discern. The book of Isaiah, for example, claims to be the work of a prophet who lived in the last half of the 8th century BCE (based on the kings named in the first sentence of the book). Later portions of the book contain details about events that happened two centuries later, and then some. Some people would like to claim that the same person wrote the entire book, having been gifted with supernatural foresight by a supernatural. This would be a reasonable claim if we had any copy of the text from the 8th century BCE, but we don't. Most scholars believe that the book is the work of at least three separate authors writing at different times, along with an unknown number of scribes and editors.

What we have of the book of Isaiah is a completed version dating from the early 1st century BCE. This version shows obvious signs of editorial work, but it's impossible to trace the 600+ year journey of the material from inception to our earliest extant copy. We simply cannot know how the material developed, and we may not ever be able to know. In a very honest sense, this means that we cannot know with complete assurance the context(s) within which the material was written, nor can we know how many pens were involved in the process. Moreover, the different ancient copies of Isaiah that we actually have are not identical. There are over 5000 differences between the most "reliable" versions of the book of Isaiah.

The Bible as an overall whole is what some people prefer to consider as context--the canonized works that men approved as authoritative expressions of their faith. This could prompt the question: Which canon is the appropriate context? The Hebrew canon was determined over a few centuries from around 200 BCE to 200 CE, but there are still variant canons among Ethiopian Jews and the descendants of Samaritan Jews. The Christian canon was supposedly fixed by 350 CE, but variations exist all over the world. Eastern Orthodox canons differ from the Roman Catholic canon. Oriental and Assyrian Orthodox canons differ from one another, as well as from the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic canons. The Protestant canon has some major differences with all of the Catholic and Orthodox canons. So, when one speaks of the "biblical context," one is already speaking of something rather subjective.

Most people, including the people who determined various canons, develop an idea of what they believe first, and then they assess their scriptures accordingly. People formulate ideas about God, and then they latch onto supporting scriptures (or other data) and dismiss all of the information that disagrees with what they have already decided. For instance, some people have decided, completely apart from scripture, that it's immoral to sell their daughters. The Bible doesn't tell them this, but they interpret the parts of the Bible that refer to selling a daughter as being antiquated and no longer applicable to them. In some parts of the world, in the twenty-first century, people are still selling their daughters into slavery. Based on biblical testimony, there's some support for their actions. If we wish to confront the practice of selling one's daughters into slavery, we can't do so on the Bible alone. We must rely on some additional moral understanding. We rely on our personal perspectives every time we read anything, but especially when we read scripture.

Accusing someone of misrepresenting the context, then, may mean nothing more than, "I disagree with you." It just sounds more damning to suggest that someone has made a grievous error of interpretation rather than to merely state a difference of opinion. Millions of people claim to believe in the Bible without going through the trouble to define what they mean by that. The Bible cannot be completely morally accurate, because it is not completely morally consistent. The Bible cannot be completely historically accurate, because it internally conflicts with itself and it externally conflicts with evidence. The Bible cannot be completely spiritually accurate, because its depiction of divinity develops over time as the beliefs and circumstances of the people who composed it changed.

When someone says they believe in the Bible, then, what must they really be saying? My suspicion is that they have developed a set of beliefs, and they read the Bible through the lens of those beliefs. For those portions of the Bible which can be read in support of their beliefs, they consider the Bible authoritative. For those portions of the Bible which seem to contradict their beliefs, they discover or create justification to ignore what is written. Add to this a coating of self-assurance, indignation, or superiority whenever one's assertions about the Bible are questioned, and a rather tidy illusion has been created. It seems to be a biblical context, since support can be found in the Bible, but it is actually a context created by the individual's imagination, since personal beliefs have the ability to trump what the text actually says. There is no way to deny that this is the reason for a multiplicity of denominations and sub-denominations within Christianity. If everyone went with exactly what the text said, wouldn't every Christian believe exactly the same thing?

Of course, that is a trick question framed a bit dishonestly. The sad truth is that one must formulate beliefs external to what the Bible says, because the Bible says such a great many things that do not fit neatly into one system of beliefs. There is no secret formula or correct answer to determining how to interpret biblical texts accurately. Some of it is simply the result of a great number of people writing things from their own perspective. Some of it was only relevant to the particular culture in which it was composed, and it cannot have any real meaning for people who are not members of a pre-scientific patriarchal monarchy. There is no single biblical context. There are lots of people with individually developed beliefs looking at texts and drawing the conclusions they prefer.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons I undertook this commentary in the first place. If we want to draw some wisdom from any text, we have to engage it from an honest perspective. Part of being honest involves recognizing that there is an objective reality in which we exist, and that objective reality is going to be what it is, whether we like it or not. If we try to reject reality, we create problems for ourselves and the people around us. Imagining something different doesn't change what is. If we recognize reality and align our own values and intentions with what is, we stand a much better chance of creating the lives that we most want and having a positive influence on the people around us. Within the context of reality, no person has been able to make consistent accurate risky predictions about the future. Within the context of reality, no god has ever been demonstrated to be observable by any objective means. Within the context of reality, the (approximately) 4.3-billion-year-old earth goes around the (approximately) 4.6-billion-year-old sun, and life has been evolving on this planet for (approximately) 3.6 billion years. Within the context of reality, human beings behave as they do for natural reasons. Human beings wage war for human reasons, and human beings can create peace for human reasons.

So, Isaiah 15-16 in its context? The Moabites were another little Ancient Near East nation that was around before Israel as an Egyptian vassal state and most likely fell during the Persian Empire in the 6th century BCE. The Israelites didn't like the Moabites because they were different, most specifically in terms of their religious practice. The authors of these passages of Isaiah, being a little more ignorant than we are today about the way that the world works, saw every event as being ordained by their supernatural, which they naturally thought of as superior to every other supernatural. Yet, the general message is for the Israelites to be hospitable to the Moabites fleeing destruction at the hands of the Assyrian army (late 8th century BCE).

These neighbors of Israel would most likely have been treated like illegal immigrants are often treated in the United States today, and yet the prophetic words are to shelter them and mourn with them. Perhaps the Moabite king, seen by the authors of Isaiah as arrogant, has made Moab a target by allying with Philistia, Judah, and Edom to revolt against Assyrian ruler Sargon II (r. 722-705 BCE). Or perhaps this is written in reference to the Moabite king Salmanu paying tribute to Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745-727 BCE). As previously mentioned, the precise historical context is impossible to discern; these passages may actually refer to multiple historical contexts, as Isaiah 16:13-14 may indicate. These last phrases seem very much like the addition of a later scribe.

In any case, it's obvious that the authors see no hope for Moab's prayers to be answered, because they are praying to the wrong god. This is interesting, since Yahweh wasn't any more forthcoming in sparing the Israelites from being conquered and taken into captivity. If Yahweh has justifiable reason for allowing his people to be disciplined by foreign powers, might not the gods of Moab have been displaying equal power in the situation? It's interesting how the same ideas that we use to bolster our own belief systems, we also use to mock the beliefs of others.

We all have biases, and yet we can work toward objectivity. To say that we all bring our own beliefs and perspectives into a situation is not grounds to throw up our hands in futility. Knowing that we have biases helps us see how those biases may be affecting our perception, and we can perhaps conduct an experiment or two to see whether what we believe is congruent with reality or if our beliefs are more products of our imagination. The Israelites had obvious biases against the Moabites. They probably looked at them as lesser human beings. Although Isaiah doesn't come out and say so, the words admonishing Israel to compassionately welcome Moabite refugees challenge the people's biases against Moabites. They were fellow human beings, worthy of compassion, even if they were praying to ineffectual gods. Perhaps these words were an attempt to contextualize the presence of these strangers flocking across Judah's borders.

There's nothing we need to know about Moab that will make any difference in our day-to-day lives. We don't need to know about Chemosh or Yahweh or any other god in order to create meaningful relationships and lives. What we might draw from these chapters, though, is the idea that there are still people around us who are suffering as a result of other people's actions. There are refugees of all manner and stripe around us every day: from actual immigrants, to people who are seeking refuge from domestic violence, to people who are suffering economically. We can imagine stories about these people that will keep us from feeling any obligation toward them--
They deserve what they get...

If I give them a little bit, they'll just want more...

They don't really want to work for a better life... 
We can imagine stories about ourselves that will keep us from feeling any obligation toward them--
I have to take care of myself first...
It's not my problem...

I don't have anything to offer... 
Or we can engage our compassion, see human beings of inherent value, and treat them accordingly. There doesn't actually have to be any sense of obligation in that at all.

Honestly, all of the people around us are our context. They are part of our reality. We can imagine whatever we like about the world in which we live and the lives we lead, but the reality is that we share this world with a lot of other people. Some of those people make a difference in our lives that we may not even recognize, and we can make a difference in other people's lives whether they recognize it or not. We don't need a religious book or a contrived belief system to know that people matter to one another -- we matter to the people around us, and they matter to us. We can choose to be more discerning about the difference between what things we have good reason to believe and what we just like to pretend about ourselves, other people, and the world we share. The sharper we are willing to be about these things, the greater our opportunities to build a better world.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Mark 12: Trick Questions and Clever Answers

So much of what passes for theological debate involves asking insincere trick questions or providing ambiguous clever answers. Such debate rarely increases understanding, but the smugness of participants in such debates seems to thrive on trick questions and clever (albeit unhelpful) answers. It is perhaps passages like the challenges to Jesus in the gospel narratives that have convinced people that the right clever answers can eventually win over a skeptic, although psychological research has demonstrated that debate only increases the persistence of one's belief, whether or not that belief is warranted. In Mark 12, the authors write of three questions that were allegedly intended to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him arrested. Of course, since Jesus is the hero of the story, the authors write his character as more clever than anyone who questions him. The authors of Matthew include these stories as a unit, almost verbatim as they appear in Mark, while the authors of Luke excerpt the third challenge to Jesus, appropriating it as an introduction to the parable of the good Samaritan (which does not appear in the gospel of Mark). We'll get to the good Samaritan story another time.

The first trick question in this passage deals with taxes. Roman taxes were debated quite a bit in Jewish society, mostly because the Jews saw the Romans as foreign occupiers and didn't want to give them anything. There are various teachings about taxes in the Talmud, and Jewish teachers were not of one mind. In the gospel stories, words put in Jesus' mouth are often very similar to the words of prominent Jewish teachers, primarily those who agreed with the views of Hillel the Elder, a well-known Jewish teacher who lived a generation before Jesus' supposed lifetime. From the perspective of these teachers, worrying about taxes was often seen as a distraction from living the kind of life one was supposed to live. The authors of Mark seem to echo this, although the answer given by the character of Jesus is far from clear.

This business about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and giving to God what belongs to God is so subject to interpretation that it resolves nothing at all. It is the sort of answer that essentially says, "make up your own mind about the matter," but has all the appearance of a wise and clever answer. Many people seem to enjoy drawing the conclusion that everything belongs to God, but then they continue to live their lives as though they have rights of ownership. Some people imagine that they have been granted "stewardship" over a portion of what belongs to God, which entitles them to act as surrogate owners of a piece of God's property while he isn't using it. All of this, of course, is being taken completely out of the context of first century society, in which private ownership wasn't even a consideration. Kings and lords owned land and everything on it; the people were granted rights to live and work on the king's or lord's property. One cannot directly translate the lessons of a feudal society into an economic system that hinges on the concept of private ownership.

If we approach the concept with the idea that gods don't need money or property, not least of all because they are the products of human imagination, the answer to such questions becomes much easier to address. Pretending that there is a supernatural who must be taken into consideration with all human decisions is often just an excuse for people to claim entitlements that otherwise seem completely without foundation. Should one pay taxes? Does one benefit at all from the services those taxes fund? What would be the most equitable, just, and compassionate response to the needs of one's society? Is one prepared to suffer the legally enforceable penalties for non-payment of taxes? These questions may evoke differences of opinion, but they lead toward a more warranted response to taxation than questions based on subjectively interpreted religious constructs.

The second challenge is also an obvious trick question, pertaining to myths about the afterlife. One might think that the challenge was about Levirate marriage, but if the gospel writers were concerned about that issue, they would have had Jesus comment on that instead of on the conditions of the afterlife. Lots of people still make a considerable amount of money publishing books and speaking about an afterlife. It's very convenient, since no one can really contradict what anyone claims about afterlife, since any claims come out of the human imagination. Jesus' answer plays into the mythology of the day because the gospel authors bought into the mythology of the day.

In the twenty-first century, we wouldn't ask, "How can Pegasus fly, being the size of a normal horse?" If someone were to ask such a question, though, we would have a choice. We could say, "Pegasus has lighter bones than a regular horse, so he doesn't weigh as much as a normal horse." Or we could say, "There's no such thing as a flying horse. That's a story that came out of human imagination. Don't worry about how the horse flies, just enjoy the story for what it is." When it comes to questions about the afterlife, we seem much more inclined to make up answers that sounds good, even though we have no evidence or justification outside of our own imaginations. It's certainly a marketable option. If we were more honest, we might say, "There's no such thing as an afterlife. When we die, we're done. But if there were an afterlife, I would hope for it to be like _________." Instead, like the gospel writers, we pretend to know something that we don't know.

This doesn't seem like such a bad thing on the surface. Believing in an afterlife gives people comfort and hope, right? Well, sort of. If your heat goes out in the dead of winter and the temperature stays way below freezing for weeks on end, you might be comforted by the idea that the heat will come back on (or even that a supernatural will protect you from the cold). Being comforted and hopeful doesn't bring the heat back on, though. If you believe in a pleasant afterlife, maybe you will be comforted and hopeful enough that you won't mind freezing to death. That seems delusional, but there are an awful lot of people who spend an awful lot of money trying to communicate with people who have died, or who resist opportunities to improve their well-being because they believe that their afterlife will be filled with rewards for the hardships they face in this life. If comfort and hope are based on imaginary claims, then the comfort and hope are insubstantial and potentially harmful.

The gospel writers do indicate something important in this exchange, however. The idea that the Jewish god was not the god of the dead but of the living can have some traction beyond satisfying this trick question about mythology. Our deepest, most noble selves are not adversaries; deep down inside, we are not lifeless. While we are sometimes our own worst enemies because of the false beliefs we develop about ourselves, other people, and the world around us, at our core, we know what makes life satisfying. We hold the truths about our passions and we know what the best possible versions of ourselves would look like. When we turn inward, we are not looking to discover all the things we have done wrong or catalog regrets and failures. Connection with ourselves places us within a context of growth, of becoming, of abundant life. We don't need to be bolstered by mythology to create the lives we most want -- to develop into the best versions of ourselves possible.

When we consider the third challenge in this passage, the gospel writers have thrown an easy pitch. It was a major theme of Hillel the Elder (and the rabbis that followed his school of thought) that the whole of the Torah could be expressed in what we know as the "golden rule." So, this idea that the greatest commandments were to love Yahweh and to love others was a prominent ethic in first century Judaism. If this question had actually been asked of a historical Jesus, perhaps it was merely a way of asking, "Does what you teach agree with what I believe?" Perhaps all of these challenges were originally along those lines. The end result is that we get an impression that our loving actions are much more important than our religious practices.

Recontextualizing this portion of the passage to accommodate the understanding that there are no supernaturals for us to love or worship, and that any characteristics we call "divine" are human characteristics that all people possess, we wind up with something like this:
One man approached, overhearing the subject matter of their conversation, and seeing that the teacher was wise, he asked him, “What's the most important thing?” The teacher answered, “The most important thing is, ‘Pay attention: at your core, you are capable, beautiful, and creative; love yourself enough to connect with your deepest, most noble self and become the best possible version of yourself.’ The second most important thing is this, ‘Love other people with that same depth of connection, and see the capability, beauty, and inspiration in everyone else.’ There is nothing more important than these.” 

The question about the mythical messiah being David's son is a bit anticlimactic, but it seems to belong to this passage, at least as the passage was edited and rewritten over generations before it became the document we read today. It's a nonsense question, based on a poetic expression in a psalm. The psalms are as much poetry as anything else, and their language is poetic language. When we read that Yeats had a fire in his head, or that a trout he caught turned into a girl, or that he was going to pluck the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun, we don't take all of that literally. We don't believe that Yeats' head actually contained a fire, or that he actually caught a trout that actually turned into a girl. We don't believe that the moon and the sun have silver and gold apples. Such questions would miss the point of the poetic language. The same is true of the psalms. Perhaps that was the point of the gospel authors: all of these challenges are as silly as trying to pick apart the poetic language of a psalm and draw some sort of logical conclusion.

If there is anything to be gleaned from this passage, it is that we can get distracted by theoretical debates that have no foundation in reality, and in so doing, we can miss the more important things: Being the best versions of ourselves possible and empowering the people with whom we share this planet to do the same. The most important thing we can contribute to the world is to know ourselves well enough to recognize what we are really passionate about, to nurture our own ability to bring our own selves forward, and to create the kind of world we most want to live in. Incidentally, this also involves dismantling the fears and the false beliefs about ourselves and other people that keep us from connecting with our deepest, most noble selves. The second most important thing we can contribute to the world is to be present in the lives of the people around us. To see them as human beings of inherent worth, to listen to their dreams and challenges, to bear witness to their creativity and beauty, and to encourage and empower them as they grow and develop into the best versions of themselves possible. This is a lifelong engagement, and it's also what brings meaning to our lives. It's easy to get distracted by clever questions and answers, but how well we love ourselves and how well we love others is the answer to the most important questions.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Statement of Warrant: All People Have Inherent Value

Over the past year or so, my view on faith has undergone significant development. As I challenged some people’s faith assertions, my belief in the inherent value of all people was frequently brought up as an argument in favor of faith. Since I was unsure that my belief could be demonstrated empirically, I conceded that my claim that all people have inherent worth was a faith-based claim—a belief that was held without evidence. As my criticism of faith continued to develop, I began to question more whether I was willing to maintain a belief without any evidence (or worse, for which there may be counter-evidence). I determined to investigate my claim and see where it led.

What follows is a statement of warrant for the assertion that all people have inherent value. I no longer hold this as a faith-based claim, but as a warranted assertion about the realities of human existence. I also include the moral implication that therefore all people have inherent dignity, since the actions that follow from a belief are perhaps more important than the belief itself. It is possible that this statement of warrant could be better articulated with continued effort, but for the time being, I have resolved the matter to my own personal satisfaction. A word of warning to the reading-averse: It's long.

All people have inherent value.

(1) People exist, and people are living organisms.

(2) Living organisms have biological imperatives required to perpetuate their existence.

(3) Human beings must continue to exist in order for the species to continue to exist.

(4) Therefore, human beings matter to other human beings based on a biologically instilled drive to perpetuate the species.

(5) Human beings are unique among living organisms in their level of awareness and their control over their behavior.

(6) Each person influences the life of at least one other individual (and in most cases, each person influences the lives of many more than one other individual).

(7) The influence that a person has on the lives of others can cause harm or can promote happiness.

(8) Both nature and nurture play a role in the development of human personality and behavior.

(9) If it is considered desirable (moral) to (a) produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and (b) bring the least harm to the greatest number of people, then it follows that it is desirable for each individual to influence the lives of others in a way that produces the greatest happiness and brings the least harm.

(10) If it is considered desirable (moral) to (a) produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and (b) bring the least harm to the greatest number of people, then it follows that it is desirable to nurture in others the capacity and willingness to behave in such a way that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and brings the least harm to the greatest number of people.

People exist as living organisms. I realize that there may be some philosophical disagreement with the concept that people exist, but if you take issue with your own very existence, there isn’t much anyone can say to persuade you. Philosophical giants have demonstrated sufficient warrant to believe that people exist,[1] and I’m not going to rehash all of that here. The fact that people are living organisms is definitional. Life is defined as “an organismic state characterized by the capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.”[2] It is the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for functional activity, and continual change preceding death. An organism is “an individual form of life, such as a plant, animal, bacterium, protist, or fungus; a body made up of organs, organelles, or other parts that work together to carry on the various processes of life.”[3] There should be no disagreement that human beings fall into the category of “existing living organisms.”

Living organisms have biological imperatives required to perpetuate their existence. From bacteria to the most sophisticated animals, there are certain consistently present biological drives that have been documented to influence how likely it is that a species will continue to exist. These are, generally: survival, territorialism, competition, reproduction, improving quality of life, and group forming.[4] Living organisms biologically want to survive. Living organisms biologically inhabit physical space. Living organisms within a species are biologically driven to compete with one another. Living organisms biologically want to reproduce. Living organisms are biologically driven to improve their quality of life. Living organisms are biologically driven to form groups (of two or more). Individual beings that demonstrate these biological imperatives contribute to the perpetuation of the species of which those beings are members.

Some might argue that biological imperatives apply only to the survival of individual members of a species, not to the perpetuation of a species as a whole. After all, that does seem to be what is implied by the concept of survival of the fittest.[5] If this were the case, however, reproduction would not be a biological imperative, since reproduction is not necessary for an individual’s survival. In fact, bearing and caring for young often compromises an individual’s survival, and yet the drive to reproduce is inherent to all organisms. Likewise, if biological imperatives were only natural impulses toward the survival of the individual, we would see much more evidence of cannibalism, or at least of indiscriminate violence within species. If other members of one’s species are eliminated, then the resources one needs for survival are more abundant. It may seem that some people behave in a way that is directed toward individual survival at the expense of the species, but this is not how our biological imperatives developed. Biological imperatives instill in each members of a species the drives that will allow for the perpetuation of the species.

For the purpose of this argument, some of these qualities as they apply to human beings are more significant than others. Of course, those human beings who demonstrate a biological desire to survive will perpetuate the human species most effectively. Human beings are complicated beings, however, and for most individuals, survival involves more complex thoughts and behaviors than, say, survival for an individual walrus or toucan. The important thing is that nature equips human beings with a desire to remain alive. If this were not so, the species would not be able to continue.

Human beings also take up physical space, and thus are biologically required to inhabit a territory. This means different things in different contexts. It is possibly this biological imperative that prompts some individuals to purchase homes that enclose exorbitantly more space that the individuals require, since at some point in our species’ past, controlling greater territory meant more access to food, water, and shelter for oneself and one’s family.[6] Territoriality is not a significant component of the argument that human beings have inherent worth, however. The same can be said of the biological imperative to reproduce. Human beings are biologically compelled to engage in the activities of sexual reproduction, and this naturally-imbued desire persists despite human ability to take steps to ensure that the exercise is not successful. Possessing the insight and wisdom to take preventative measures when one is not yet willing or able to care for a child does not remove the biological drive to engage in reproductive activities. This, in and of itself, does not demonstrate human value, however, except to say that one’s desire to engage in successful reproductive activities can only be satisfied through the participation of another human being. Thus, the biological imperatives of territorialism and reproduction are less significant to this particular argument.

Competition as a biological imperative, however, does offer an interesting dynamic to consider. Organisms do not generally compete with the very fittest specimens within their species; they don’t even seem to have conscious awareness that there could be such a thing as a “fittest specimen.” Organisms more frequently compete with the other members of their species that are readily apparent and present some threat or obstacle. Male lions do not compete with cubs, for instance, although they may destroy the cubs of another male lion. They compete with other mature male lions that represent a threat to dominance or an obstacle to mating.[7] Likewise, although human beings are biologically compelled to compete with other human beings, people generally restrict their competition to individuals within their own limited geographic and/or operational zones. A salesperson might compete with other salespeople across the world, but only within a specific industry. The American kitchen appliance salesperson does not consciously compete with the Ugandan rug merchant; there is very little on which to base such competition. There is not really any physical competition between average human beings and sports celebrities. Our competition is with a small group within the larger species, not with every member of the species.[8]  

The biological imperative of competition in most species leads to the fittest of the species reproducing more effectively that the less fit specimens within the species. This benefits the species as a whole. Without a natural benefit to competition, less adaptive members of a species might reproduce as successfully as more adaptive members, which would threaten the long-term sustainability of the species. As will be explored at greater length further along in this argument, human beings are not like most other animals in that they are capable of analyzing and adjusting their own behavior. Competition among human beings has become convoluted because, for some people, “survival” has become more complicated than merely having sufficient food, water, and shelter for oneself and one’s family. For instance, wealth often implies survival benefit, whether consciously or subconsciously, even though a significant enough disproportionate distribution of wealth may actually threaten the survival of the human species overall.[9] Human beings sometimes create social and economic structures that seem to allow for the “survival” of the individual while jeopardizing the well-being of the species.[10] This is a misapplication of natural drives that, in most organisms, promote the well-being of the species as a whole. Human beings sometimes respond to primitive biological imperatives through sophisticated means beyond the capability of any other organism, yet do so without regard for the species as a whole. Competition, or the biological drive to be the fittest available mate, does not necessarily promote the sustainability of the species at our current level of technological and economic sophistication, because that sophistication is paired with profound emotional immaturity.[11]  

Competition is not biologically about being better than every other member of one’s species. No species could survive that way. What we have taken to calling competition is really a natural drive to be the best version of oneself possible. When a particular animal fails to claim territory or a mate from another member of its species, that animal may just go find some other territory and some other mate. It may be adaptable enough to benefit the perpetuation of the species, but it is simply not fit enough to successfully compete with one particular member of its species. Its biological goal (although most organisms would not consciously be able to frame such a thought) is to be the best specimen it can be—not to be the best specimen theoretically possible.[12] Human beings, as shall be elucidated, have some advantages over other biological organisms. We can recognize that our biological imperative toward competition no longer needs to be focused on the same things that our primitive ancestors had to focus on for survival. We can recognize that the purpose of our natural desire to compete is really a biological invitation to be the best versions of ourselves possible. We can still live well as individuals and benefit the species without being the strongest, wealthiest, or most intelligent specimens theoretically possible.

The idea of competition is also connected to the biological imperative toward improving our quality of life. Members of many species do not make conscious decisions about improving their quality of life. The actions of the most adaptive members instinctively tend in that direction, but this does not mean that they make a conscious decision to move the herd to a more reliable water source, or to kill one of a brood of young so that the others will have ample food as they grow and less competition for it. Human beings can be thoughtful, and consciousness sometimes works against us. We draw conclusions that seem correct without fully understanding the causes of the effects we experience, or even understanding what we want as individuals. Some people may think of their “quality of life” as a new car when one is desired, convenient appliances in the kitchen, private schools, and disposable income for vacations to exotic places. These things may represent quality of life in a consumer culture, but they do not actually produce a higher quality of life in terms of the perpetuation of the species.

The biological imperative toward higher quality of life in every other species reduces stress to the individual and improves health. Stress alone can decrease a being’s physical and emotional health.[13] If an organism is able to live longer and more healthily, then (biologically speaking) that individual will have the opportunity to be of greater benefit to the perpetuation of the species. Human beings have turned the biological imperative toward improved quality of life on its head, creating more stress, and physical and emotional unhealthiness, through the very means we believe to be improvements to our quality of life.[14] Overall, the species does not benefit from many of the things that human beings in consumer cultures believe to improve quality of life, and the individual does not benefit because the pursuit of those things increases stress and limits health. This is disguised by medical advances that artificially extend life and manage physical and mental unwellness, of course, which might be considered to be an improvement to the quality of a stressful life. Many times, though, we are simply thoughtless in our pursuit of distractions to provide convenience and entertainment, and we consider having access to those distractions to be improvements to our lives.

Quality of life is not the same as “standard of living.”[15] Quality of life has to do with maximizing joy, affection, and gratitude; and minimizing anger, anxiety, and sadness.[16] Quality of life involves reducing crime and harm, increasing safety and health. Quality of life is enhanced more effectively by becoming emotionally mature than it is enhanced by becoming wealthy. Poverty seems to play a role in increased stress and decreased safety, and yet above an income of about $75,000 a year, there is no apparent benefit to quality of life.[17] Granted, there are plenty of people in the world living below this rate of income, and in the current state of affairs, it would seem that consistently having more money would improve their quality of life. It is important to recognize, however, that quality of life is not really about possessions and disposable income; it is about safety, health, and genuine happiness.

The term happiness warrants a bit of attention, since it comprises a significant portion of the definition of morality employed in this argument. Simply put, happiness is defined as continuous well-being.[18] Although Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been called into question with regard to its structure, most psychological research confirms the existence of basic universal human needs.[19] Happiness is having those needs met. According to many (including Maslow), those needs include: access to the physiological needs of the body (breathable air, potable water, adequate food, clothing, and shelter from the elements), safety (personal safety, financial security, health, and useful protection against physical impairment), love and a sense of belonging, esteem (self-esteem, respect by others, respect for others, competence, self-confidence, and achievement), and self-actualization (moral integrity, creative outlets, problem solving, and essentially the capacity to be the best version of oneself possible).[20] Happiness results from these needs being met. It may be that the greater the number of needs met, and the greater the confidence in having those needs met, the greater the happiness. Or, perhaps, the greater importance an individual places on the specific needs being met, the greater the happiness. In any case, happiness refers to continuous well-being with regard to having basic universal human needs met.

This is one reason, perhaps, that organisms developed a biological imperative toward group building. Groups can be as small as two members of a species, and can theoretically be as large as an entire species. Human beings are clearly social organisms.[21] Among natural drives, group forming perhaps has the greatest significance in terms of inherent human worth. Since this will be covered at greater length under another point, it suffices here to establish that human social interaction and influence is prompted by a biological imperative that functions to promote the perpetuation of the species. It is also important to note that human beings need other human beings in order to form groups and to improve actual quality of life (and to reproduce), but this does not automatically lead to treating all people with respect and dignity.

Human beings must continue to exist in order for the species to continue to exist. If more needs to be said about this statement, I’m at a loss. Logically, the species cannot exist as an actual reality unless members of the species continue to exist. When the last human being dies, the species will not continue to exist. As we have seen, human beings, like all biological organisms, are naturally imbued with imperatives that promote the perpetuation of the species.

Therefore, human beings matter to other human beings based on a biologically instilled drive to perpetuate the species. When we consider whether something has value or not, some would say that it is necessary to consider an object for that value. Value here is not in terms of a price tag, of course, but rather in terms of being important or beneficial. So, to say that every person has value is not to say that one can place each individual on a continuum and determine a quantitative worth for every member of the species. Rather, to say that every person has value is to say that every individual has importance and can be of potential benefit. The obvious question then is: to whom?

The claim that human beings have value to a higher power is satisfactory for some people. This argument is not the place for discussion of supernaturalism or faith. Pretending to know things that one does not know is not a valid justification for any position. Instead, the conclusions here are intended to be based on evidence and reason, and thus, in order to assert that all human beings have value, they must be considered important or beneficial to something demonstrably congruent with actual reality.

In order for something to have value, whatever is doing the valuing must also have sufficient ability to consciously consider a thing’s importance or potential benefit.[22] Most organisms do not seem to be capable of this level of conscious thought, and thus cannot actually value much of anything.[23] Among those more advanced organisms that seem capable of considering a thing’s importance or potential benefit (some primates and a few other mammals), it is not clear that such organisms have any capacity to evaluate human beings comprehensively or accurately.[24] Although it is perhaps reasonable to suggest that a pet owner has direct importance or benefit to the pet, for instance, it would be difficult to extrapolate from that that human beings are necessary for the continued successful existence of the planet. In fact, the planet might be better off in a purely biological sense if human beings just disappeared one morning.[25]  

The fact is, however, that human beings do currently exist, and our biological imperatives and our capability to act on them suggests that human beings will be in existence for a little while yet. As long as human beings exist as biological organisms, they will manifest the biological imperatives to survive, be the best versions of themselves possible, improve the quality of their lives, and form groups. Since these adaptive behaviors will always be important and beneficial to the perpetuation of the species, it may be said that all human beings have value to the species. However, the species as a whole is not a thinking, reasoning organism, and thus the species is not actually able to value its members. Only the members of the species capable of conscious thought can value something—can consider a thing to be of importance or potential benefit.

Thus, when it is asserted that all human beings have inherent worth, the actual assertion is that all human beings have inherent worth to human beings. As organisms capable of reasoning and capable of analyzing and changing our own behavior, human beings are in a rather unique position among other earth-based organisms. Human beings have the potential to consciously consider the consequences of actions to a far greater extent than other organisms. This is not to say that we always do so successfully, only that the capacity for such conscious thought exists. While every individual human being may not recognize that all people inherently have importance and potential benefit, the aim of this argument is to demonstrate that this is indeed the case. While every individual human being may not consider actions of personal survival (the biological imperatives previously detailed) to have evolved for the perpetuation of the species, that is the actual natural purpose for the biological imperatives with which all adaptive organisms are imbued. Thus, every human being is wired biologically to care about the perpetuation of the species—and to care about what happens to other members of the species.[26] It is therefore natural for human beings to see value in other people, even though we sometimes limit which people we are willing to consider important or potentially beneficial. It is the statement that all human beings have inherent value that perhaps requires more extensive examination.

Human beings are unique among living organisms in their level of awareness and their control over their behavior. It has been mentioned that human beings have some capability that other organisms seem to lack. It is worth mentioning that the ability of human beings to be aware of their behavior and its consequences and the ability of human beings to control, manage, and change their behavior makes this argument significant. If one were to argue that all cottontail rabbits are innately important and beneficial to the cottontail rabbit species, from the standpoint of purely biological perpetuation, one would perhaps be correct. Individual cottontail rabbits (to the best of our knowledge) do not think about such things, and even if they did, it is unclear that they could analyze their behavior and adjust it accordingly to create greater happiness and less harm among the entire cottontail collective. Human beings are different. Human beings are able to do some things that other organisms do not seem to do.

Thomas Suddendorf has suggested that humans are unique among organisms because of two primary traits.[27] First, human beings have the desire and ability to share our thoughts with one another. Second, human beings can think about potential outcomes and consider alternatives better than any other species. Since we can create and combine ideas and complex mental symbols, and since we can think in abstract terms, we are more capable than any other organism of analyzing and managing our beliefs and our behavior. These traits also grant us the capability to evaluate the influence of other people on our behavior and vice versa.

Thus, we should not expect any other being to think about value, importance, and potential benefit in the same way that human beings are capable of thinking. Human beings are the only beings able to ascribe worth because human beings are the only organisms capable of the kind of abstract thinking and idea generation necessary to do such a thing. Since human beings are uniquely capable of analyzing and managing their beliefs and behaviors, human beings are thus also uniquely responsible for analyzing and managing their beliefs and behaviors. While there may be some differences in capability between different individuals, a distinguishing characteristic about human beings is the ability to understand that actions have consequences and that people influence the lives of other people. Personal responsibility is a choice that individuals are able to make. Indeed, personal responsibility is congruent with the biological imperatives to survive, to improve one’s quality of life, and to be the best version of oneself possible.

Each person influences the life of at least one other individual (and in most cases each person influences the lives of many more than one other individual). In addition to potentially contributing to the overall perpetuation of the species, every human being influences the life of at least one other person. Just by virtue of being born and being cared for by a single mother, an infant influences the life of another human being. The only way that a human being could have zero influence on any other person is for that individual to be born in a laboratory and raised by machinery that was pre-programmed to provide the necessary sustenance, and for that person to die without ever interacting with another human being. It might even be necessary for that person’s body never to be discovered by another human being to ensure that such an individual would have no influence on another human being. Even a reclusive individual has some influence on other human beings at some point during the course of a lifetime.

Most human beings are not reclusive, though. Most human beings exist within a familial structure, a larger community of social relationships, a geographic community, and perhaps a collection of professional and academic relationships. In many cultures, human beings are connected to one another in a multitude of seemingly impersonal ways as they purchase food and medicine, hire contractors, visit a dentist, go to movies or nightclubs or live music events, and engage in any number of mundane activities. Even the most fleeting casual connection with another human being can influence a person’s attitudes and actions.[28] 

This influence is sometimes obvious. Within the context of close friendship or familial bonds, it is perhaps easiest to discern how people influence one another. Certain human behaviors and attitudes have been deemed “contagious” by researchers because of the profound influence that individuals have on people who are close to them.[29] We can see direct influence when one person takes the life of or commits some act of violence against another human being; even automobile accidents give us clear evidence that human beings can have dramatic influence on the lives of other people. Nearly every time a person receives an award, there is a list of people the recipient publicly thanks for their positive influence.[30] First responders and other medical professionals save lives every day, and ordinary people donate blood and even organs so that other human beings can live longer.

The influence people have on one another is often more subtle. The laws that a politician votes for or against can have unforeseen consequences in the lives of numerous individuals. How a person interacts with a waiter or store clerk can have ramifications in other interactions both individuals have for the rest of the day, or even longer. A teacher in a classroom may say something that sticks with a student for years, influencing any number of decisions, even if the teacher and student never realize the extent of one statement’s influence. Since we exist in systems with other human beings, other people’s decisions are constantly affecting us.[31] Sometimes our lives benefit from other people’s behavior, and sometimes we are inconvenienced or harmed because of what other people do. Our own behavior has an effect on the systems in which we operate, too. Our decisions can cause harm or promote happiness. 

The influence that a person has on the lives of others can cause harm or can promote happiness. While striving for emotional maturity (or self-differentiation) involves taking responsibility for one’s own beliefs and decisions,[32] it is clear that the behavior of a human being affects other people. A driver who runs a stop sign may not affect anyone else in a particular instance (although some self-inflicted emotional or psychological harm may occur), but a reckless driver will inevitably cause harm to other people, even if that harm goes no further than elevated stress. No amount of self-differentiation can protect a person from a gunshot or a collision with a drunk driver. These are potential negative results of human behavior, but positive results are also apparent.

People experience love, purpose, compassion, and happiness because of the actions of other human beings, too. In honest relationships, people can learn how to live satisfying lives, how to develop partnership and create something beyond the scope of the individual, or how to be vulnerable without feeling weak. Even interactions that are not in the context of an ongoing relationship can have an influence on an individual. A helpful store clerk who goes out of her way might inspire a person to go above and beyond with other people throughout the rest of the day—and this influence may not even be noticed by the clerk or the person she helps. A smile from a stranger can change a person’s perspective, and thus could change an entire series of actions.[33] 

Sincere encouragement can give people the confidence to work diligently toward a desirable goal. Insincere encouragement can keep people on paths of misery and destruction, for themselves and potentially for other people as well.[34] Human beings are influenced by one another. Each person has the power to determine in each moment whether that influence will tend toward happiness or toward harm. Imagine a quality inspector at a factory in a far off country, and imagine that this factory produces an item that you have purchased. The quality inspector can directly influence your level of happiness or harm. If he has been diligent, then you (and everyone else who has ordered a product made in that factory) may have some increased happiness because of that item’s benefits. If the inspector has been lazy, then you (and everyone else who has ordered a product made in that factory) may be subject to harm, if not potential physical harm, then potential emotional harm.[35] You are connected to this distant person without ever realizing or considering it. This individual has some influence in your life.

To be even more realistic, a woman on the other side of the world, in southern Punjab, emerged from an abusive and unjust situation, and she started a school to educate women in order to overcome the levels of abuse and injustice that had become normalized in her society.[36] I will probably never meet this woman, and yet when I read her story or see her interviewed, her actions resonate with me and influence my perspective of the world, and thus she influences my actions in the world. Many people have read or seen this woman’s story, and thus many people have been influenced, even if in some small way, by what this one individual did. A woman who was not in any position of extraordinary power (quite the opposite actually), because of her extraordinary actions, was able to have influence in the lives of many people she will never see face-to-face, in addition to the many people she influences because of her courageous education initiative. No one can predict what the students at her school will do, or what other bold women will do as a result of her example.

This one person’s actions need not be extraordinary. This one person was not equipped with any natural advantages that other people do not have. She had parents who were willing to stand against their prevailing culture, and she had supporters in her community. This need not be extraordinary among human beings. All people are equipped with the capacity to recognize whether their actions are likely to promote happiness in the lives of other people, or whether their actions are likely to bring harm.[37] Surely, there are more nuanced decision in which considerable thought must be given to which action out of all possible actions will bring the least harm or the most happiness to the greatest number of people, but the basic mechanisms to behave morally are intrinsic to all human beings (except perhaps for the less than two percent of people who have psychological disorders that hinder those mechanisms from functioning optimally).[38] 

Even beyond our in-person interactions, then, human beings have the potential to influence an unknown number of people, and that influence can promote greater happiness or greater harm. It is not even clear that we are aware of the number of in-person interactions we have in the course of a given day.[39] If we drive down the road when any other driver is present, we have the potential to influence someone’s life without even realizing it. If we shop at a location where any other shoppers are present, we have the potential to influence someone’s life without even realizing it. There can be little doubt that human beings are innately important and potentially beneficial to other human beings, and there is clear evidence that even the most seemingly insignificant person can have a broad influence.

There is no way to fully calculate how much influence a person may have over the course of a lifetime—and even beyond. Some historic figures are still influencing people’s decisions long after their death.[40] They had personal responsibility for their beliefs and decisions during their lives, just as everyone has. Once decisions have been made, however, one can rarely truly control what happens as a result. This is one reason that it is important to develop an intentional and thoughtful response to the awareness that all human beings influence other human beings, and are thus important and potentially beneficial to individuals and to the human species. Since the influence that people have can either cause harm or can lead to greater happiness, it would seem to be worth being intentional about our beliefs and decisions.

Recognition that human beings have control over their actions is fundamental to the universals of morality that exist throughout human culture.[41] Societies could not survive, for instance, if the arbitrary killing of one’s peers was considered morally appropriate behavior. The concept of ownership universally carries with it the concept that it is not morally appropriate to steal another’s property. Human beings are also creative enough to contrive justifications and excuses for immoral behavior, but this does not change the universals regarding human concepts of right and wrong. Usually, our justifications for immorality involve somehow perceiving the victim of the behavior as Other. It is wrong to kill another person, except that it is justified in time of war to kill enemy soldiers—or even civilians, by the reasoning that some people use. They are not Us; they are Other. The same rules do not apply.

When one acknowledges that human beings need one another, and when one acknowledges that the influence human beings have on one another is potentially beneficial and more extensive than we usually comprehend, matters of morality become much more straightforward. The definition of morality that will be applied in this argument is that moral actions produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people and the least amount of harm for the greatest number of people. Viewed as members of a species, this moral definition applies to human beings across the board. In other words, there is no case in which causing more harm than happiness for the majority of people affected could be considered moral.

Human beings have evolved with universal agreement about matters of basic morality, but people do not always apply moral concepts thoughtfully or diligently, especially when some level of fear is involved in the decision-making process. Before exploring the moral implications of all people having inherent value, then, it is appropriate to consider that natural processes alone are not responsible for human behavior. We can discern naturally that human beings have inherent value, and we also know that human beings are influenced by their culture and environment, in addition to the influences of nature.

Both nature and nurture play a role in the development of human personality and behavior. In an effort to be intentional, it is worth considering that nature plays a certain role in human identity and behavior. There are some things human beings do not directly, consciously control, and there are some aspects of identity and behavior that human beings may never understand completely. This suggests that we should exercise caution in our judgments against others and tolerance where no clear harm is evidenced. Homosexuality is a clear example of this. Over the course of centuries, cultural trends toward acceptance or rejection of homosexual behavior ran the gamut from “capital offense” to “normal behavior in certain contexts” to “psychological disorder,” but those judgments about homosexuality were really more public opinion than scientific assessment. More recently, objective scientific inquiry has produced compelling evidence that nature plays a role in homosexuality.[42] We can invent answers to questions as to why, but we are misguided if we blame or punish or denigrate homosexual individuals, since their identity is naturally derived. Until some actual evidence (as opposed to fear-driven conjecture) arises that indicates that homosexuality is directly harmful to homosexual individuals or the people around them, homosexual people are simply different from heterosexual people, but they are people nonetheless. The same cannot be said of people who commit acts of violence because of a chemical imbalance, for instance, because the actions of those people blatantly cause harm.     Just as it is clear that some aspects of human identity and behavior are driven by nature, we can also clearly see how environment and nurture play a role in the development of identity and behavior.[43] It may not always be easy to know where that line is, but objective examination of the subject has at least shown that both are important. We do not control what nature provides to other people, and even if we were able to do so, making such decisions may not be wise. We do control our own behavior, however, and we can act in such a way that not only portrays the best version of ourselves possible, but also promotes others to mature into the best version of themselves possible.

If it is considered desirable (moral) to (a) produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and (b) bring the least harm to the greatest number of people, then it follows that it is desirable for each individual to influence the lives of others in a way that produces the greatest happiness and brings the least harm. A well-established definition of morality holds that moral behavior produces happiness and immoral behavior produces harm.[44] Along that continuum, the most desirable moral behavior produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people while simultaneously producing the least harm for the greatest number of people. There may be other definitions of morality that an individual prefers, and one could potentially apply those definitions of morality to this argument and find that the assertions here are equally valid regardless of how morality is defined.

Since natural drives compel human beings toward survival, improving our quality of life, becoming the best versions of ourselves possible, and forming groups; since all human beings influence other human beings and are thus important and potentially beneficial to an unknown number of other human beings; and since human beings can analyze and manage our beliefs and behaviors, it follows that human beings should strive for our beliefs and behaviors to produce the greatest happiness possible for the greatest number of people possible and to produce the least harm to the greatest number of people possible. Since all human beings have the potential to influence other human beings positively, and since human behavior can change, we cannot justifiably exclude any individual from the category of “inherently valuable,” even though it would be convenient to do so. Thus, as far as our own potential to influence the lives of other people, it follows that we should treat all people with dignity and respect.

This does not mean that we must accept the ideas or practices of all people. Many beliefs and practices are harmful to a great many people, and these beliefs and practices should be addressed if we are seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. In addressing harmful beliefs and practices, however, respect can still be shown to the individuals who hold those beliefs and engage in those practices. Indeed, they are often within the subset of people harmed by the beliefs and practices in question.[45] Since we cannot know the extent of an individual’s influence, we should treat all people as valuable members of the species—even when we cannot directly discern what their benefit to the species might potentially be. 

If it is considered desirable (moral) to (a) produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, and (b) bring the least harm to the greatest number of people, then it follows that it is desirable to nurture in others the capacity and willingness to behave in such a way that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people and brings the least harm to the greatest number of people. Our influence extends beyond our own beliefs and decisions, even though we only control our own beliefs and decisions. While it is important for our individual behavior to be governed by a moral response to the inherent value of all people, we also can influence other people toward developing a moral response to the inherent value of all people. Indeed, this influence promotes the greatest happiness for people and prevents harm, since understanding the inherent value of all people and responding morally to that understanding is one facet of maturing into the best version of oneself possible. The more human beings who engage in intentional progression toward the best versions of themselves possible, the more sustainable the entire species becomes.

Thus, based on the definitions articulated here, there can be little doubt that all human beings have importance and offer potential benefit to some other human beings, and thus have value. There can be little argument against the observation that human beings operate in social systems, and the extent and reach of these systems is difficult to determine. Since all human beings influence one another, our interactions with other people can reflect our awareness of every person’s inherent worth, and this intentionality can be said to acknowledge each person’s dignity—worthiness of respect. The inherent worth and dignity of all people is thus naturally and reasonably demonstrated.

[1] In philosophical circles, there may be a distinction between being and existence, and different categories of existence may be important. For this argument, existence is simply intended to imply that human beings are. See, in particular, Jonathan Dolhenty, “Part Thirteen: The Criterion of Truth,” The Problem of Knowledge: A Brief Introduction to Epistemology, http://archive.is/lk3kD (accessed January 14, 2014), and René Descartes, Principles of Philosophy, translated by Valentine Rodger Miller and Reese P. Miller (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991). For more on the discussion of existence, also see Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, Logic, or the Art of Thinking, translated and edited by Jill Vance Buroker (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1996); John Stuart Mill. A System of Logic (Calgary: Theophania, 2012); William of Ockham, Ockham's Theory Of Terms (Book I of the Summa Logicae), translated by Michael J. Loux (South Bend: St Augustine’s, 2011); Plato, The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee (London: Penguin, 2003); Aristotle, The Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London: Penguin, 1999); Heraclitus, Fragments, translated by Brooks Hexton (London: Penguin Classics, 2003); Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007); Bryan Magee, The Story of Philosophy: A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas (New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001); C. J. F. Williams, What is Existence? (Oxford: Oxford University, 1981); Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, translated and edited by Judith Norman, Alistair Welchman, and Christopher Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010).

[2] Merriam-Webster.com, s.v. “Life,” accessed January 14, 2014, http://www.merriam-webster.com/ dictionary/life.

[3] AHDictionary.com, s.v. “Life,” accessed January 14, 2014, http://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search. html?q=organism.

[4] See Alasdair I. Houston and John M. McNamara, Models of Adaptive Behavior: An Approach Based on State, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1999); Cecie Starr, Ralph Taggart, et al., “Animal Behavior,” Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, 12th edition (Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2009), 780–793; Davie M. Buss, and Heidi Greiling, “Adaptive Individual Differences,” Journal of Personality 67, no. 2 (Apr, 1999): 209-243; and David Sohn, “Two Concepts of Adaption: Darwin’s and Psychology’s,” Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences 12, no. 4 (Oct 1976): 367–375.

[5] Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Biology (Sligo: HardPress, 2013), and Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection of the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (New York: Signet Classics, 2003).

[6] Allen W. Stokes, editor, Territory, (New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold, 1974); Malcolm N. Shaw, “Peoples, Territorialism and Boundaries,” European Journal of International Law 8, no. 3 (Jul 1997): 478–507; Peter H. Klopfer, Habitats and Territories: Study of the Use of Space by Animals (New York: Basic Books, 1969); and Fritz R. Walther, Elizabeth C. Mungall, and Gerald A. Grau, Gazelles and Their Relatives: A Study in Territorial Behavior, Noyes Series in Animal Behavior, Ecology, Conservation, and Management (Park Ridge, NJ: William Andrew, 1984).

 [7] Anna-Louise Taylor, “Why Infanticide Can Benefit Animals,” BBC Nature News (21 May 2012). Accessed January 14, 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/18035811; Craig Packer and Anne E. Pusey, “Cooperation and Competition within Coalitions of Male Lions: Kin Selection or Game Theory?” Nature, 296, no. 5859 (Apr 1982): 740–742.

[8] Mark V. Flinn, David C. Geary, and Carol V. Ward, “Ecological Dominance, Social Competition, and Coalitionary Arms Races: Why Humans Evolved Extraordinary Intelligence,” Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, no. 1 (Jan 2005): 10–46; David M. Buss, “The Evolution of Human Intrasexual Competition: Tactics of Male Attraction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54, no. 4 (Apr 1988): 616–628; Stuart A. West, et al., “Cooperation and the Scale of Competition in Humans,” Current Biology 16, no. 11 (Jun 2006): 1103–1006.

 [9] Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, 6th edition (New York: Pearson, 2013); Neil Brooks and Linda McQuaig, The Trouble with Billionaires (London: Oneworld, 2013); an d Laura Westra and Bill Lawson, editors, Faces of Environmental Racism: Confronting Issues of Global Justice (Studies in Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy), 2nd edition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

[10] Among common examples, one might include the arsenic levels in wells dug in Bangladesh to provide bacteria-free water (Allan H. Smith, Elena O. Lingas, Mahfuzar Ahman, “Contamination of Drinking-Water by Arsenic in Bangladesh: A Public Health Emergency,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 78, no. 9 (2000): 1093–1103. Accessed January 14, 2014, http://www.who.int/docstore/bulletin/pdf/2000/issue9/bu0751.pdf), not to mention the numerous chemical agents intended for useful peaceful purposes and repurposed as weapons. See also  Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of the Nations (London: Pluto, 2005); Robert A. Dahl and Charles E. Lindbloom, Politics, Economics, and Welfare (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1991); Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: Island, 2011).

[11]  In some systems-based models, this is acknowledged by the term “regressive society.” See Kenneth D. Allan, The Social Lens: An Invitation to Social and Sociological Theory, 2nd edition (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), and Ona Cohn Bregman and Charles M. White, editors, Bringing Systems Thinking to Life: Expanding the Horizons for Bowen Family Systems Theory (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[12] Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, Revised (New York: Basic Books, 2006); Trevor D. Price and Mark Kirkpatrick, “Evolutionary Stable Range Limits Set by Interspecific Competition,” Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences) (Feb 2009). Accessed January 14, 2014. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2009/02/21/rspb.2008.1199.full#cited-by; E.A. Herre, et al., “The Evolution of Mutualisms: Exploring the Paths between Conflict and Cooperation,” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 14, Issue 2, no. 1 (Feb 1999): 49–53; J. L. Sachs, “Cooperation Within and Among Species,” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 19, no. 5 (Sep 2006): 1415–1418; and Marcel Cardillo, “Phylogenetic Structure of Mammal Assemblages at Large Geographical Scales: Linking Phylogenetic Community Ecology with Macroecology,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences) 366 (Aug 2011): 2545–2553. Accessed January 14, 2014. http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/366/1577/2545.full.pdf+html.

[13] Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller, “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry,” Psychological Bulletin 130, no. 4 (Jul 2004): 601–630; George S. Everly, Jr., and Jeffrey M. Lating, A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response, 3rd edition (New York: Springer, 2013), particularly 67–95.

 [14] Meni Koslowsky, Avraham N. Kluger, and Mordechai Reich, Commuting Stress: Causes, Effects, and Methods of Coping (New York: Plenum, 1995); Bruce S. McEwen and Peter J. Gianaros, “Stress- and Allostasis-Induced Brain Plasticity,” Annual Review of Medicine 62 (Feb 2011): 431–445; Cécilia Cabaniols, et al., “Links between Private Habits, Psychological Stress and Brain Cancer: A Case-Control Pilot Study in France,” Journal of Neuro-Oncology 103, no. 2 (Jun 2011): 307–316; Tarani Chandola, Stress at Work (London: The British Academy, 2010); Juliet Schor, A Sustainable Economy for the Twenty-first Century (New York: Seven Stories, 1998).

[15] Even “standard of living” seems not to have a common definition, but for the purposes of this argument a distinction is being made between “quality of life” as it is defined in the body of the paragraph, and a degree of wealth, luxury, and material comfort, for which the term “standard of living” is being used.

[16] Richard D. Young, “Quality of Life Indicator Systems: Definitions, Methodologies, Uses, and Public Policy Decision Making,” University of South Carolina Institute for Public Service and Policy Research (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2008). Accessed January 14, 2014. http://www.ipspr.sc.edu/publication/Quality%20of%20Life.pdf.

[17] Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, “High Income Improves Evaluation of Life but not Emotional Well-Being,” Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America 107, no. 38 (Sep 2010). Accessed January 14, 2014. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/38/16489.long#cited-by.

 [18] Immanuel Kant, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, edited and translated by Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1996); Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).

[19] There is much debate about just how many basic human needs exist and what the identities of these needs may be, but the idea that human beings have basic needs is not contested. Louis Tay and Ed Diener, “Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101, no. 2(Aug 2011): 354–365; Manfred A. Max-Neef, et al., Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections (New York: Apex, 1989).

 [20] Abraham H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, (Eastford, CT: Martino, 2013); Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition (New York: Van Nostrand-Reinhold, 1968).

[21] Aristotle, The Politics, translated by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1985); Matthew D. Lieberman, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (New York: Crown, 2013).

[22] Gordon B. Moskowitz and Heidi Grant, editors, The Psychology of Goals (New York: Guilford, 2009); Colin McGinn, “Animal Minds, Animal Morality,” Social Research 62, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 731–747.

[23] Stephen T. Newmyer, Animals, Rights, and Reason: in Plutarch and Modern Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2006); Bert Musschenga and Anton van Harskamp, editors, What Makes Us Moral? On the Capacities and Conditions for Being Moral, Library of Ethics and Applied Philosophy 31 (Amsterdam: Springer, 2013).

[24] Geoff Hosey, “Hediger Revisited: How Do Zoo Animals See Us?” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 16, no. 4 (Sep 2013): 338–359.

[25] Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (New York: Picador, 2007).

[26] It is perhaps for this reason that so many recent studies have determined altruism to be on par with other biological imperatives in human beings. See Sadie Dingfelder, “Altruism: An Accident of Nature?” Monitor on Psychology (Dec 11, 2006). Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec06/altruism.html; Daniel J. Kruger, “Evolution and Altruism,” University of Michigan. Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~kruger/; Robert K. Logan, “Altruism and the Origin of Language and Culture,” University of Toronto. Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://www.physics.utoronto.ca/~logan/AltruismUnivCult.doc; Jorge Moll, et al., “Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions about Charitable Donations,”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Oct 17, 2006). Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/0604475103v1; Raymie Stata, “What Is Individualism,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992. Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://rous.redbarn.org/ objectivism/writing/RaymieStata/WhatIsIndividualism.html#EgoismVsAltruism; John Tierney, “The Altruist's Paradox: Should It Hurt To Be Nice?” New York Times (June 18, 2007). Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/18/the-altruists-paradox-should-it-hurt-to-be-nice/; and “Activation of Brain Region Predicts Altruism,” Duke University (Jan 22, 2007). Accessed on January 14, 2014. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/01/070121162756.htm.

[27]  Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (New York: Basic Books, 2013).

[28] Robert B. Lount, Jr., “The Impact of Positive Mood on Trust in Interpersonal and Intergroup Interactions,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 3 (Mar 2010): 420–433; Brian C. Gunia, et al. “Contemplation and Conversation: Subtle Influences on Moral Decision Making,” Academy of Management Journal 55, no. 1 (Feb 2012): 13–33; Dustin B. Thoman, et al., “How Students Socially Evaluate Interest: Peer Responsiveness Influences Evaluation and Maintenance of Interest,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 37, no. 4 (Oct 2012): 254–265.

[29] Thomas Sy, Stéphanie Côté, and Richard Saavedra, “The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader’s Mood on the Mood of the Group,” Journal of Applied Psychology 90, no. 2 (Mar 2005):295–305; Daniel Grosser, Norman Polansky, and Ronald Lippitt, “A Laboratory Study of Behavioral Contagion,” Human Relations 4 (1951):115–142; Jonah Berger, Contagious: Why Things Catch On (New York: Simon&Schuster, 2013).

[30] See for instance Rebecca Rolfe’s project on the Academy Awards at http://www.rebeccarolfe.com/projects/thanktheacademy/sections/network.html (Accessed January 14, 2014).

[31] Philip J. Runkel and Joseph E. McGrath, Research on Human Behavior: A Systematic Guide to Method (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972); Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas, and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011); and Ralph E. Anderson and Irl Carter, Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 5th edition (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1999).

[32] Carolyn Saarni, The Development of Emotional Competence, Guilford Series on Social and Emotional Development, Claire B. Kopp and Steven R. Asher, editors (New York: Guilford, 1999); Vermont Center for Family Studies, “What Are the Eight Interlocking Concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory?” Accessed January 14, 2014. http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/bowen_family_systems_theory/eight_concepts_of_bowen_theory/.

[33] Millicent H. Abel and Malcolm Abel, “The Effects of a Sales Clerk’s Smile on Consumer Perceptions and Behaviors,” American Journal of Psychological Research 3, no.1 (Apr 2007): 17–28; J. O’Doherty, et al. “Beauty in a Smile: The Role of Medial Orbitofrontal Cortex in Facial Attractiveness,” Neuropsychologia 41, no. 2 (Jan 2003): 147–155; Marianne Sonnby–Borgström, “Automatic Mimicry Reactions as Related to Differences in Emotional Empathy,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 43, no. 5 (Dec 2002): 433–443.

[34] George P. Barker and Sandra Graham S, “Developmental Study of Praise and Blame as Attributional Cues,” Journal of Educational Psychology 79, no. 1 (Mar 1987): 62-66; Jennifer Henderlong Corpus, Christin M. Ogle, and Kelly E. Love-Geiger, “The Effects of Social-Comparison Versus Mastery Praise on Children's Intrinsic Motivation,” Motivation and Emotion 30, no. 4 (Dec 2006): 333-343; Jennifer Henderlong and Mark R. Lepper, “The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis,” Psychological Bulletin 128, no.5 (Sep 2002): 774-795; Wulf-Uwe Meyer, “Paradoxical Effects of Praise and Criticism on Perceived Ability,” European Review of Social Psychology 3 (1992): 259–283; Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck, “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance,” Journal for Personality and Social Psychology 75, no. 1 (Jul 1998): 33-52; Farideh Salili and Kit-Tai Hau, “The Effects of Teachers’ Evaluative Feedback on Chinese Students’ Perceptions of Ability: A Cultural and Situational Analysis,” Educational Studies 20 no. 2 (1994): 223-236.

 [35] Legally, in the United States at least, this might be considered negligent infliction of emotional distress, and there would most likely be no possible legal action for a disappointing purchase. I am considering here the potential for increased distrust, anxiety, and anger as a result of the inspector’s negligence to be emotional harm, even though this may not fit a precise legal definition of actionable harm.

[36] The story of Mukhtar Mai (and many others) can be found in Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (New York: Vintage, 2009), 70–79. Also see http://www.halftheskymovement.org/ for more information about related projects. (Accessed January 14, 2014).

[37] Albert Bandura, “Toward a Psychology of Human Agency,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, no. 2 (Jun 2006): 164–180; Eliot Turiel, The Culture of Morality: Social Development, Context, and Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2002).

[38] Zina Lee and Randall T. Salekin, “Psychopathy in a Noninstitutional Sample: Differences in Primary and Secondary Subtypes,” Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment 1, no. 3 (2010): 153–169; American Psychiatric Association, DSM-IV-TR (Washington: American Psychiatric Association, 2000), 704.

[39] Damiano Florillo and Fabio Sabatini, “Quality and quantity: The Role of Social Interactions in Self-Reported Individual Health,” Social Science & Medicine 73, no. 11 (Dec 2011): 1644–1652; J. S. House, D. Umberson, and K. R. Landis, “Structures and Processes of Social Support,” Annual Review of Sociology 14 (1988): 293–318.

[40] These may well-known figures like Constantine, Martin Luther King, Jr., or former heads of state, or these may be figures within an individual’s personal history—deceased ancestors or even parents whose decisions determine some aspects of their descendents lives.

[41] Richard T. Kinnier, Jerry L. Kernes, and Therese M. Dautheribes, “A Short List of Universal Moral Values,” Counseling and Values 45 (Oct 2000): 4–16; Liane Young and Rebecca Saxe, “Moral Universals and Individual Differences,” Emotion Review 3, no. 3 (Jul 2011): 323–324; Richard A. Shweder, et al., “The ‘Big Three’ of Morality (Autonomy, Community, Divinity) and the ‘Big Three’ Explanations of Suffering,” Morality + Health, edited by Allan M. Brandt and Paul Rozin (New York: Routledge, 1997), 119–172.

[42] Kenneth B. Ashley, “The Science on Sexual Orientation: A Review of the Recent Literature,” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 17, no. 2 (Apr 2013): 175–182.

[43] Alice H. Eagly and Wendy Wood, “The Nature-Nurture Debates: 25 Years of Challenges in Understanding the Psychology of Gender,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 8, no. 3 (May 2013): 340–357; Gordon T. Harold, et al., “Biological and Rearing Mother Influences on Child ADHD Symptoms: Revisiting the Developmental Interface between Nature and Nurture,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 54, no. 10 (Oct 2013): 1038–1046.

[44] Aristotle, The Eudemian Ethics, translated by Anthony Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University, 2011); Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity, translated by Arthur W. Haddan, edited by Paul A. Boer Sr., and William G. T. Shedd (Veritatis Splendor, 2012); Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948); David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by Eric Steinberg (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983); Francis Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (Chestnut Hill, MA: Adamant, 2005); William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (University Park, IL: Liberty Fund, 2002); Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (Mineloa, NY: Dover, 2007); John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, second edition (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2001); Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil: A Treatise on Moral Philosophy (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009); Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).

[45] Joel Feinberg, Harm to Self: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law (Oxford: Oxford University, 1986); National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, Self-Harm: The Short-Term Physical and Psychological Management and Secondary Prevention of Self-Harm in Primary and Secondary Care, National Clinical Practice Guideline Number 16 (London: British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2004); Mark Cresswell and Zulfia Karimova, “Self-Harm and Medicine’s Moral Code: A Historical Perspective, 1950–2000,” Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry 12, no. 2 (2010): 158–175.