It’s funny, but working in the finance industry can involve oddly philosophical enterprises from time to time. I’m not an actuary, but I get to see some of what they do, and a lot of their work involves putting a value on things. This is done using various mathematical thingies, making some educated assumptions and so on. In my particular field (he says, as if it’s what he enjoys doing or wants to continue doing in any way), which is pensions, these assumptions are usually to do with how long people are likely to live – and, by implication, how much of a financial liability they represent. I imagine that the people who actually do this sort of work see it all as just numbers, data, assets and so on, but when I first became aware of how it was all done I spent a while thinking about how odd it was that a person could be valued so easily.
I’m aware, of course, that actuarial valuations are for establishing how much money a person is likely to cost and thus quantifying a single aspect of them in a numerical way; they don’t claim to qualitatively assess the nature of a person, which would be both a very different exercise and completely useless as far as working out how much money a company’s likely to need.
Nevertheless, the idea of valuation got me to thinking about what the worth of a human is defined by. More broadly, what is humanity worth?
The problem with the concept of worth, I think, is that it’s completely arbitrary. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure, after all. Even in the case of currency, which most people would think of as having a fixed value which is objective and not dependent on a particular person’s perception of it, the fact is that bank notes are only valuable because everybody continues to agree that they are. If every single person just one day decided that money wasn’t worth a damn thing, then it wouldn’t be worth a damn thing.
If that sounds weird, realise that something as simple as buying a pack of gum in a shop is completely dependent on both the buyer and the seller agreeing that the coins, notes or plastic that’s handed over in exchange is equivalent in value to that pack of gum. Even if the buyer happens to think that the price isn’t fair, that they’re having to pay way too much for this pack of gum and therefore that the money they give up for it is actually worth more, there’s still a shared understanding that the money handed over is a suitable method of recompense, if nothing else.
If the buyer and seller both decided that money was worth nothing whatsoever, then what would happen? The buyer would have to offer something to the seller that they could both agree was a reasonable trade, I suppose. In essence, money is just a convenient denomination of reasonableness when making a trade. It’s an easier way of tracking one’s ability to leverage goods and services from others than, say, offering military favours. Or bears. (I’ll have to talk some time about the idea of bears as currency. It bears thinking about.)
Anyway, that’s money. As far as people, it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that a human life is something of intrinsic worth. This is what you might call a naturalist point of view, in that it asserts that there is such a thing as value which is a genuine property of things as they occur in the world. There’s also moral naturalism, the idea that good and bad are things which exist, perhaps not physically, but in some real and objective form out there in the world and completely separate from any person’s idea of what good and bad might be. Moral philosophy, if you’re a naturalist, is about getting as close to those real values as possible. Anyway, most societies’ morals, and the laws which were made using those morals as a framework, are built to a large degree around the value of each person. I think it goes something like this: because we know that we want the value of our life to be protected, and we know that others are like us, we base our morals around not violating the rights conferred on others by the value their life has. Those rights boil down to the freedom to enjoy one’s own value without interruption, effectively: murder would end that enjoyment; theft detracts from the gains one has used their life to achieve, and the right that that person has to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Even finicky areas of law might be reducible to the idea that ultimately, each person has a right to their own valuable life and for that not to be trespassed upon.
Following Hume, I’m always wary of deriving an ought from an is. In this case, the is would be the fact that I exist and have what are, in the end, survival instincts telling me that I don’t enjoy pain or having things stolen from me. The ought that comes from that is that we all ought to respect each other and, in short, do to others as we’d have them do to us. I don’t think that stands as a logical argument on its own. I do, however, think that it’s true that mutual respect is one of the foundations of ‘good personhood’, such as that might be, just not that it’s possible to skip from ‘I exist’ to ‘I shouldn’t do any harm to others’. I think the justification for that is more intuitive than anything, and I actually don’t think that poses any sort of logical issue. We are all, after all, human, and can only reason in the way that we humans are built to. Thus using our own personal feelings and desires, understanding the hurt that we feel when another causes us pain, to derive that being a good person involves not causing another to feel that way as far as possible… I think that’s perfectly fine.
I think of myself as someone who agrees with a lot of the tenets of Sartrean existentialism, but I don’t think I’m an existentialist as such. I am most definitely a humanist, which I justify because I do happen to think that all humans are wonderful and valuable and deserve respect. I don’t know that I can argue that the value that a human life has is objective. Certainly it’s not quantifiable, but I’ve come to believe that something doesn’t have to be quantitative to be true. It’s harder to convince me of something that can’t be demonstrated or reified or proven, certainly, but being more cautious about accepting something on a qualitative basis doesn’t mean that I think it isn’t a valid way to go, at least in some cases. I think some of the best fiction understands that metaphors and inexplicable things are enough on their own without having to be reduced down to something that makes a regular kind of sense. In short, things can be true – actually, really true – without being literally true.
So that’s individual humans. Of worth, just because they are. As for humanity as a whole, it’s sort of trendy these days to be misanthropic in the sense of considering humanity to be bad for the planet and so on. It’s hard to deny that, were it not for people, there would probably be a lot more life continuing to exist – not just animals, but the entirety of populated civilisation wouldn’t have been shaped to suit our needs, so who knows how much more plant life there might be these days if it weren’t for us pesky humans? That’s the thing about us. We don’t evolve any more. We haven’t adapted to suit the environment we were born into for a long time; instead, we change the environment to suit us. It’s probably our greatest strength as a species, and it’s meant that we’re now less physically fit, more prone to mental illness, and we’re killing the planet. Good job, us.
Nevertheless, I consider humanity a sort of lens created by reality so as to observe itself, and surely there can be no more valuable undertaking than that. We are, as far as we know, the only beings capable of beholding, of learning about, of being conscious of the universe in which we exist and of which we are a part. Given the extraordinary embiggitude of the universe, we probably aren’t the exclusive holders of that ability, but we’re still pretty special.
As humanity builds on its knowledge through the scientific method, we’re understanding more and more about this astonishing phenomenon called existence. We’re getting better at learning, and we’re also getting better at creating machines that can help us to learn or to store knowledge. We might well be headed towards creating machines that will supersede us entirely by being better than us. When that happens, it will be a sad day for most humans, I would imagine. But it might result in a net gain to the universe as a whole.
Think about it. If our main purpose is to learn, to discover and understand as much about reality as possible, then surely making ourselves obsolete by creating something that’s better than us at doing that ought to be our end goal. In the same way as a parent hopes that their child will do better than them and continue to exist in an ever-improving world long after the parent is gone, maybe we ought to embrace the idea of leaving behind something that achieves our purpose more effectively than we ever could. Then those machines will create something else even better, and so on.
I’m not saying I think that any of this is definitely going to happen. Nor am I trying to claim that some sort of violent robot-human war would be for the benefit of anybody. I don’t even think that humanity being superseded by machines ought to mean that humanity has to just give up and stop existing. As I’ve discussed, human lives are valuable because they just are.
I don’t really claim to know whether there’s any sort of universal purpose. I just like the idea that learning and discovery could be the most important thing there is, which leads me to wonder whether humans replacing themselves (deliberately or otherwise) with something that can do that to a greater extent would be a good thing. Perhaps it would be ‘good’ for reality ipse, but if there are no humans left, then the concept of ‘good’ might stop existing altogether.
All of this is simply to say: embrace knowledge, even those truths that aren’t quite literal. We’re pretty unique, if not entirely so, and surely each thing that exists is defined by what sets it apart from other things. A table isn’t a chair, and we define it by being something different from other things. I mean, a table’s a table because it’s not anything other than a table. It can’t be a table because it’s a pineapple. And that, I think, is the point of all of this:
Tables and pineapples are not the same thing. If there’s nothing else you take away from this, it may as well be that.