Naturalism cannot support the idea that human beings have real, intrinsic value. This is a feature of the Judeo-Christian theology of the imago Dei – that we are made in the image of God. Absent this theological foundation, there is no reason to think human value is real. At best, humans only have a subjective, extrinsic value; i.e. our value is derived from our own estimation of ourselves. Human beings value particular traits that they possess, and thus value the human beings who possess such traits (a circular, biased, and wholly subjective estimation). This sort of value, however, is fictitious. It only exists in our minds, and it only extends to those that we think it extends to. This value is never equal, and it rarely applies to all human beings. Some human beings will be considered to be more valuable than others, and some will be deemed to have no value at all.

A foundational debate in bioethics concerns the basis for human value: Are we valuable in virtue of being human, or are we valuable in virtue of some characteristic we acquire or some function we can perform? Is our value rooted in our being, or our doing? I’m not confident that the debate will remain here for long, however. Secular bioethicists already dominate the field, and thus the extrinsic view of human value already dominates the academy. I think the future of the debate will be between those who affirm an extrinsic view of human value and those who hold to a nihilist view of value (denying the concept of human value altogether).

We are already seeing bioethicists deny the concept of human value as a relic of speciesism that fails to grapple with the implications of Darwinian evolution. Humans are not special, they say. We are just another animal in the forest. We may have some unique characteristics compared to other animals, but being unique is not the same thing as being valuable. There is no basis in a naturalistic, Darwinian worldview for human value. Value is subjective, and hence not real. It is a figment of our own imagination. It is a human concept that we may wish were true, but there is no basis for it in reality.

God help us if the nihilistic view gains ascendency. On an extrinsic view of value, some humans are expendable, but on a nihilistic view of value, all of us are expendable. Only an intrinsic value of human beings that is rooted in theism is sufficient to provide the foundation for real human value and secure human rights and equality for all.