Welcome to our Ethics review forum on L. Nandi Theunissen’s The Value of Humanity (OUP), reviewed by Kenneth Walden. Below, you’ll find a description of the book, as well as a condensed version of Kenneth’s review. Nandi’s response will appear in the comments. Please join Nandi and Kenneth in continuing the discussion!
From the book abstract:
L. Nandi Theunissen develops a non-Kantian account of the value of human beings. Against the Kantian tradition, in which humanity is absolutely valuable and unlike the value of anything else, Theunissen outlines a relational proposal according to which our value is continuous with the value of other valuable things. She takes the Socratic starting point that good is affecting, and more particularly, that good is a notion of benefit. If people are bearers of value, the proposal is that our value is no exception. Theunissen explores the possibility that our value is explained through reciprocal relations, or relations of interdependence, as when–as daughters, or teachers, or friends–we benefit others by being part or constitutive of relationships with them. She also investigates the possibility that we can be said to stand in a valuable relationship with ourselves. Ultimately, in The Value of Humanity, she proposes that people are of value because we are constituted in such a way that we can be good for ourselves in the sense that we are able to lead flourishing lives. Intuitively, a person matters because she matters to herself in a very particular sort of way; to appropriate a phrase, she is a being for whom her life can be an issue.
From Walden’s review:
The original question of moral philosophy is why I should care about anyone. A popular answer has it that I owe things to people, both myself and others, because they are valuable. Different kinds of value demand different kinds of response, and there is something about the value of humanity that forbids me from chopping up my neighbors and using their bones to make Halloween decorations. But if we want to say this, we face some obvious questions. Why is humanity valuable? And in what way is it valuable?
Nandi Theunissen’s excellent book is concerned with these questions. Her answers are situated in a more general thesis about value. There are lots of things that are good because they are of benefit—because they are good for someone or something. They have relational value. But according to some, there is also absolute value. Some things are good simpliciter, not because they benefit anything. Theunissen is interested in the hypothesis that all value is relational. […] Most of the book is aimed at overcoming two obstacles to the claim. The first obstacle concerns the value of humanity. If the relational view is correct, it can seem like we have to say that human beings are valuable just insofar as they are useful, and this seems like a poor foundation for morality […]. In response, Theunissen offers a more nuanced and attractive conception of the relational value of humanity. “People are of value because we are constituted in such a way that we are able to be good for ourselves in the sense that we are able to lead flourishing lives.” (2) Thus humanity is, like everything else, relationally valuable, but not in the exploitative way that serfs are good for their lords. […]The second obstacle is an argument purporting to show that relational value must be conditioned on absolute value lest we fall into a vicious regress. […] Theunissen […] ultimately concludes that this regress can be halted by something other than a foundation of absolute value. It can end in a small circle of reciprocal benefit.
More philosophy books should be like this. […] The theses themselves are creative yet well situated in larger traditions. The argument is detailed and rigorous without becoming tedious. […] I learned a healthy amount about an area I thought I knew well. […]
I’ll first address Theunissen’s treatment of the regress argument, which goes like this: (i) Some things are good because they can be good for something of value. (ii) The relation in (i) creates a chain of dependence between valuable things. (iii) Any such chain must terminate on pain of a vicious regress. (iv) In particular, it must terminate with an item x such that (a) some things are valuable because they are valuable for x and (b) x’s value does not depend on being good for something else. (v) Valuers meet the conditions (a) and (b). (vi) Therefore, valuers can terminate the regress on conditions of value. Theunissen […] offers a proposal on which the regress described in step (iii) is halted not by the absolute value posited in (iv), but by a pair of mutually dependent goods. The chain of dependence relations of ordinary relational goods (motor oil, aspirin, sprinkler heads) does depend on the value of valuers. But these valuers are not absolutely valuable: they are good for something else, namely their own lives, which, in turn, can be valuable for those very same valuers. So the regress terminates in a binary star system: the valuer and their life, each of which is capable of benefiting the other.
Theunissen’s proposal has the same geometry as other “virtuous circularity” approaches to stopping regresses—like coherentism about epistemic justification— and I think it invites versions of some objections to these views. […] [One] problem that arises in analogy with coherentism [is as follows]. We can imagine networks of mutually supporting beliefs that despite their internal coherence are, as a whole, completely unjustified because they are not suitably tethered to the world. Think of someone who takes the encyclopedic lore of some fantasy world to be literally true. Such a person’s beliefs seem unjustified despite their coherence. The analogous challenge for Theunissen is whether there are networks of items that stand in the value dependence relations she envisions but are worthless because they are “untethered” to genuine value. As an example, imagine a machine with many parts and accessories. The plookplook is good for the bongbong because the plookplook keeps the bongbong from drying out, and the bongbong is good for the doodlidee because the bongbong keeps the doodlidee lubricated, and the doodlidee is good for the dingalingdong because the doodlidee can help the dingalingdong stay in equilibrium. Now the dingalingdong itself is good for something else, namely the tinktinktink, which, in return, can be good for the dingalingdong. So the tinktinktink and the dingalingdong are mutually beneficial. What I have described here is a structure of value dependence that looks just like the one that Theunissen offers, only mine bottoms out in dingalingdongs and tinktinktinks instead of in valuers and their lives. […][W]hat distinguishes these things from the structure that involves valuers and their lives?
Theunissen does not address this question directly, but she discusses an adjacent one. One kind of objection to circularity relies on a “metaphysical principle”: “When an object, activity, or state of affairs, X, is instrumentally, constitutively, or in some other way good for a valuer V, and X is valuable, then the value of X must ultimately derive from the value of V.” (68) This principle tells against circularity because it requires that the value of such things be borrowed from a foundational good—an “arch lender”. On Theunissen’s view, there is no arch lender; there are just two relational goods whose benefit can be mutual. But the metaphysical principle is false, Theunissen says. […] I think [the] metaphysical claim about “borrowing” value is only one way to get at the larger issue I pressed in the previous paragraph. There can be systems of value dependence that look just like Theunissen’s but are, in whole and in part, quite worthless. Water does not magically appear when we install the pipes. So what makes the networks of value dependence involving me and you different? […]
I started this review by talking about the moral uses of claims about the value of humanity. There is something about the value of humanity that forbids me from using and abusing other people. But can Theunissen say this? […] Theunissen takes up this challenge in the final chapter. “As a valuer, a human being is a special instantiation of something that is of value because it can be good for human beings, and what is good for human beings generates reasons for human beings.” (127) What’s the practical significance of this value? “All valuable things should be responded to— acknowledged, treated, considered—as the valuable things they are. If people are of value because, as valuers, we are able to lead good lives, then we should respond to people as the value-bearers they are. In a word, we should respond to human beings as centers of a life to which they bear a special relation.” (128) And when it comes to other people, we “have a reason not to destroy, and more positively, to protect, other people’s capacity to value, and therewith, to live well.” (129) […]
Let’s unpack this argument by substituting another relational good. A can of motor oil is a special instantiation of something of value, so it generates reasons for human beings. […]All valuable things should be responded to as the valuable things they are, and motor oil is valuable because it lubricates our engines, so we should respond to motor oil as befits an engine lubricant. This gives us a reason not to destroy it, and more positively, to protect motor oil’s lubricative capacity. All these claims seem true, but they raise a worry about how much Theunissen has shown. It isn’t saying very much to say that I have a reason not to spoil the can of motor oil’s lubricative capacity. Of course, I do. But sometimes I have reasons to do the opposite. Painting my fence with motor oil would certainly spoil its ability to lubricate my engine, but with the right additives, it isn’t a bad primer, so there are times where I have more reason to spoil the lubricating potential of the oil by using it to paint my fence.
I don’t think anything Theunissen says forefends an analogous conclusion about the uses of humanity. Sure, I have a reason to protect your capacity to value, and using your bones as Halloween decorations would certainly interfere with that capacity. But I also have excellent reasons that favor doing just that[:] My house would look super spooky, and the winner of the decorations contest gets a ten-pound tub of candy corn. My concern with Theunissen’s attempt to restore the moral significance of personal value is that it shows too little. Reasons are plentiful and easily outweighed by other reasons. Common sense morality depends on showing that these reasons are especially stringent.
Theunissen has a way of doing this. The reasons mentioned above are reasons of non-destruction grounded in facts about what a valuable thing is for. Following Raz, Theunissen thinks that these reasons are non-defeasible and that flouting them is wrong. A chair is good for sitting in, and this gives me reasons not to smash it for my amusement. Not only that, it would be wrong to smash the chair for my amusement. The same goes for people: their purpose is to live a good life, and so destroying them for the sake of Halloween decorations would be wrong. Here my instincts diverge. Smashing a perfectly good chair may be wasteful, but it is only wrong under certain conditions, for instance if someone has a right to it. Likewise, destroying a person to turn them into Halloween decorations is not wrong because it is a misuse of their personhood, but because that person can make valid and binding claims on me (a power they have in virtue of their distinctive role in creating value).
In closing, I will repeat my assessment. I have enjoyed and benefitted from thinking about Theunissen’s challenging arguments. I am sure philosophers interested in value will be wrestling with them for years to come. […]