• 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