This is a Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Hello Dr Craig,
I have two (related) questions for you.
Question 1: Suppose I, as a Humanist (which I am) - or, indeed, as a Christian (which I am not) - were to make the following claim: "I believe that human beings, objectively, have intrinsic value", would that, on its own, be sufficient to ground objective morality? My own view is that it would. Something having value - say a work of art hanging in a museum - imposes some kind of duty of care to that thing, even if its value is not intrinsic. Morality, on this view, is simply that same sense of duty applied to things that have intrinsic value.
Question 2: Do you, as a Christian, believe that human beings do, in fact, have intrinsic value? Before you answer question 2, please take into account a possible response that a Christian might give, and my response to that. A Christian might say: "yes, I believe human beings have intrinsic value because they are given it by God." My response to that is that it is a contradiction to say that human beings are given intrinsic value by God. Intrinsic value means that the thing (human being) does not derive its value from any source other than itself. If human beings derive their value from God, their value is at best derivative or extrinsic - like a work of art. So with that clarification in mind, how would you answer question 2? Thank you for your time in considering these questions.
William Lane Craig's Response
I’m sorry to hear that you’re a secular humanist, David, rather than a Christian humanist—though I suppose I should be glad at least that you’re not a moral nihilist like your more consistent secular colleagues! I hope you’ll consider a humanism that grounds the objective value of human beings, which we both want to affirm, in God. So in answer to your questions:
1. “Suppose I were to make the following claim: "I believe that human beings, objectively, have intrinsic value", would that, on its own, be sufficient to ground objective morality?” Obviously not! You can claim anything that you want, but as the saying goes, “Thinking don’t make it so!” Your statement tells us only what you believe but provides no reason to think that what you believe is true. The next man can with equal justification say, “I believe that human beings, objectively, have no intrinsic value." But you can’t both be right, since you are both making claims about what is objectively the case, not about how things appear to you.
I agree that something which has extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, value, such as a painting, may be something that we are obliged to care for. Objective moral value may be either intrinsic or extrinsic (more on this below). But that goes no distance toward showing that such value can arise merely from my valuing something, for that is purely subjective. Different people value different things, and some people nothing at all.
2. “Do you, as a Christian, believe that human beings do, in fact, have intrinsic value?” Of course! Your objection to this response betrays a misunderstanding of intrinsic moral value. You assert, “Intrinsic value means that the thing (human being) does not derive its value from any source other than itself.” That is a mistake. The relevant distinction here is between intrinsic and extrinsic. “Intrinsic value” means that something is valued as an end in itself, for example, a human being. “Extrinsic value” means that something is valued as a means to an end, for example, a hammer.
By contrast, something has non-derivative (or inherent) value if its value is not grounded in something else. Something has derivative value if its value is grounded in something else. Don’t confuse the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction with the inherent/derivative distinction. Something may have intrinsic value (should be treated as an end in itself rather than as a means to some end) and yet have its value grounded in something else (like God or the Good).
So it does not follow that “If human beings derive their value from God, their value is at best derivative or extrinsic.” Derivative, yes; but extrinsic, no. They are to be treated as ends in themselves.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.