What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?In the second episode of Torchwood, ‘Day One‘, Gwen feels that Jack and the others have lost touch with humanity. Jack then asks Gwen in return what it means to be human.

In this episode, Carys is possessed by an alien entity which uses her to have sex with people and consume their orgasmic energy. Gwen’s practical reply is to care for the victim as an individual; a person with intrinsic value. The rest of the Torchwood crew think of Carys as a problem to solve, they see her as a person with extrinsic value.

The deeper question thus is whether people have intrinsic value? The gut-feel reply will be ‘of course!’, but what is the argument for this?

If people only have extrinsic value then they are means to an end for each other. If we believe that people do have intrinsic value then we see them for what they are, which essentially leads to altruism, e.g. doing something without external motives.

Our ethical system is based on the idea that people have intrinsic value. If this was not the case then it would be perfectly acceptable to breed people to provide organs for others. Denying people intrinsic value can thus motivate cruel behaviours. The German Nazis saw people as a means to their end of obtaining absolute power and in Stalinist regimes people are considered as part of a collective, rather than an intrinsically valuable individual. We seem to be forced to introduce an intrinsic human value in order to provide a limitation for unacceptable behaviour.

But do people really have intrinsic value? Some argue that our motives are never truly altruistic and that we always use other people as a mean to an end – albeit not in ways as dramatic as the above examples. If this somewhat pessimistic view of humanity is true, how do we draw the line between acceptable use of people and unacceptable use?

I think that the intrinsic value of people is a social construction which enables us to live together without harvesting each others organs and not something that exists without our reflection upon it. The as such constructed intrinsic value has no objective existence in the world, but that does not matter because it serves its purpose of creating stable human societies very well. The boundary between acceptable and unacceptable use is drawn by justice and fairness, which in themselves are also very fluid concepts.

Some might argue against this and proclaim that there are many examples of successful civilisations where the intrinsic value of humans was not as engrained as in our culture. Intrinsic value is thus not a prerequisite for a successful civilisation.

When looking at some of these cultures in detail, we see, however, that they differentiated between ‘them’ and ‘us’. There are many examples of human sacrifice and in most cases only slaves and people from other tribes where used. In other words, they changed the definition of being human; something the German Nazis also used to justify their actions. Those people that were considered to be human were given intrinsic value, evidenced by the fact that all cultures have some sort of legal system.

The fact that many cultures undertaking human sacrifice were highly successful only underwrites the point that that intrinsic human value is a social construction!