AustLII [Home] [Help] [Databases] [WorldLII] [Feedback] MurUEJL

Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law

You are here:  AustLII >> Australia >> Journals >> MurUEJL >> 2005 >>  [2005] MurUEJL 7

[Global Search] [MurUEJL Search] [Help]

The Intrinsic Value of Human Life: A Critique of Life’s Dominion

Nikolai Lazarev


I. Introduction

Ronald Dworkin claims that the ongoing abortion controversy can be settled and the tension between the two opposing groups to the argument on the morality of abortion eliminated once we expressly acknowledge that we are all united in our belief in the intrinsic value of human life. This highly optimistic position piqued my interest and inspired me to examine how this notion of intrinsic value can help us reconcile the two fiercely opposing sides to the abortion debate. In this paper, I focus on the narrow subject of the intrinsic value of human life. Consideration of the general moral permissibility of abortion, foetal rights, foetal status etc., is outside the scope of this paper.
  1. In section I, I outline Dworkin’s main thesis, showing how he proposes to use the notion of intrinsic value to settle the abortion controversy through understanding that we all share a common respect for the intrinsic value of human life.
  2. In section II, I outline Dworkin’s conception of intrinsic value. It should be noted at the outset, that when I refer to intrinsic value I mean it in the sense that Dworkin defines it, and not in any other available interpretation.
  3. In section III, I turn to examine Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value. Through a careful consideration of intrinsic value, I argue that Dworkin’s interpretation of it is flawed and that a foetus, as a developing human organism, cannot have this kind of value. I further argue that his “solution”, given its implausibility, cannot be embraced by people at large. I, therefore, argue that Dworkin does not provide a new resolution to the abortion controversy.
  4. In section IV, I conclude by arguing that intrinsic value is not the only value that we apply in reaching decisions as to how we should treat other human beings and foetuses.
  5. Finding a Solution.
In Life’s Dominion,[1] Ronald Dworkin presents an interesting argument in which he claims that the raging controversy in relation to the morality of abortion is “based on a widespread intellectual confusion”[2] which, he continues, “we can identify and dispel” (p.10). He argues that a reasonable settlement of the controversy can be achieved which “will not insult or demean any group, one that everyone can accept with full self-respect”. This “confusion” in the public forum over abortion is the result of a failure to recognise that most people essentially object to abortion on two grounds, a derivative objection and a detached objection.

The derivative objection is a position held by people who believe that abortion is wrong and that the government must prohibit it because foetuses are creatures with interests and rights, including a right to life. Abortion is therefore wrong because it violates foetuses’ right to life in the same way as it would violate the right to life of an adult. Thus, people who believe that government should regulate abortion for this reason believe that government has a derivative responsibility. The detached objection is that a human life has intrinsic value and is sacred just in itself. People who object to abortion on this ground have a detached objection i.e. one that is not derived from the rights or interests of the foetus. People who accept that a foetus should be protected on this basis, therefore, believe that government has a detached responsibility in regulating abortion (p. 11).

Dworkin argues that the objection to abortion on the derivative ground (foetuses have rights and interests in remaining alive) cannot be sustained (pp. 14-19). He argues that foetuses are not entities with rights or interests. His attempt to dispel the intellectual confusion, therefore, focuses on first, pointing out that people who apparently take polarised views on the morality of abortion in reality share a common belief in respect of the intrinsic value of human life, which forms the basis of a detached objection. Once we all acknowledge that life is intrinsically valuable and sacred, and we simply differ in our interpretations of what respecting human life as intrinsically valuable entails, we would, according to Dworkin, achieve reconciliation of the highly polarised debate on abortion. The interpretations of what respect should be advanced to the notion of intrinsic value may differ from one person to another and Dworkin holds that government should not impose a collective interpretation on individuals. Rather, it should allow people to form their own views concerning life’s intrinsic value, as in the case of abortion such views are “essentially religious” insofar as they concern people’s own convictions in relation to the pro-creative decisions they make. To enforce a particular interpretation of how to respect the intrinsic value of human life would be to infringe on the freedom of religion, the cornerstone of western democracy.

Dworkin argues that his position on intrinsic value would help to resolve the abortion controversy in the following way: on the one hand, people would accept that a human life (or a human organism such as a foetus) is intrinsically valuable and should therefore be protected, yet on the other hand, government should remain neutral and not prohibit abortion by interfering with the decisions of pregnant women to have an abortion because everyone is entitled to their own interpretation of what kind of respect they want to advance to the intrinsic value of human life. As can be seen, the notion of intrinsic value is the bedrock of Dworkin’s thesis. Once we all agree that all we really share is the belief in the sanctity of life, as derived from the notion of intrinsic value, the tension between conservatives and liberals would disappear according to Dworkin.

II. What Does Dworkin Mean by Intrinsic Value?

In Dworkin’s argument the notion of intrinsic value plays a central role not only because it is a way in which we can value human life but also because it gives rise to another, yet perhaps more important, notion of sacredness (or sanctity)[3] of human life. The fact that human life is sacred may form a strong basis for its protection, but before we embrace this notion we must probe to see if there are any problems with Dworkin’s understanding of sacred qua intrinsic value.

Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value is complex, and he is not always clear in delineating its boundaries. He writes: “… human life has an intrinsic, innate value; that human life is sacred just in itself; (my emphasis) and that the sacred nature of a human life begins when its biological life begins, even before the creature whose life it is has movement or sensation or interests or rights of its own” (p. 11). He continues by saying that the fact that human life has intrinsic value can provide a strong reason to object violently to abortion “because the important idea we share is that human life has not just intrinsic but sacred value” (p. 25). Abortion is therefore wrong because it would disregard and insult “the intrinsic value, the sacred character, (my emphasis) of any stage or form of human life”.

So, how does Dworkin construct his conception of intrinsic value? At the outset he states that something has intrinsic value “if its value is independent of what people happen to enjoy or want or need or what is good for them” (p. 71). He then compares intrinsic value with subjective value and instrumental value. A thing is subjectively valuable to those who desire it (p. 71). He uses football and whisky as examples of things that are valuable to people who enjoy and desire them. As regards instrumental value, something is instrumentally important if its value depends on its usefulness, its capacity to help people get something else they want. Money and medicine are things with instrumental value and Dworkin states that no one would say that money has any value beyond its power to purchase things people need and want or that medicine has value beyond its ability to cure.

It should be noted that in his explanation of instrumental value Dworkin considers not only the wants but also the needs of people. This suggests that a thing may be instrumentally valuable not only when it meets people’s wants but also when it meets people’s needs, and makes a positive contribution to their lives without them even realising it. Dworkin says that when we talk about a human life being instrumentally valuable we are measuring it in “terms of how much his being alive serves the interests of others: of how much what he produces makes other people’s lives better” (p. 72). What this means is that even if we fail to appreciate the fact that the other person has made a contribution to our lives, his life is still instrumentally valuable as long as he, in some way or another, made our lives better. With the use of the distinctions above we arrive at Dworkin’s conception of intrinsic value in the following way: intrinsic value is distinct from subjective value in that intrinsically valuable things are valued independently of whether people want, need, desire or enjoy them. Intrinsic value is also distinct from instrumental value in that intrinsically valuable things have value independently of whether people want or need them in order to obtain something else. This slightly clarifies the notion of intrinsic value in that something is intrinsically valuable regardless of our wants, needs or desires either directly (subjectively) or instrumentally. Linda Barclay calls this a “strong” notion of intrinsic value.[4] On this account, an intrinsically valuable thing is valuable regardless of its external connections to our needs or wants.

Before I turn to examine what is wrong with the suggested notion of intrinsic value, I will draw attention to Dworkin’s notion of the “sacredness of life” which is inextricably linked with it. For Dworkin, sacred value is a species of intrinsic value. Here, he makes a further distinction between intrinsic values, which are incremental, and intrinsic values which are not. Incremental values are those intrinsic values of which “the more of them we have the better” (p. 70) or “what we want more of no matter how much we already have” (p. 73). Sacred value is not an incremental value. He states the distinction thus: “The hallmark of the sacred as distinct from the incrementally valuable is that the sacred is intrinsically valuable because – and therefore only once – it exists” (pp. 73 – 74). He uses “knowledge”, as an example, to illustrate incremental value (the more knowledge we have the better). Whereas human life, works of art and distinct animal species all have sacred value, we do not think that the more Van Gogh paintings we have the better, for instance.

Once the concept of sacred value is dealt with, Dworkin proceeds to give an account of the origin of the sacred. He explains that two processes are involved. Something can become sacred, 1) through association or designation, or 2) historically (p.74). As regards the former, a thing is sacred through association with what it represents. For example, cats in ancient Egypt were associated with various deities, in the same way that flags represent the shared values of the nation. Flags and cats are therefore sacred because they are associated with other sacred objects – deity and the nation. As regards the latter, a sacred value can also arise historically, in two ways: through natural investment and through human investment. These are both creative processes, in the sense that they are capable of creating an object with sacred value. From the point of view of natural investment, nature can include a creative process from either a religious perspective (God is the divine creator and the natural work is his creative work) or a secular perspective (natural evolutionary processes, dating back millions of years). On the other hand, human investment relates to a creative process characterised by a deliberative human action. Dworkin gives an example of an artist investing in a work of art. Such a work of art would have a sacred value because of its history (i.e. how it came to be) as the product of human creative investment (i.e. the artist’s artistic efforts). Dworkin summarises his account of sacred value in the following way: “[T]he nerve of the sacred lies in the value we attach to a process or enterprise or project rather than to its results considered independently from how they were produced” (p.78). Indeed, we can also invest in our own individual lives, by engaging in personal development, pursuing education, forming goals etc. This would also give rise to a sacred value. So, God and human action, as creative forces, give sacred value to many (but not all) of their products (p. 80). The greater the investment in these forces, the more value their products will have. It follows that a human life has sacred value because a human being is a product of natural creation (either in a religious or a secular sense) and also as the result of a “deliberative human creative” force (partly of our parents, of our culture, of our investment in our own lives) Dworkin also notes, conveniently aiding his case by excluding the pertinent case of rape, that a bad cause can deprive an entity of intrinsic and hence sacred value. He, therefore, accepts that a foetus that becomes conceived as a result of rape has less intrinsic value than one that is not (pp. 56-57, 95-97) which may justify abortion if the frustration of the intrinsic value of the mother’s life from not aborting is greater than the loss of the low intrinsic value of the foetus’s life.

III. A Spanner in the Works

Intrinsic value of a duplicate?

What is problematic with Dworkin’s conception of intrinsic value is the fact that it is difficult to find a rational foundation to support the idea that human life is in fact sacred and should be protected on this basis. Should we protect every human life regardless of how it came into existence[5] or should we only protect lives which are a product of a specially designated process of creation? Also, if an artwork, according to Dworkin, can be intrinsically valuable then can it be intrinsically valuable in the same sense as a human life can be? Let us consider Van Gogh’s Sunflowers[6] as an example. Dworkin would say that The Sunflowers is sacredly valuable because it epitomises human creative force and is a product of it. It therefore has a special attribute, a property which makes it intrinsically valuable, that is its historical process. Dworkin would say that its value is objective and irreplaceable, and it would be a matter of “cosmic shame” to destroy it. Now, suppose that Van Gogh painted exactly the same Sunflowers and then he himself destroyed the original painting. What we now have is an identical duplicate as a replacement and, importantly, all the characteristic properties (human creative investment) that were present in the first version are now present in the duplicate. It seems wrong to say that there would be any loss of value when the first Sunflowers was replaced by the second. Could this be a weakness in Dworkin’s theory of sacred value because it fails to account for things which can be destroyed by their creator and then re-created in exactly the same manner, as duplicates, which arguably involves no loss of objective value and in no way makes the duplicate less intrinsically valuable than the original product? It seems that the answer is yes, yet only insofar as this relates to inanimate objects. Compare this with a human life. We think it is gravely immoral to kill a living human being, even when that human being can be replaced with exactly the same duplicate bearing all the properties of the first one. That is to say, the value lies in the existing human life, which cannot be equalled in value by a possible duplicate human life. This may suggest that a human life can be valuable intrinsically, as Dworkin suggests. Or, as Jeffrey Reiman put it, asymmetrically,[7] that is to say that although for a human life to have a rational foundation to be valued in this way there must be a constellation of special properties (historical processes) which in fact give rise to this kind of value, it cannot be based on “imputing goodness to those properties (or to their possessors), since that is symmetric valuing.[8] On this analysis, we must be valuing human beings in a way that implies an intrinsic, or asymmetric wrongness of killing them.

The Source of the Sacred and Inconsistent Superstitions

We know it is wrong to kill humans.[9] Dworkin says this is because a human life is sacred and inviolable. But it appears that his conception of intrinsic value does not allow us to clearly see why it is necessarily wrong to kill humans, for there are problems in his explanation of what it is that makes a human life valuable in this intrinsic way. He says we value works of art and human life as sacred because our valuation of them shares our attachment of value to the “process or enterprise” that brought them into existence, the “nerve of the sacred”. But the similarity ends here. Dworkin then attempts to delineate the sacredness of human life from other kinds of sacred things, such as art, by drawing distinctions between the processes that gave rise to the sacred value of the entity in question.

Two processes are involved in the creation of a human being, the natural process (either God’s creation or a product of evolution) and the human creative investment. On this basis, according to Dworkin, a human life is far more eligible for sacredness than works of art or distinct animal species for it involves not one but two “sources” of sacred force – natural process and human creative investment - whereas things other than human life would generally lack one or the other. But the problem is that our valuing of the natural process and human creative investment that brings something into existence does not justify or even explain why we should find that something created as a result has sacred value. Suppose that we did find things sacredly valuable on this basis, then we would find every entity as sacredly valuable that came into existence as a result of a perceived valuable natural process of human effort, which we do not and quite clearly should not. Dworkin seems to recognise this awkward result of his argument and says that “we do not treat everything that human beings create as sacred” (p. 80). Unfortunately, he offers no further principle to explain how we should select things that we do or do not attach sacred value to. Instead, he seems to suggest that our valuing of things as sacred is attributed to a “complex network of feelings and intuitions”, which he then concedes may be no more than “inconsistent superstitions” (pp. 80-81).

Dworkin, having noted a potential scope for the existence of intrinsic value in human life, offers a weak explanation of what it is that justifies valuing human life in this way. Justification is needed, however, if he is to persuade people of opposing views to abortion to accept his position that human life is intrinsically valuable. If such a position is accepted then people would, according to Dworkin, acknowledge that a foetus is an organism of intrinsic value and that it must be a matter for the mother to decide herself how she wants to respect it. In turn, this would require state neutrality in any kind of decision on procreation as these, as Dworkin points out, are essentially religious matters. But his plan would inevitably fail if he cannot, and I argue that he cannot, justify or explain why we should value human life intrinsically and thus hope to unite people in acknowledgement of the intrinsic value of human life.

A more plausible account of our moral views?

In his attempt to show what he means by intrinsic value Dworkin presents a number of other kinds of values, such as instrumental, subjective and incremental. In this way he distinguishes intrinsic value from all the others, thus demonstrating what intrinsic value is by showing what it is not (or can be but does not have to be). The problem with this approach is that it is based on two major assumptions: first, he assumes that people will accept that there are such values and, secondly, he assumes that people will inevitably accept his distinctions. He confidently states what the common folk believe, yet what is peculiar about his argument is that it is not clear whether he himself believes that there are such values.[10] This fails to add credibility to his argument, which is necessary in order to encourage people to accept this theory.

In order to argue that the sides to the abortion debate share a common respect for the intrinsic value of human life and that it is just a matter of personal interpretation, which would justify removing abortion from the political agenda, Dworkin in effect, has to present a more plausible account of our views, that is an account more plausible than the one which says that our moral views on abortion are based on the question of whether or not a foetus has rights, including a right to life. If Dworkin can show that our moral views (based on foetal rights) are wrong, then presumably we would agree that it is not these views that underpin our moral attitudes to abortion but rather our common respect for the intrinsic value of human life. Indeed, before this can be done we have to test whether Dworkin’s claim that human life has intrinsic value can be substantiated and that it is this notion that explains our conflicting attitudes to abortion. I argue that Dworkin’s notion of the intrinsic value of human life fails insofar as it flows from various creative processes that Dworkin identifies.

Creative Processes and Their Problems

One problem in Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value exists in the fact that sacred value derives its “sacredness” from its history, i.e. certain processes, as explained above. As he says, “the nerve of the sacred lies in the value we attach to a process” through which the thing came into being. The necessary connection between the sacredness of value and its history is problematic because although the value of life can be objective, it is not intrinsic in the sense that Dworkin suggests if history has to play the crucial part in formation of that value, for a value would not be sacred if its object had not had a particular history. This means that an entity with sacred value, a human life, would have to be situated in relation to something else (its history: a process that made it sacred), the combination of which has value.[11] This shows that the sacredness of human life depends on some external attribute (i.e. some creative process). Does this pose problems to Dworkin’s conception of intrinsic value? It has been suggested at some length that “intrinsic value” means that an entity has value in itself, that the source of the value is located within the entity itself[12] and is not dependent on any extrinsic source. Now, for Dworkin, intrinsic value depends on the relational extrinsic property – a creative process – which would thus imply that the value of life is not intrinsic, but extrinsic. This is inconsistent with Dworkin’s explanation of the sacredness of human life. He says that a human life is “sacred just in itself”, which implies that we have to look no further to see if life is in fact sacred. For Dworkin, human life is sacred and therefore has intrinsic value just because it is in existence. But this is contradictory to his position on intrinsic value, for one would not be able to know an entity’s intrinsic value without first knowing its history and assessing the processes that could have given rise to sacred value. Does this mean that life is sacred in itself, that life has intrinsic value? Or does this mean that only life with a certain history has intrinsic value? Also does an entity lack intrinsic value because it does not have a history, or a particular history? It seems logical that if an entity is valuable only because its history has value, the entity itself does not have intrinsic value because it has value in relation to that of its history. Therefore, an entity cannot be, based on Dworkin’s view, “sacred just in itself”. Perhaps Dworkin could more correctly state that a human life is valued as an end because of its relational properties, regardless of whether it fulfils our desires and needs.[13] In any event, this position needs to be clarified if the notion of intrinsic value is to stand any chance of being accepted as a more plausible account of our moral views on abortion. This is because if we were to accept this, we would supposedly all assume that each of our lives is intrinsically valuable per se as this would be a reasonable thing to do before we can say that it is a matter of our personal judgement of how we wish to respect the intrinsic value in our lives and in foetuses. Yet, based on Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value there is a problem in saying that all existing human lives have intrinsic value. According to Dworkin, Z’s (a person in existence) life is intrinsically valuable insofar as it depends on her history. That is her life is intrinsically valuable because it is the product of both natural and human investment. This means that if Z were deceived about her past and rather than being born through a natural process, Z was conceived and subsequently born as a result of rape, for instance, it would follow, according to Dworkin’s account, that Z’s life has less intrinsic value than she may have thought she had, or even no value at all.[14] This clearly seems to be wrong. Dworkin, in his defence, could perhaps say that that something’s intrinsic value need not depend on its intrinsic properties but can depend on its relational properties.[15] But, as I showed above, this would defy logic because intrinsic value must, in my mind, necessarily mean that the value is related to the essential nature of a thing and is inherent in it. The source of intrinsic value and its result (actual and objective intrinsic value) must therefore coexist within the intrinsically valuable entity itself without any external relational properties. So, this counter-argument would not stand. Dworkin could perhaps use another defence; a point suggested by F.M. Kamm.[16] One could say that a certain history can give an entity an additional property; for example, it could make it be a statement. So, if our creation was God’s statement then this property could, perhaps, give our lives intrinsic value. In this case, Dworkin would be able to detach the entity from its history (resulting in intrinsic value being independent of one of its relational properties) by saying that it is only the statement, as a property, giving intrinsic value to the entity, that results from the entity’s history and that the intrinsic value of the entity itself is independent of it having a certain history. Based on this view, I concede that the entity’s intrinsic value may be independent of its history, but the intrinsic value would still be dependent on a relational property that is the statement. So, as I suggested, it would be illogical to call this value intrinsic because it has an external relational property – the statement, as opposed to some inherent force, that gives rise to it. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the statement which gives rise to the intrinsic value of the entity was not a relational property which would upset the notion of the intrinsic value as suggested above but rather some abstract characteristic capable of giving rise to intrinsic value in a detached fashion and independently of the entity itself. Would the problem be solved? I think the answer is “no”. Entities with no history would still lack any kind of intrinsic value. Since it is history that gives something an additional property, i.e. a statement – which is a characteristic that could give intrinsic value, it follows that in the absence of a certain history an entity would not have intrinsic value as there would be no characteristic that could give rise to such intrinsic value. My argument is that intrinsic value, contrary to Dworkin’s position, must not include the notion of relational properties which give rise to it (eg. history). To say this would be to misrepresent the notion of intrinsic value. I have advanced arguments, and considered possible comebacks of Dworkin to defend my view.

Historical Dilemma

It would be reasonable to assume that Dworkin would have realised the untoward result of saying that an entity’s intrinsic value is created by its history. I illustrated above how this is problematic. What is peculiar is that if Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value is so problematic insofar as it holds that the intrinsic value of an entity is derived from it having a certain history, and Dworkin himself realised it, then why not come up with an alternative, ahistorical theory? This would arguably be a more plausible theory[17] upon which the intrinsic value would not have to be dependent on the entity having a certain history. This would also alleviate the awkwardness of people at large having to examine their past to see if their lives are in fact intrinsically valuable. It would be obvious that a human life is intrinsically valuable just because it is there, with no need to examine its history. Perhaps, this would make Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value more embraceable, and he may stand a better chance of persuading people to embrace it and in turn argue for the state’s neutrality in pro-creative decisions. However, Dworkin does not put forward an ahistorical theory. But why not? Examination of his position in relation to the abortion of foetuses which were conceived as a result of rape may reveal an answer. Dworkin claims that a foetus which results from rape has less intrinsic value because, again referring to its history, its life started in “a terrible desecration of its [mother’s] investment in her own life” and “a brutal violation of God’s law” (p. 96). On this basis, Dworkin says that abortion of such foetuses is permissible (pp.96-97). Indeed, to hold otherwise would constitute a very unpopular view because even conservatives believe that a foetus that is the result of a rape should be aborted. Dworkin also quotes Rabbi David Feldman, in a passage illustrating a stricter Jewish view on abortion: “Abortion for rape victims would be allowed, using a field and seed analogy: involuntary implantation of the seed imposes no duty to nourish the alien seed.”[18] Perhaps, to mollify the majority and present his notion of intrinsic value in a more favourable light, Dworkin conveniently carves out an exception to the general inviolability of human life by arguing that abortions for rape victims should be allowed. He allows this exception by reference to the foetus’ history, i.e. how it came to be. Arguably, if Dworkin’s theory of intrinsic value is independent of an entity’s history he would not be able to carve out his favourable exception which has the effect of appeasing the public. Perhaps this is a political move, but what I am concerned with is whether this exception sits comfortably with the general notion of “historical intrinsic value”. If it does not then we can perhaps accuse Dworkin of fabricating notions which are incongruent with his general thesis. Thus, I examine whether it is possible to substantiate the exception and thus permit a rape victim to have an abortion based on the fact that the history of the foetus accounts for a low intrinsic value which is outweighed by the intrinsic value of its mother’s life. Let us review the histories that Dworkin describes as the processes which could give an object its intrinsic value. He would say that The Sunflowers is intrinsically valuable or sacredly valuable because its history points out that it is the result of Van Gogh’s creative genius, a result of human creative effort. In this case, the history could successfully account for the sacredness of the art work. But what if Van Gogh was coerced into creating The Sunflowers on the threat of death? Arguably, the painting would not be any less valuable.[19] It may be less valuable to Van Gogh himself, but this is irrelevant since personal or subjective value has no bearing on sacred value at all. Following this line of argument, we are posed to question Dworkin’s claim that the foetus, which is a product of rape, has less intrinsic value because it began its life in the frustration of its mother’s life. So, if not all history affects the value of art works, as illustrated by The Sunflowers example, why should a particular history of how a foetus came to be affect the intrinsic value of that foetus?

If we agree that foetuses that are products of rape have low intrinsic value, we could also say that adults who were once conceived because of rape have less intrinsic value than those who were conceived and born as a result of a natural and intentional sexual act. Does this mean that “normal” adults who have “full” intrinsic value would be permitted, or even justified, in mistreating or even killing those born as a result of rape on the basis that the latter have less intrinsic value? This clearly cannot and should not be right. It follows that there is, at best, a weak and, at worst, a non-existent historical basis for Dworkin’s suggestion that a foetus that is a product of rape has low intrinsic value. On the contrary, it should be possible, and would also be congruent with Dworkin’s general theory on intrinsic value, to identify a foetus as a human organism that has intrinsic or sacred value independent of how it come into being (as long as somehow it did come into being) even if its conception is the result of rape.

Aiding the Sacred Entity

It has been suggested above that Dworkin’s exception to the sacredness of life which permits rape victims to have an abortion is inconsistent and flawed. Let us now consider a normal situation in which a woman who intentionally got pregnant wishes to perform an abortion for whatever reason. How does Dworkin’s theory of value account for any possible conflicts that can arise between the foetus and the mother? Dworkin says that it is wrong and a matter of a “cosmic shame” to destroy any sacred entity once it exists (pp. 74, 78, 84) because if we were to do so we would frustrate the natural creative investment. If it is wrong to destroy a sacred entity, does it also mean that we should actively protect it from being destroyed? Dworkin suggests that it is important that sacred things flourish (p. 74) and that the human race survives and prospers (p.76). This implies that Dworkin also intends that we must aid sacred things in their flourishing and actively prevent them from being destroyed. He uses handicapped people as an example saying that we must help them prosper in order that they obtain a return on the investment in their lives (p.99). Dworkin also argues that a woman should not allow her pregnancy to frustrate her investment in her own life. But this position again seems inconsistent, for if Dworkin argues that sacred things must be protected and not destroyed, he should argue for the prevention of naturally occurring miscarriages with as much commitment as he argues for not destroying foetuses.[20] But he does not. The problem is that Dworkin does not clearly articulate a distinction between destroying the sacred and not aiding the sacred with the result that it would be destroyed. Without such a distinction it is very difficult to see why people who oppose abortion on the ground that it wastes the sacred life of the foetus should not also engage in a campaign to prevent natural miscarriages.[21] But suppose a woman requires an abortion without which she would die. Indeed, if we do not permit her to have that abortion, we would not aid her, and as a result she would die. If we do perform an abortion we would destroy the foetus, which presumably has lower intrinsic value, yet save the mother’s life. This, therefore, suggests that when posed with conflicting intrinsic values, we regard aiding (the mother) as more important than not destroying the foetus. To hold otherwise would mean that abortion should not be permitted at all. Dworkin fails to emphasise this distinction, which creates some confusion, but this is only part of the problem.

Another problem is that in abortion decisions a woman would effectively be asked to weigh her intrinsic value in relation to that of the foetus. Understandably, many people find the idea morally objectionable that a woman should be permitted to destroy a foetus, even one with relatively low intrinsic value, in order to save her own life which presumably has a higher intrinsic value. It would, therefore, be very hard for Dworkin to persuade the public to accept his notion of intrinsic value as this would mean that pregnant women would have to engage in an unfamiliar practice with no guidelines available to assess the value of their own lives in comparison to the lives of their foetuses. This feature alone presents great scope for opposing Dworkin’s theory of intrinsic value.

Liberal and Conservative Accounts of Belief in the Intrinsic Value of Human Life

It needs to be noted that although Dworkin claims that we believe in the sacredness of human life, he characterises conservative understanding of intrinsic value as different from liberal understanding. It is important to examine his characterisation of beliefs of both liberals (pp.32-34, 74, 75) and conservatives (pp. 31-32, 74) to see if his account is accurate. Dworkin gives an account of the liberals’ belief in the sanctity of human life as one based on liberals’ shared appreciation of the human creative intelligence. That is to say, a human life is valuable because it is the product of his or her parents’ effort, his or her own choices etc. It has been pointed out that this view is problematic[22] as human beings are not the only products of human creative intelligence. Indeed, nuclear weapons, cigarettes and various poisons, for example, are also the products of human creative intelligence. It could be argued that these products, although created by the human creative process are not valuable at all, let alone intrinsically valuable. If human life and, say, nuclear weapons or cigarettes are all products of human creative intelligence, then why should we consider human life valuable and the other things not valuable at all? Indeed, we cannot and should not say that a packet of cigarettes is as intrinsically valuable as a human life but this does not obviously follow from Dworkin’s account of the liberal belief in the intrinsic value of human life. In his account of the conservative view, Dworkin says that the conservative would oppose abortion because he believes that human life is created through God’s creative genius or the process of natural evolution. The conservative would recognise both of these as admirable creative processes which, according to Dworkin, would explain why the conservative would see a human foetus as an intrinsically valuable organism and thus object to its destruction. This account of the conservative’s belief is problematic.[23] The life of a centipede or the life of an individual maple tree just like the life of a human being, is also the result of creative processes. According to this view, the life of a human should not be any more valuable than the life of a maple tree. But this is clearly not the view the conservative would have. It is obvious that the conservative would object to abortion because he or she attaches much greater value to the foetus than to other objects created by the “same process”. Dworkin’s account of the conservative view on abortion is misrepresentative. Dworkin could perhaps defend his position by saying that a human life is the pinnacle of evolution. But then we would have to accept his assumption that a human life is, in fact, that pinnacle of evolution. This could be seen as an abstract assumption and indeed many,[24] including Darwin, have argued that it is a misconception to believe that we are the highest achievement of evolution. Alternatively, Dworkin could say that the conservative believes in the sanctity of life because a human being is made in God’s image, which represents God’s creative genius. I concede that this could explain why a religious conservative could see a human life as intrinsically valuable but it still fails to account for why, in the view suggested, non-religious conservatives should recognise intrinsic value in a human organism. In addition, devout religious conservatives may ground their beliefs about the wrongness of abortion solely in their religious convictions. It would then be neither up to the state, nor up to Dworkin to say on which basis a foetus’s life should be respected since for a religious conservative such basis is purely theistic.[25] Dworkin’s account therefore misrepresents both the liberals’ and the conservatives’ views on abortion. As pointed out, the liberal and the conservative are very unlikely to accept that human life is intrinsically valuable as a result of creative processes in the sense that Dworkin describes. Furthermore, even if we assume for the sake of argument that such creative processes could account for the liberal and conservative understanding of abortion we would still have to be convinced that these processes are valuable in themselves, because according to Dworkin only in this way could they give rise to the sacredness of the entity that they create. But, Dworkin fails to give a convincing explanation for why such creative processes are themselves valuable. He says that “we [value] human artistic effort, … because it can produce marvellous things like great paintings of beauty [etc] … / we [value] nature because it has produced striking geological formations and majestic plants and living creatures we find extraordinary, including us” (p 80). It has been suggested that this argument is “wholly circular”[26] in that according to Dworkin, we value creative processes because of what they produce, but we supposedly value the products because of the creative processes involved in their creation. Following this logically it should mean that if we find that a product is not marvellous then we should also find that the process that created it is not admirable, but this is not so, according to Dworkin. He specifically says that we find human artistic effort (as a process) admirable even if some things it produces are not marvellous, but this contradictory.[27] I believe Dworkin could possibly rebut this by saying that we value human creative effort because it can but does not have to produce things we find wonderful. This would again be problematic, for if we were to accept this, we would find processes valuable that could bring about products that are in fact, harmful to us. This cannot be right. Thus, Dworkin’s failure to explain why and how these creative processes themselves are valuable, prevents him from accounting for liberal and conservative understanding, as well as that of anyone else, for why human life has intrinsic value.

“I am more intrinsically valuable than you are!”

Indeed, if Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value were embraced as he argues it should be, the effect of this, in simple terms, would be that a pregnant woman contemplating an abortion would have to determine whether she has more intrinsic value than the foetus, and it would be morally wrong for her to have an abortion, to destroy the foetus, if her life has less intrinsic value compared to the foetus. It would be implausible to construe the moral permissibility of a woman’s decision to abort in terms of her evaluation of various intrinsic values at stake, which is what Dworkin suggests (p. 60). It is more likely that a woman would decide what to do based on her view of her rights and interests and not based on her estimation of whether she is more valuable than her foetus. There is a vast debate on whether the foetus is a person and is an object with rights. It has been argued by many, including Dworkin, that a foetus cannot possibly have any rights or interests, at least not until the point when it develops the capacity to feel pain. It has also been argued that a foetus cannot be regarded as having a right to life, because a right to life presupposes that one is “capable of desiring to continue existing as a subject of experiences”. A foetus lacks consciousness and is therefore incapable of forming such a desire and thus it does not have a right to life.[28] Judith Thomson also argued in her famous hypothetical case about an innocent dying violinist who was attached to a woman’s circulatory system, without her consent, in order to save his life, that it would be morally permissible to disconnect him from her body with the effect that he would die because the right to life of the violinist does not confer upon him a right to use the woman’s body.[29] There are also debates as to when a human person begins to exist[30] or when ensoulment[31] takes place.[32] Others discuss the woman’s right to exercise her freedom in controlling her own body[33] and examine how this may infringe on any possible rights or interests of the foetus.[34]

This shows that we are prepared to judge on the moral permissibility of the woman’s decision to abort in terms of things other than her determination of whether she has more intrinsic value that her foetus. Dworkin’s claim that we must allow the woman to exercise her own judgement in deciding if she wants to abort or not, based on the weighing up of the intrinsic values involved, is therefore unsatisfactory insofar as it does not portray what happens in reality. Similarly, his claim that in our pro-creative decisions we are apparently already driven by our shared respect for the sanctity of human life, is also false because, as I showed, most pro-creative decisions are examined other than by reference to any intrinsic value in the sense that Dworkin suggests, neither explicitly nor implicitly.

IV. Intrinsic Value: A Work of Fiction

What I find problematic about Dworkin’s notion of intrinsic value is that it does not account for the usefulness of a particular life to society at large. Dworkin explains what he means by the sacredness of human life by drawing a distinction between sacred and instrumental. In reality, I believe, a human life is valued not only intrinsically but also, to use Dworkin’s language, instrumentally, that is to say that we attach a value to a human life on the basis of its usefulness to us. Dworkin tells us that the reason we protect a human life is because it is intrinsically valuable – the life is sacred and is inviolable and that is why we protect it. But that is an inaccurate account. For we choose to protect a human life not only because, as Dworkin suggests, it is sacred but also because we have also assessed the usefulness of that life to us, the society. Dworkin could accuse me of using a utilitarian approach to valuing human life, but I would not be the only one[35] for we do construe our actions in relation to a particular life based to some degree on the instrumental value of that life. Dworkin could disagree with this and say that human life is sacred and thus it is important to let it flourish without the need to impute any goodness to it. The reality is that life may be sacred but that does not mean that society cannot, or does not, prevent that life from flourishing. We, as a society, believe that criminals are dangerous to our well-being. We assess the value of their lives, therefore, based on the benefit (or harm) we can receive from them. If we believe that their lives are harmful to us, as evidenced by their criminal acts, we incapacitate them by sending them to prison. We prevent their lives from flourishing because we value their lives on the basis of their usefulness to us and conclude that it is better if such a person’s life is constrained in some way or another. In the same vein, when we lawfully execute a mass murderer, or when a husband shoots a criminal who is about to kill his wife and his daughter, we are not considering these losses of lives a matter of “cosmic shame”, as Dworkin suggests. These lives may still have intrinsic value but this value is not the only factor which would account for the moral permissibility of our actions in relation to those lives. So, the fact that a human life or foetus has intrinsic value does not provide us with a compelling reason for why we should advance protection to that life per se without reference to other factors.

Intrinsic Value and Self-Preservation

Dworkin argues that a human life or the life of a human organism is sacred once it exists. But just because something exists does not necessarily make it sacred or intrinsically valuable.[36] Indeed, it should not. Dworkin says that a foetus (as a human organism) is intrinsically valuable because it is a product, among other things, of God’s creative genius. But how does he know that the foetus is a product of God, and was not created by the devil, for instance? If God has the power to create, and does in fact create marvellous things, which we find adorable, and thus choose to protect, then why is it not possible that the devil or any other evil force can create things which are atrocious and heinous? Can, in other words, a foetus not be a child of the devil that would spread evil in this world and thus should be destroyed? Perhaps, someone may attempt to dismiss this view as highly abstract and metaphysical, and maybe they would even succeed. Yet, what is important here is that not all lives are great and pleasant. For instance, Hitler’s life brought so much misery and pain into the world, with his killing of millions of people, that many people would have no moral compunction about destroying his life. It would not be a matter of cosmic shame for most people to execute him, for instance. Indeed, we could probably say that it is a matter of cosmic shame that such a life was lived and allowed to flourish. Most people would adopt this view in relation to mass murderers, who are executed in some American States, for instance, with little or no regret. In its decisions to execute such people, society is arguably driven by its striving for self-preservation. Very few people in their right mind would consider sacrificing their own life to a murderer. Instead, many people would consider it appropriate in this case, given the imminent threat, to kill the attacker as this would be a reaction rooted in our psychology of self-preservation and it would not be viewed as a morally repugnant action in most circumstances. I have shown that there are other factors pertinent to our life and death decisions and it would be implausible to say that the intrinsic value of human life or of the foetus is the only factor which should figure in our pro-creative decisions.

“A Question of Conviction”

During his seminar on Life’s Dominion,[37] I pointed out to Professor Dworkin some of the inconsistencies and flaws in his notion of intrinsic value that I have examined in this paper. I pointed out to him that, with respect, I believed he failed to provide an adequate proof that there is in fact a common ground in the abortion controversy in the guise of our belief in the intrinsic value of human life. I asked if he could possibly provide any additional proof, which would convince me that such is the case. In reply, he said: “the question about intrinsic value is not a question of proof, it is a question of conviction”. He further noted that a human life is a magical creation; it is great because it has the power to inspire conscious beings. I agree that some people may regard life as sacred because it is “magical”, as Dworkin suggests. But if the notion of intrinsic value is a matter of individual conviction – then is it not possible that such convictions may differ from individual to individual? He responded somewhat vaguely that the fact that we all share a belief in the intrinsic value of human life is not an issue that has to be proved to the satisfaction of everyone, adding that the question of whether we can have reason to believe in the intrinsic value of human life is different from the question of whether it can be demonstrated that we all share such a belief. I understand this to mean that although we all, according to Dworkin, believe in the intrinsic value of human life, it is not always required (or possible?) to prove that we do actually all share this view. But if it is as undoubtedly clear as Dworkin suggests, that we are all united in our belief in the sacredness of human life, then why is it not possible to demonstrate this with relative ease to the satisfaction of everyone? Perhaps, because Dworkin suspects that we do not all believe in this notion, and advancement of factual evidence as proof may breed justifiable resistance, this could account for the vague explanation given. Whatever the answer to this question is, I believe an argument can be put forward with force that people are inevitably divided in their beliefs. Some will regard life as sacred because it has the power to inspire, but some will not. Therefore, the notion that intrinsic value is a question of conviction (or a product of feelings and intuitions)[38] is a rather weak standpoint if one is to successfully argue that the notion of intrinsic value is what in fact unites the sides in the polarised abortion debate.

In this paper I have identified and examined flaws in Dworkin’s position on the intrinsic value of human life. I have argued that he does not provide an acceptable principle which can solve the ongoing abortion controversy, as he claims it to. Dworkin merely draws attention to the problem. I have therefore undertaken the task of explaining why we should pause before embracing the claim that we consider human life intrinsically valuable for the reasons that Dworkin provides. I hope I have been successful.


Barclay L., “Rights, Intrinsic Values and the Politics of Abortion”, Utilitas, xi(1999)

Dworkin R., Life’s Dominion (1993, New York)

Eberl J. T., The Beginning of Personhood: A Thomistic Biological Analysis, 14 Bioethics 2000

Finnis J., The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: A Reply to Judith Thomson, 2 Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972-3.

Goldman A. H., Plain Sex, 6 Philosophy and Public Affairs 3 (1997)

Harris J., The Value of Life, An Introduction to Medical Ethics, (1990, London)

Hittinger R., Books in Review, Life’s Dominion.

Hursthouse R., Beginning Lives, (1987, New York)

Kamm F. M., Abortion and the Value of Life: A Discussion of Life’s Dominion, CLR Vol. 95i-1995

Kamm F. M., Creation and Abortion, (1992, Oxford),

Korsgaard C., Two Distinctions in Goodness, Phisophical Review, xcii (1983)

Morgan D., Issues in Medical Law and Ethics, (2001 London)

Moore G. E., “The Conception of Intrinsic Value”, Philosophical Studies, London, (1922)

O’Day K., “Intrinsic Value and Investment” Utilitas, xi (1999)

Paone D. V., To Be or Not to Be, Reflections on Modern Bioethical Choices (1999, London)

Rachels J., Review of Dworkin in Bioethics, vii (1994).

Reiman J., Abortion and the Ways We Value Human Life, (1999, Lanham)

Scanlon T. M., Partisan For Life, New York Review of Books, Vol. 40, Number 13 (1993 NY)

Thomson J. J., A Defense of Abortion, 1 Philosophy and Public Ethics 1971

Tooley M., Abortion and Infanticide, 2 Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972 – 3,


[1] R. Dworkin, New York (1993)

[2] R. Dworkin, Life’s Dominion, New York (1993), p.10. Hereafter, page references are given in the text

[3] Dworkin says that the intrinsic value of human life is actually a sacred value in the sense that it is intrinsically valuable once it exists.

[4] L. Barclay, “Rights, Intrinsic Values and The Politics of Abortion”, Utilitas, ix (1999)

[5] Consider a foetus conceived because of rape. What impact would this have on its intrinsic value?

[6] Vincent Van Gogh, – one of his four paintings dating from August and September, 1888.

[7] J. Reiman, Abortion and the Ways We Value Human Life, (1999, Maryland), pp. 4-5

[8] Ibid. p.4

[9] This is a generalisation and there are exceptions. I will consider how these exceptions affect Dworkin’s theory of intrinsic value at a later stage.

[10] L. Barclay, Rights, Intrinsic Values and the Politics of Abortion

[11] F. M. Kamm, Abortion and the Value of Life: A Discussion of Life’s Dominion, CLR Vol. 95i-1995, p.177

[12] C. Korsgaard, Two Distinctions in Goodness, Philosophical Review, xcii (1983)

[13] L. Barclay, Rights, Intrinsic Values and the Politics of Abortion, pp. 220-221.

[14] F.M Kamm, Abortion and The Value of Life, p. 178

[15] Suggested by Jonathan Bennett, Letter from Jonathan Bennett, Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University, to F. M. Kamm (April, 1994)

[16] F. M. Kamm, Abortion and The Value of Life, p. 178

[17] Suggested by F.M. Kamm

[18] F. Supp, 630 (1980) 696 – footnote in Life’s Dominion, p.248.

[19] Suggested by F.M. Kamm, p. 180.

[20] Ibid pp. 182 - 183

[21] Ibid.

[22] L. Barclay, p.2


[23] Ibid. p. 221

[24] see J. Rachels review of Dworkin in Bioethics, vii (1994).

[25] L. Barclay, p.222

[26] Ibid. p. 223

[27] see above

[28] M. Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide, 2 Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972 – 3, pp.44-45, 49.

[29] J. J. Thomson, A Defense of Abortion, 1 Philosophy and Public Ethics 1971 – 71, pp. 57, 61

[30] J. T. Eberl, The Beginning of Personhood: A Thomistic Biological Analysis, 14 Bioethics 2000

[31] The instantiation of a human soul in the biological matter

[32] T. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia., Q 29, A. 1. Treatise on Man

[33] D. V. Paone, To Be or Not to Be, Reflections on Modern Bioethical Choices (1999, London)

[34] F. M. Kamm, Creation and Abortion, (1992, Oxford), p.18 see also J. Harris, The Value of Life, An Introduction to Medical Ethics, Chpt. 8

[35] R. Hursthouse, Beginning Lives, (1987 New York) p. 134

[36] R. Hursthouse, p.132.

[37] 26th Feb 2004, 2.00p.m. – 4.00p.m., Moot Court Room, Bentham House, Endsleigh Gardens, London

[38] As noted above

AustLII: Feedback | Privacy Policy | Disclaimers