What Is the Value of a Human Being?
What are you worth?
Posted Nov 14, 2012
For better or worse, we’re all habitual self-evaluators. This raises questions concerning our perception of personal worth and how we value a human being. This has to do with self-esteem, self-image, ego, and the awareness of our existence. Those with self-esteem are thought to possess both work-confidence and self-confidence. Work-confidence is the ability to make-work and self-confidence implies self-respect and the ability to make-work and make-love. In the words of Sigmund Freud, it’s best when you can make-work and make-love, but if you can’t do both you had better be good at one or the other. There is more to this story!
Psychologists are interested in self-esteem. In the pages of The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, my friend Nathaniel Branden has summarized our popular understanding of self-esteem. However, another psychologist challenged Branden’s understanding in the pages of Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy and Is Objectivism a Religion? He was a mentor and friend of mine. His name is Albert Ellis and he rejected Branden’s approach to self-esteem, alleging it was flawed in that it committed the fallacy of contingent worth, which means worth is experienced as dependent on one's behavioral successes and achievements in life. This amounts to saying that “I’m only as good as my last achievement or success.” Another way of saying the same thing is “a good deed is a good me and a bad deed is a bad me.” This is the contingent-worth logic of self-esteem.
As post-doctoral interns at the Ellis Institute, Ellis advised us to reject the goal of self-esteem and pursue instead the more realistic and practical goal of self-acceptance in our lives and in behalf of our patients. In the years that followed, I have given much thought to this Ellis-Branden debate and from the perspective of values research and how values have consequences when it comes to how people estimate their own worth and that of other human beings.
We are habitual self-evaluators! Let’s make the best of it.
Making the best of our culturally conditioned habits of self-valuation isn’t easy. It invites the rejection of Branden’s goal of self-esteem in favor of Ellis’ goal of self-acceptance, and this is no gift: it must be earned the old fashion way ... with practice, practice, practice! It must be earned much as any significant expansion of consciousness and free-will must be earned. It means rehearsing the belief that “I am worthwhile because I exist, I am I, and I am alive.” I will repeat this powerful new idea to live by in hopes of it finding an audience willing to adopt it as a mantra capable of creating a healthy transformation by coming alive within us. This therapeutic mantra of sorts is customary practice within the discipline of axiological psychology informed by the convergence of Ellisonian Psychology and Hartmanian Philosophy. Thus, the key to working on self-acceptance must involve an understanding of the fallacy of contingent-worth, self-acceptance, and self-esteem.
The heuristic belief that I’m worthwhile merely because “I am I, I exist, and I am alive” thoroughly rejects the belief that my worth has anything to do with my performances, achievements or successes in life! It asserts “a bad act is not a bad me, nor is a good act a good me.” It implies that there are no bad people, no evil people; only bad behaviors or evil behaviors. This belief is not without boundaries; for the social contract that binds us means society must reserve the right of forced hospitalization, incarceration, even capital punishment for those with markedly diminished levels of rational autonomy, which is the essence of sanity in a world where evolution and consensus dictate that life is better than death, sanity is better than insanity, health is better than disease, love is better than hate, good is better than evil, and so forth!
Self-acceptance avoids the trap of contingent-worth, which most psychologists see as one of the pillars of self-esteem. Deflecting valuation away from the self towards behavior amounts to a healthy, learned detachment or dissociation of behavior. Self-acceptance means the intrinsic worth of self is constant and beyond human valuation or devaluation merely because “I am I, I exist, and I am alive” This belief (doctrine? mantra?) of the absolute-worth-of-the intrinsic-self, divorced from the variable-worth of behavior, is clinical metapsychology of the sort clinical psychologists, on the front lines of patient care, are interested in. Its origins are in clinical practice and the convergence of Ellis’ clinically relevant cognitive psychology with axiological science informed by Robert Hartman’s theory of value, validated in the pages of The New Science of Axiological Psychology. This clinical frame-of-reference is remedial “psycho-logic,” or a remedial “thought-style” finding support in axiological science and psychology. It goes beyond mainstream-psychology and falls in the lap of philosophical counseling encouraged by the American Philosophical Association.
As habitual self-evaluators, we need to protect ourselves from ourselves. Getting existential valuation right has consequences, and we can all do better than make our worth dependent on our most recent achievements and successes in life; which are never sustainable. Making success a “heaven of sorts” inevitably dooms us to a “hell of sorts,” because we’re fallible human beings. Let’s abandon the belief that says “a good act is a good me and a bad act is a bad me.” In so doing, we expand our rational autonomy, and therefore emotional autonomy, which favors getting the good things in life for ourselves and others.
The question of rational autonomy and evil revisited
The goal of self-acceptance implies there are no evil people, only evil behaviors; which society has a right to hold one responsible for. The belief that I’m worthwhile because “I am I, I exist, and I am alive” is the best way to replace unrealistic, impractical self-esteem with the much healthier and more liberating goal of self-acceptance. Doing so, will strengthen individual and collective rational autonomy needed to kill evil in the world. Are you ready to “split” yourself from your behaviors? Are you ready to work on accepting your unconditional, absolute, intrinsic worth merely because you are you, you are alive and you exist? Do you see the value of this existential correction in your life? If so, get about engaging the practice of this powerful new idea to live by, and make it come alive within you.
Self-confidence vs. work confidence revisited
Does “work-confidence imply self-confidence, or self-esteem? Work confidence is not uncommon around the imperative of earning a living. However, at times it can compensate for a lack of the self-confidence, self-acceptance or even questionable self-esteem. Work-confidence can be a “shell-game,” or “game-face” masking low self-esteem or a sense of diminished worth. It can be a “big plus” hiding a “big minus.” Some Type A personalities and ambitious perfectionists are driven to validate and authenticate their worth with behavioral successes and achievements. Sometimes they are astronauts! Sometimes they are generals! Sometimes they are captains of industry, sometimes they are doctors or lawyers. Sometimes they snap!
Must we be habitual self-evaluators? Cultural conditioning makes it likely! However, we have a choice. We can choose to go through life striving to be a success for all the wrong reasons; or we can accept that we are unconditionally worthwhile, and strive for success for all the right reasons. Sure, some may argue the goal is reaching for a nest too high in the tree; but let’s recall the French saying that goes “petit à petit, l'oiseau fait son nid,” which means “little by little, the bird builds its nest,” … and so must we!
You’ve learned your ABCs and 123s. The time has come to learn your FDTs. (Feeler, doer, thinker ways of seeing with values.)
(c) Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D.