Acknowledging Others

Crown Fountain in Red - photo by Chris Smith
Crown Fountain in Red – photo by Chris Smith

I take it as a starting point that human beings are valuable in a very distinctive way. The loss of a human life is not compensable by the creation or preservation of another human life. What rules out such compensation is that each human being has irreplaceable value. If one grants this starting point, it follows that any account of the value of human beings must make sense of their irreplaceability. Indeed, human beings stand in relation to one another as beings who can properly claim certain forms of regard and treatment as their due. Therefore it is not just that human beings ought to be treated as bearers of irreplaceable value, but because human beings are due such treatment, if we do not treat them as bearers of irreplaceable value, we would not only be doing the wrong thing ethically, we would actually wrong each of them individually.


It is often alleged that Aristotelianism cannot make good sense of this notion of the value of human beings. Aristotelianism has special difficulty acknowledging the value of non-virtuous agents, and some feel that the eudaimonistic structure of Aristotelianism itself bars the way to acknowledgment of others as self-standing sources of reasons. Indeed, Aristotelians tend to measure the damage of murder, rape, etc. more in terms of the kinds of setbacks these cause to the moral well-being of the perpetrator, than as things that harm or affront their victims.


Those who raise concerns about these Aristotelian tendencies often suggest that a broadly Kantian approach to ethics can offer a more illuminating account of the irreplaceability of each moral agent and of the standing of any such agent to claim certain kinds of treatment as their due. I suggest that these charges should be reversed. It is the Kantian, not the Aristotelian, who faces special and perhaps insuperable difficulties on this front. My argument draws upon a Thomistic conception of the place that love plays in the perfection of the full array of ethical virtues.


Kantianism gains a great deal of its plausibility from its insistence on treating other humans as irreplaceably valuable. Yet it cannot provide a self-standing rational grounding for this aspect of the value of human beings, because for the Kantian, all practical reasons must spring, ultimately, from the structure of the will itself. Kantianism refuses to recognize the possibility of receiving and being guided by what exceeds us; the core Kantian idea is that in fact we really cannot do this, because we are free.


What is missing from Kantianism is the assignment to all human beings of a kind of value whose apprehension is internal to love. Thomas Aquinas proves especially useful here because his work provides this value by incorporating it into an otherwise largely Aristotelian picture of virtuous character. In this respect, love plays the role in Aquinas that practical wisdom plays in Aristotle. The virtue of love is the key to Aquinas’s doctrine of the unity of the virtues: without it, no virtue can be perfect, and it implies the perfection of all other virtues. Love “quickens” and refines the other virtues by informing them with vivid awareness of the end that gives them their point.


Thus the value of persons that gives rise to moral obligations can be brought to light by fully explicating the value of many of our most important interactions with other people, ranging from our intimate loves and friendships and the shared activities they make possible, to our appreciation of the literature and music of others, to our loving engagement in the deepest and most valuable conversations with them. All of these valuable activities require that we trust the words, significant actions, gestures, vocal play and facial expressions of others as manifestations of an experience of the world that runs deep. Appreciation of this depth is intimately tied to the appreciation and acknowledgment of the irreplaceable value of these others.

Talbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia, and scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.