• Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Value of Life

    Life has value, we would intuitively claim. But what is it about life which gives it its value? Does life have value in and of itself, or is the value derived by things which life can give us, that we can do with it? The first is intrinsic value, that life is inherently meaningful and valuable in and of itself. The second is extrinsic value, where the value is derived from other things which life facilitates.

    This is particularly important in the euthanasia debate, because the value attached to life is what impacts over whether one agrees in principle with the practice or not. Essentially, people who are against euthanasia do on on the premise that human life is a basic good of human nature, that it cannot be an instrumental good (at least not solely). This is your classic consequentialist or utilitarian philosophy, that people cannot be used as instruments as a means to an end.

    I, when I am not being a moral skeptic, favour a consequentialist ethical framework. It seems to intuitively work in principle to some degree. As I have mentioned before, all moral theories have problems, which is why moral skepticism is so attractive. Moral skepticism also fits with my beliefs about abstract ideas (that abstract ideas are conceptual and mental constructs which do not exist subjectively, that morality is one of these, and that morality does not exist outside of our mental frameworks). Yes, there are problems for consequentialism/utilitarianism such that it could follow that someone walking into a hospital should be taken away and carved up in order to save the lives of five others via a forced donation of their organs.

    In the same way, there are problems for Kantian style deontological moral frameworks, such that things are just categorically bad, objectively so. For example, if it is wrong to lie, what should I do if two innocent children are hiding in my loft and a child murderer comes to my door and asks if I know where they are?

    And so on.

    But this aside, let us look at life. Why is life valuable? One might say some of the following:

    • because of all you can do with it
    • because of the joy you can experience
    • the value of thought and rationality and gaining of knowledge
    • love, emotion, feelings etc.

    What’s interesting with all of these is that they do not give life intrinsic value, but are extrinsic qualities: they are things which life begets, if you will.


    Someone who is pro-euthanasia might argue that a human who is devoid of any ability to do these things (say, in an irreversible coma, without any aspects of personhood, just a breathing body, and even that may be facilitated technologically) is devoid of value. What gives that human value is all of those things above, all of which this human is barred from. As such, it would be acceptable to end that person’s life.

    Of course, this all depends upon the certainty one would have that the human in question wouldn’t wake up from the coma and suddenly be cured. We can’t be 100% sure of anything in life (apart from cogito ergo sum) but this shouldn’t paralyse us into inaction.

    One might see a parallel to the death penalty. “What if the person is innocent?” And yes, this is one of a range of valid arguments against the death penalty. However, our scientific knowledge is rigorous enough to tell us with some certainty whether damage to a person’s brain and cognitive faculties are irreversible and catastrophic.

    The point being that without all of these faculties, the human body becomes a vessel. And if all potentiality is realistically taken away from that body, then the life that the body has is seemingly devoid of any realistic value.

    In other words, euthanasia (with a whole bunch of caveats) seems to be a reasonable idea.


    Category: FeaturedMoralityPhilosophyUncategorized


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • “Does life have value in and of itself…”
      No, imo. It is relatively easy to come up with situations in which I would prefer immediate and permanent annihilation over continued conscious existence. The eternal “lake of fire” from Christian mythology, for example.

    • John Grove

      For an excellent look at this issue see Shelly Kagan’s book on Death

      • Thanks. I’m sure you’ve mentioned/recommended that book before, if I recall rightly.

    • im-skeptical

      I think the real question is about personhood. You touched on that in your article. We don’t usually have much of a problem with killing living things for food, etc. Many of us feel that abortion is acceptable before the fetus becomes a person, but once personhood is achieved, the individual has a right to life. It is also interesting to note that “pro-life” crowd always refers to the fetus as a “baby”, or some other term that gives it the status of personhood, while the “pro-choice” crown prefers to use the word fetus, which denies the status of personhood.

      • Yes, I was considering going off on a whole personhood thing, but yes, they are pretty much the same debate.

    • Joe

      I agree with you on this. Part of the reason that this debate exists can be attributed to people attaching a physical definition to ‘Life’. This is an extension of the abortion debate that another commenter has touched on below.
      I’m with you in that I think life is a mental concept we develop for a physical process that occurs.

    • kraut2

      Why do we even need an exploration of the value of life in the case of euthanasia? Does it not simply come down to the decision of a person if he/she wants to contnue their life or not and if help to end life is available when the person is incapable to end his/her life?
      It is the person who makes this decision that sets a value for their own life – and that to me is all that is needed.

    • Kevin L

      “Yes, there are problems for consequentialism/utilitarianism such that it could follow that someone walking into a hospital should be taken away and carved up in order to save the lives of five others via a forced donation of their organs.”

      There’s a pretty common refutation of this alleged problem for consequentialism: There are consequences of living in a society where people are routinely taken away and carved up in order to save the lives of five others via a forced donation of their organs. One consequence is that many people wouldn’t want to live in this society, for instance. In fact, I’d say that the idea of human rights is only valuable in the consequential effect it has on the well-being of people in reality to be assigned those rights. I’ve yet to hear or read a real problem with consequentialism that doesn’t undervalue or ignore certain necessary consequences in this way.

      In response to the rest of your post, I value established sentience (as opposed to life). My appendix is alive. If I someday have to lose it, I won’t likely miss it at all. I value life insofar as and to the degree that it has the ability to experience well-being or suffer.

      • Hi Kevin

        Sure, I didn’t want to sidetrack the discussion on the well trodden paths of refutations and counter refutations. I am intuitively a consequentialist, but there are problems, as there are with every system. For example, when considering the time frame of deriving consequences, then it becomes arbitrary, and impossible to calculate the actual consequences. Are we talking immediate consequences, a year, 5, 10, 100 etc? Of course, an action can derive a negative consequence for one, and a positive for another time frame.

        So then it becomes about intention and rule consequentialism etc etc. But if you cannot properly graps what might most probably happen, then it also can take on an element of random etc.

        But the basic premise of consequentialism is pretty sound.

        • Kevin L

          Hey, thanks for the response.

          Yeah, I think this is a problem of complexity though. The fact that we can’t calculate morality well (even if we come up with a way to accurately measure well-being, which is another problem of complexity) is a problem for answers in practice, not answers in principle imo. No matter which framework we choose, it’ll be in its infancy, but I think consequentialism is the best game in town by a mile. Hell, even if we try to use another, we’ll have to employ consequentialism if we ever want to test it.

          • What’s interesting is tht when you do it intuitively, 80% of people pull the lever, but when you have to push the fat man, that way drops. So there is a massive element of psychology, too.

            • Kevin L

              Oh absolutely, and many of our intuitions are likely to be terrible anyway, just like they are in pretty much every other field of study. Morality is one of the few fields where an overwhelming majority of people tend to assume that the lack of rigorousness entailed by their intuitions (not to be confused with their intrinsic preferences/values) is actually more valuable and likely to be consistent than careful contemplation.

              To add a little nuance, I’m supportive of a value based consequentialism that seeks to maximize people’s net, non-malicious values, and that will absolutely entail a massive element of psychology (and/or neuroscience as it advances).