On The Intrinsic and Extrinsic Value of Human Life

In the zeal to promote the value of all human life, especially the unborn, there is a bad pro-life argument that goes something like this: “Abortion is wrong because you never know if that baby killed in an abortion could have grown to be a great thinker or a virtuoso. That abortion could have taken the life of an Einstein or a Steve Jobs!”

Sounds like a good argument, doesn’t it? After all, who would not want world-changing figures that have become symbols of our society? Who does not want more positive contributions to this conflicted world?

As good as it sounds, it has a big gaping hole: What about non-Einstein babies aborted? What about babies that don’t grow up to change their homes, much less the world? Are they of less value than those who do?

The problem with this argument is that it appeals to what philosophers have called “extrinsic value,” defined in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy very generically as, “That which is extrinsically good is good, not (insofar as its extrinsic value is concerned) for its own sake, but for the sake of something else to which it is related in some way”1. More to the point of this article, we will refer to this as the appeal to instrumental value. In a few words, it is what the Oxford Reference describes as, “The value or worth of objects that provide a means to some desirable end, that satisfy some human needs and wants”2. In other words, the argument is pointing, not to the intrinsic (for its own sake) value of human life, but to the value it has in relation and to the end of something else outside of itself. The value of a violin is not for its own sake. It is to be played, and its value cannot be derived unless a) someone else plays it, b) it produces music, and c) it evokes pleasure in another by listening to its notes being played. Thus, an unborn human being should not be murdered because its potential value is yet to be rendered in the service of or for the sake of another (i.e.: society, culture, the world). The accomplishments of this person are yet to take place, therefore that opportunity must not be taken away by abortion prematurely.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic value of human life, in the right context. The problem is with where those two concepts are being grounded upon. If the starting point is anthropological (man), the conversation about value will lead to the wrong place. If the starting point is theological (God), then we can speak rightly of intrinsic and extrinsic value. Through the lens of a Christian worldview, the intrinsic and extrinsic (instrumental) value of human beings is found in their duty to God as creator and to their fellow man as co-bearers of the image of God.

The intentions of the argument in question, though noble, reduce the value and purpose of human life to that of an instrument in the service of other human beings. What if this person goes on to become a criminal and contribute little to this world? Is his or her life of less value?

Imago Dei

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” – Genesis 1:26-27

Human life is valuable in se (intrinsically) in one way, and extrinsically in another way. It is intrinsically valuable because its worth cannot be granted or taken by other human beings under any circumstances. They have already been “stamped” by God with His own name. It is extrinsically valuable because its ultimate purpose is, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”3. While human beings are intrinsically valuable in relation to other human beings because they are made in the image of God, they are also instrumentally valuable because they are imbued with purpose by God himself. Think it crass, if you will, dear reader, but we are all like violins in the hands of the most valuable Being. In other words, human beings do not possess a value of which none greater can be conceived. Only God does. Therefore, to be instruments in His hands is true fulfillment and joy because there is none greater than Him that exists or can be conceived of. To be clear, this should not be construed as saying that human beings do not have any extrinsic value in relation to other human beings, rather that their actions to other human beings flow from the value they find from being made in the image of God. Because of that, actions done in charity or evil to others have an objective meaning, not a subjective one.

Summum Bonum

“…. be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – Matthew 5:48

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas, in responding to the objection that God is not perfect because his essence is his existence, and things that exist are subject to change, states,

“A material principle is most imperfect. For since matter as such is merely potential, the first material principle must be simply potential, and thus most imperfect. Now God is the first principle, not material, but in the order of efficient cause, which must be most perfect. For just as matter, as such, is merely potential, an agent, as such, is in the state of actuality. Hence, the first active principle must needs be most actual, and therefore most perfect; for a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection”4.

In other words, God is not matter, since matter is not perfect but can and does change. God is what has been called in theology “pure act.” He is spirit, and not just any spirit, but the “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), the source of beings who are alive because He himself is life. There is none before him, nor will there be any after him. Because God is and is so perfectly (he cannot improve or worsen, like material beings), therefore, He is the most valuable Being. Thus, all creation owes its being and value to the one who gave it in the first place (Gen. 1:1). Since God has all authority and claim over His creation, He determines the purpose and value of all life.

“This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the LORD proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
For who is God, but the LORD?
And who is a rock, except our God?” Psalm 18:30-31

Matthew Barrett, in his excellent book None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God, speaks of God’s name as revealed in Exodus 3:1-15,

“There is a sense of mystery to this name, ‘I AM,’ but it does reveal at least two crucial aspects of God’s nature. First, it means God is set apart. Unlike the Egyptian gods, gods that were identified with certain objects or places (the sun, the moon, the river, etc.), God is above his creation. For example, ‘He is not like Amun or Ptah,’ two Egyptian gods; ‘he cannot be assigned a place and identity in the cosmos as one of the gods.’ He is not just another god in the long list of gods, but he is unique, distinct from the created order. He is not a ‘contingent being’; his ‘identity is not tied to any shrine, cult, city, people, or title.’ Rather, he is the one who ‘exists independently of all things, and is the only being for whom existence is part of his essence.’ In short, ‘everything else is contingent on him. . . . He is the one, eternal, all-powerful, creator God. . . . ‘I AM’ implies absolute existence without limitation either in time or contingency. He is not contingent upon anything, and everything is contingent upon him.’ The title ‘I AM’ conveys God’s absolute independence. He alone is the self-existent, self-sufficient Creator. He alone is life in and of himself”5.

Since God is the most perfect and valuable being, no human being is ultimately valuable for his or her own sake. If God were not so, then the argument for a horizontal instrumental value would be established. Our value would then be a moving target (subjective and changing) because there would be no supremely perfect Being to ground it on. We would all be in a relentless race to prove that our lives are worth living and worth being spared. It is evident that no human being is supremely valuable in se because all have a beginning and an end, all have potentiality, and all are subject to the succession of time. Without God being God, Darwin’s world would truly be left to the survival of the fittest. As Nietzsche said regarding morality in his Twilight of the Idols, ” If you give up Christian faith, you pull the right to Christian morality out from under your feet”6. If God is not, then Nietzsche’s cold, nihilistic world void of value becomes true,

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. ‘Where is God?’ he cried; ‘I’ll tell you! We have killed him – you and I! We are all his murderers. But how did we do this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing? Isn’t empty space breathing at us? Hasn’t it got colder? Isn’t night and more night coming again and again? Don’t lanterns have to be lit in the morning?”7


A brief interlocution is warranted at this point. The author’s deviation into a brief presentation of theology proper is not meant to be exhaustive. Kant’s idealism, reducing religion to a mere shell8 (or in modern terms, Freud’s “crutch” to make our life mean something or feel better, although illusory9) is itself a vacuous argument, and not the reason why this author safeguards human value in the perfection of God. There have been much older and better works than this small article that engage with those arguments. To engage with them here would go beyond the scope of this writing.


Thankfully, God does exist (a more thorough presentation on that subject merits its own article), and the implications on the value of human life are decisive and massive. God has no beginning and no end (Ps. 90:2; 103:17; Heb. 13:8; Rev. 22:13). God has no potential (he cannot improve or worsen because He is perfect – Mal. 3:6). And God is outside of space and time. In fact, God is altogether not like human beings or anything else that is created, and his eternal decree will be accomplished (Is. 55:8-11). These are a few foundational blocks in the impregnable doctrine of God as the summum bonum, the supreme, highest, greatest good that can be imagined. This is good news. As Matthew Barrett states,

“If he is the summum bonum, the highest good, then he does not look to someone or something else for fulfillment. Instead he looks to his own self, for that is where perfection itself is to be found. Should he not value himself above all else, he would not be a righteous God. A righteous being values that which is most valuable; a righteous being loves that which is most lovely. However, God need not look outside himself; he himself is the object of his own love, glory, and happiness because he himself is that being which is most valuable, lovely, and worthy of adoration. He is, after all, the ‘Being of beings, infinitely the greatest and best of beings,’ says Jonathan Edwards”10

Barrett continues,

“Instead, we have been made for God, our Creator. As those created in his image, we were put here on earth to mirror him, draw attention to him, and reflect his glory. In a world that is hopelessly narcissistic, humanity’s purpose on earth in the biblical worldview is about as countercultural as it gets. While the world encourages its members to look inward and be vainglorious, egotistical, and selfcentered, Christianity frames human existence in the perpendicular direction— that is, vertically: you are not a god but made by God, and your purpose in life is to live for his glory”11.

For this reason, the fact that all humans are valuable because they bear the stamp of God means their value is fixed and unchangeable. It is set “vertically” (by God), not “horizontally” (by man).

Speaking on God being the highest good, Aquinas states,

“Augustine says (De Trin. ii) that, the Trinity of the divine persons is ‘the supreme good, discerned by purified minds.’
I answer that, God is the supreme good….inasmuch as all desired perfections flow from Him as from the first cause….”12.

In other words, God is not just a good among other goods, but He is the supreme good, outside of any created categories. Whenever we describe something as “good,” we can only do so because God is good, and imbues good things with himself, but is not Himself a created thing. He is the only reason why the transcendentals (the good, the true and the beautiful) exist in this world. He is the reason we can look at a flower, a sunset, the face of the unborn in early ultrasounds or after birth, or a correct result in a mathematical equation and call it good, true and beautiful.


“Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way.” Psalm 25:8

The key difference between intrinsic and extrinsic human value based on being made in the image of God, and an intrinsic and extrinsic human value based on societal conventions and changing notions is that the former is grounded on a Being of whom, like Anselm said, “none greater can be conceived”13, his word being absolute and final, unmovable like a rock; the latter being built on sand (Matt .7:24-27): different cultures, societies, and whims. When appealing to the intrinsic value of human life, we appeal to the one who “has purposed and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Is. 14:27). Therefore, no law, no societal convention that denies the humanity and/or personhood of any human being has any validity whatsoever. Human beings have value because the very image of God is stamped in them. In order to do away with the personhood of any human being, the image of God must be removed. This is an impossible feat, given that murderers shall have their portion “in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). To take the life of another being unjustly is an affront to the very being of God.


A human being does not have to prove his or her value by reaching an ever-erratic standard of viability (being able to support him or herself outside the womb), by having a heartbeat, by being able to think, breathe, or feel pain at a certain point of gestation, or by proving that he or she can contribute positively to the world in one way or another. Their unassailable value has already been established the moment of fertilization, which is the moment they became ” a whole, genetically distinct, individuated zygotic living human organism, a member of the species Homo sapiens”14. From that moment on, they are bearers of the image of God. From the moment of conception, human beings become “living souls” (Gen. 2:7), or what in philosophy has been called “embodied spirits.” To speak of the topic of “ensoulment” any further at this point would go beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say for now that any attempt to separate conception (beginning of life) from ensoulment (beginning of personhood) is subjective and illogical. Many who create this dichotomy do so in order to justify murder in the womb. This rationale proves that the moral law of God is at work in all human beings, since people tend to agree that it is morally wrong to take the life of a human being. Thus the need to create a dichotomy, in order to distance the act of abortion from the actual taking of a human person’s life. Personhood cannot be decided empirically. It belongs in the theologico-philosophical realm. Human life is embodied spiritual life. The two cannot be separated. For this reason, all human beings, whether in the womb or outside the womb, from infant to old age, whether men or women, tall or short, mighty or lowly, rich or poor, are all equally valuable in this world. We need not make use of arguments that undercut this truth.

Dear reader, if you are living a modest, simple life, void of grandeur or glamour, whether a housewife or a lawyer, whether local pastor or a governor, your life is no less valuable than that of Einstein or Steve Jobs. You bear the imprint of the most lovely and perfect Being, God himself, therefore you are valuable in se, and you are also valuable because you were created to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”15. But reader, since this image was marred by the Fall of man into sin, only the blood of the eternal Son of God shed on the cross can restore you to a right relationship with His Father (Heb. 9:22; 2:14-17). Remember, there is only one who is greater than anyone or anything we can ever conceive. He created you. The astounding fact is that this God, although affronted by our transgression of His eternal law (Gen. 6:5; Rom. 1:18-3:23), has condescended to love His creation and commune with them. It is this God of whom it is said,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son,that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” – John 3:16-21

God will be called upon on His terms, not yours. Christ, not your own works (Rom. 3:21-4:8), will restore you to a right relationship with Him. Take heed: Repent of your sins, turn to Christ, cease pursuing value outside of God, and find rest for your heavy laden soul (Matt. 11:28). Then you will be able to say,

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” – Rom. 4:7-8.

The application for Christian readers is this: By the power of the Spirit, go and “love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor like yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). This is the ground of your value, your home.

“Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for
Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee”16– Augustine

Works Cited:

  1. Zimmerman, Michael J. and Bradley, Ben, “Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic/>.
  2. “instrumental value.” Oxford Reference. . . Date of access 21 Jan. 2020, <https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100005505>
  3. Church, Bible Presbyterian. “Question 1.” Westminster Shorter Catechism Project, 2019, shortercatechism.com/.
  4. “Whether God Is Perfect?” The Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas, Catholic Way Publishing, 2014, p. 103.
  5. “Chapter 11 – Can God Be Both Holy And Loving? Righteousness, Goodness, and Love.” None Greater: the Undomesticated Attributes of God, by Matthew Barrett, Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019, p. 174.
  6. “Raids of An Untimely Man.” Twilight of the Idols, by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Dover Publications, Inc., 2019, p. 86.
  7. “Book Three.” The Gay Science, by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Cambridge Library Collection, 2011, p. 149.
  8. Roesner, Martina. “Reason, Rhythm, and Rituality. Reinterpreting Religious Cult from a Postmodern, Phenomenological Perspective.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 10 July 2015, www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/6/3/819.
  9. Strachey, James, and W. D. Robson-Scott, editors. “VI.” The Future Of An Illusion, by Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, 1970, p. 33.
  10. “Chapter 12 – Should God Be Jealous For His Own Glory? Jealousy and Glory.” None Greater: the Undomesticated Attributes of God, by Matthew Barrett, Baker Books, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2019, pp. 194-195.
  11. Ibid., p. 195
  12. “Whether God Is The Supreme Good?” The Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas, Catholic Way Publishing, 2014, pp. 129-130.
  13. St. Anselm. “Chapter 9 – How the All-Just and Supremely Just One Spares the Wicked and Justly Has Mercy on the Wicked.” Proslogion, p. 92, stanselminstitute.org/files/AnselmProslogion.pdf.
  14. June, Patricia Lee, and Fred de Miranda. “When Human Life Begins.” American College of Pediatricians, 2017, www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/life-issues/when-human-life-begins.
  15. Church, Bible Presbyterian. “Question 1.” Westminster Shorter Catechism Project, 2019, shortercatechism.com/.
  16. St. Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. The Gutenberg Project, 2002, p. 3

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