Do all humans have the same value and are all humans deserving of dignity? These are the questions asked by Jussi Halla-aho (hereafter J-Ha) in an old but now infamous blog post from 2005. J-Ha contended that only instrumental value is measurable and truly meaningful and that it is common sense to see the value of human beings and their deserving of respect as fitting naturally to a hierarchy.
The idea of a universally ‘equal’ value or right to dignity, in contrast, he says, cannot be measured, so there is no way of knowing if a person is in possession of it. It seems blisteringly obvious to me that this principle of equal value or entitlement to be treated with dignity was presented as an essential goal rather than being a description of reality and which was adopted to better regulate a State’s relationship with its citizens. More on that later. He writes:
“The claim that everyone has equal value [equally deserving of respect] requires that a person’s value is a known and measurable quantity. If it cannot be measured, there is no way to determine to what extent each individual is in possession of it. Certainly human value can’t be an externally given, cosmic property – or at least can’t be proven to be that.“
“The only measurable and therefore definitely real human value is an individual’s instrumental value. Individuals can justifiably be hierarchically ordered by the extent to which the absence of their abilities and knowledge from a community would weaken it.”
J-Ha thinks of value (meaning both value to society and their deserving of respect) as something that people have only in relation to what they give to the community. This primacy of community is a key theme in fascism, and it appears he draws some of his ideas on this matter from early fascist writings (see 1942 Finnish National Socialist Party manifesto). He frowns on any other conception of value or dignity, on the basis that subjective value or value bestowed by ‘cosmic’ forces cannot be proved and also that in the instrumental sense, he cannot accept that a murderer has the same value as an engineer.
He expresses contempt for those that would defend the idea that humans have in any sense an equal right to be treated with dignity, which is the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
“Egalitarian nonsense is the result of too many people with lots of energy and too little of consequence to do”
I have several objections:
Let’s start by putting forward my own premises. 1) People have value and dignity in themselves, 2) People are valued by others, through relationships, and 3) People add value to society, as a responsibilty of citizenship, 4) Society adds value to people, as a responsibility of the State to the citizen to enable healthy living. J-Ha acknowledges only the third premise as having validity, for the reasons already stated above: a narrow concept of value/dignity as only instrumental value and that interpreted only as value to the community.
1) Having a value or dignity in and of oneself is a two-fold matter. By and large, we value ourselves, or recognise the value at least in living a life as free of suffering as would be realistically possible, and we recognise our own right to be treated by others with dignity. This isn’t just an act of vanity to be dismissed as a negative or selfish egotism; rather, common sense tells us that a healthy appreciation of our own value is the basis for a healthy valuing of other people (see Kant’s Categorical Imperative – thanks JusticeDemon for the heads up on that). It is also a defence against the abuses of other people, as it provides the moral clarity and consistency that makes clear when one is being abused. Recognizing the subjectivity of another and being empathetic to their suffering begins in one’s relationship to oneself and the sense we have of our own value. This is significant because people without a healthy self-esteem generally have poor empathy and can treat others without dignity.
The other element is that people have value and dignity because we collectively see a value in them through the recognition of a universally shared subjectivity. And remember, calls for equality or treating all persons with dignity typically grow out of experiences of suffering and empathy, and the realisation that some suffering is just not necessary or justified. Society has improved because of this key recognition of the value in an individual’s subjectivity and their right not to be violated by another, their right to dignity. These are concrete things that have given rise to important rights.
2) Being valued by others (one to one) is important. In a pragmatic sense, although we recognise that people should earn love, trust and respect, we also acknowledge that a basic minimum ‘unearned’ respect is both an important starting point in relationships and an important ingredient in reconciliation when misunderstandings or wrongs inevitably occur. The value of ‘positive regard’ has long been recognised in psychiatry as aiding in psychological healing, even in situations where a client is a mix of victim and offender, which is typically the case.
Positive regard, goodwill—call it what you want—is not a measurable value; it is an assumed value in the sense that we encounter strangers whose ‘value’ (to us or to society) we cannot yet assess, but we typically start with some good will. This serves to highlight that value (as respect) is possessed as both an intrinsic right or freedom (as the right to dignity), but also something extrinsic, something we are given, as part of a relationship, and something we should not take for granted. The overlap in these two ‘values’ is significant in regulating the ‘minimum’ standard of behaviour. When problems escalate, it is typically because the ‘minimum’ standard has been violated. The two types of ‘value’ are intrinsically bound together. When asking where or from what value arises, it is important to recognize that it is both intrinsic (coming from within, inherent) and extrinsic (coming from without, measurable to a degree).
Valuing as part of a relationship one to one, which is subjected to ups and downs, moods, circumstances, actions etc, is fundamentally different to the universal value that underlies our subjectivity or our relationship with the State (see no.4). We can differentiate them as the value of a person’s freedoms/rights (inviolable, inalienable) and the value of our reputation/social status (subject to opinion and fashion).
Rights and freedom begin with birth, with the universal and equal innocence embodied in the total dependence of a newborn. It is absurd to say one baby deserves better treatment than another. And yet the reality is that kin relationships already establish a hierarchy of privilege and care one to one, and hence we value people differently. It is all too easy to carry those biases of ingroups and outgroups (family vs. not family) onto the political stage, but the universal right to dignity emerging from the innocence of life’s beginnings is a more coherent moral starting point for assigning ‘core’ value to human life. In simple terms, it’s not so fickle. In the political sense, it is generally regarded as more appealing that society not be led by mafias, where privileged families rule through power and terror, and your fate is decided by which family you have the fortune or misfortune to be born into.
3) People add value to society in all sorts of ways, many of them being invisible to the wider world; countless people are not recompensed or recognised for sincere and significant contributions in life. For someone born to poor or difficult circumstance, just avoiding repeating the mistakes, abuses or crimes of the previous generation can itself be a major success, but such an achievement would be overlooked if we apply J-Ha’s notion of instrumental value. One can be a good and kind person but achieve no greater public distinction than cleaning toilets in McDonalds. How is this to be measured against a successful and wealthy boss that leaves misery in his wake and carnage in his personal relationships, but whose transgressions are hidden from public view? Moreover, if we take a snapshot of a person’s instrumental value today, it is no reliable prediction of their instrumental value in ten or even twenty years hence. Adding value to society can rightly be viewed as a responsibility of citizenship, but this must never be a means to undermine a person’s inherent right to be treated with a dignity (beginning with being treated as a subject and not an object).
4) Valuing of citizens by society is something new in the broad sweep of history. It is normal now to talk of the responsibilities of the State, though much disagreement exists around how and in what things the State should be involved. And yet, at the basic level, there is general consensus in the West at least on what the State is NOT allowed to do, and that includes violating citizen rights.
That human rights and the principle of the equal value for human life emerged out of the ruins of a Europe ravaged by war perpetuated on the wheels of rampant nationalisms (competing values off national identity), forceful authoritarianism, and evil persecution of minorities and vulnerable people should not be forgotten. Indeed, the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a success in that it managed to overcome the differences of over fifty nations, arriving at a consensus that would serve humanity for decades and quite likely centuries into the future. ‘
Many who were present at the first signing remarked on the incredible feeling of solidarity that transcended national diplomacies and which had not been seen before, nor has it been seen since. The idea of equal value was certainly not a reality of the time, it was a stated goal, an aspiration, an instrument to focus minds, hearts, energies and resources towards a more peaceful and just world. These are no small things and the benefits have followed slowly but demonstrably.
Being valued by society implies a high standard of treatment of individuals by societal institutions. It implies the protection of rights and freedoms, and a process of recompense and justice for the wrongs of others. For J-Ha, having a high value seemed to imply mainly enjoying a good reputation among one’s peers. He is reluctant to give equal value (here measured clearly as reputation) to murderers and to productive and honest citizens. But he’s looking in the wrong place if he is looking for universal values in public reputations.
The equal value or right to dignity comes from universal rights that ensure the murderer is treated equally fairly whether he is an unemployed schizophrenic or an engineer that drank too much and battered his wife to death, and equally with dignity, not because the person earns respect, but because the State must preserve its own moral integrity. You can acknowledge and respect the right to be treated fairly and with dignity even when a person has done terrible things and it does not for a second imply that you value the actions or beliefs of that person. Justice must strive to be morally above reproach if it is to have the moral authority to carry out its purpose.
J-Ha pins his colors squarely to the ‘instrumental value’ mast. But for me, that’s even more abstract and subjective a notion than value derived from innocence and subjectivity. For example, we could measure the instrumental value of individuals by measuring their salary or their tax contributions. And having done this, we then create a league table of citizens, with the most wealthy then being given the most human rights and so on down the ladder to the scum (a favourite word of J-Ha’s) at the bottom. J-Ha denies that any consequences follow naturally from his analysis and promotion of this hierarchy, but history tends to show a bloody outcome where this kind of idea has been politicised. Moreover, I start to wonder why he makes such an analysis if there is no actual concrete consequences that would follow. While he doesn’t mention denying rights to those in the ‘scum’ pool, others among the PS and Suomen Sisu ranks are quite happy to.
When the State begins to punish minority populations for being ‘the dangerous outsider’, with all that that implies, the State quickly becomes heavy handed and corrupt. Such abuses dehumanise state institutions and those that work in them, a danger we must be ever watchful for.
A recognised equality of human value sets a standard for State actions towards citizens that works to keep the State honest and free of corruption.
And it’s not about rewarding the bad behaviour of citizens with soft treatment, but about containing the moral rot in society as and when it appears. When freedom is recognised as the greatest prize of a modern democracy, then denial of freedom is the most severe punishment a state can impose for severe crimes while maintaining its own moral authority. When the State has a moral justification for abusing its citizens, it’s generally a slippery slope down to hell.
The difficulty J-Ha overlooks with instrumental value is that poor people lack all sorts of resources, including education, health, opportunity, support, finance, security, awareness, and even political influence. Without these resources, the possibilities and likelihood of contributing positively to society (and adding to their own instrumental value) is severely curtailed. A hierarchy once imposed is self-perpetuating, leading to the injustices of birth, where one person receives a totally inferior treatment from Day 1 onwards.
It is exactly this kind of injustice that has led to efforts to establish ‘universal rights’, which are instruments that bring greater equality, such as the right to education in Finland – which has improved social mobility – or universal day care, or the right to equal treatment in health care.
J-Ha complains that an idea like universal equality is an idea destined for the dustbin of history, like the ideas that:
“The Sun revolves around the Earth”, “The Pope is infallible”, “Women don’t have a soul”, or “Masturbation causes shortsightedness”. (Wow, was that a knob joke?!)
His idea is that a person’s contribution to society gives the true value of their worth, and this he expresses almost exclusively in terms of occupations (he doesn’t have much time for artists, by the way). But in measuring instrumental value, he might as well be describing a photographic negative of inequalities, patriarchy, the privileges of the 1%, persecutions of minorities or any other of the host of factors that work to oppress segments of society. The implicit assumption seems to be that those with the privilege or success have always earned it and have always contributed positively to society in every sense. Such a view would be simplistic and naive in the extreme. But then again, he is merely a linguist by trade, and not a sociologist.
Instrumental value isn’t going to give us a final and unbiased arbitrator in deciding an individual’s deserved, intrinsic or potential value. It’s just going to tell us how the cookie happens to crumble on that particular day. It doesn’t set goals and it doesn’t begin to address injustices or exploitations. J-Ha glosses over this difficulty, instead offering instrumental value as some kind of gold standard for society’s core values, and distracting us by contrasting the positive value of doctors, engineers and soldiers with that of murderers and the like. I had to smile at that particular intellectual ‘risky shift’; did he simply forget to mention that, for example, rapists are just as likely to be engineers, doctors and especially soldiers (32% of offenders have upper-class occupations)? And his failure to mention any of the specifically female-dominated industries (nursing, education, day care, services etc) in his list of valuable occupations was of course equally innocent.
“Until someone demonstrates to me how everyone has equal value, I shall consequently consider difference of kind to lead to difference of value, and that everyone has a different amount of value.”
Rather than focus on interpreting the equality of human value to be some ridiculous notion that all people’s actions or character must be seen as being of equal value, he should focus on the idea that this kind of principle of equality was never intended to define or regulate personal relationships and social status, but rather to regulate the relationship of the State to citizens, where the State carries a responsibility to ensure equal opportunity to people, equal treatment of people in courts of law, equal right to vote, equal right to receive equal, equitable, and comparable public services, and to ensure that society does not discriminate against people on dubious and pernicious grounds. The desire for equality was born out of struggle, not out of energetic idleness, as he flippantly suggests.
The universal value of human life is an abstract concept, yes, an aspiration and a goal, but it is nevertheless important in shaping modern societies. It likewise serves as a check on the powers of the State, preventing or minimising corruption and overreach.
In the very same post, he dismisses the work of politicians (and artists and clerics) as being superfluous. One really wonders why he ever decided to become an MP. Was it to plot the overthrow of politicians? He wouldn’t be the first fascist who ever tried that.
Translations taken from Sam Hardwick’s blog post on the same article.