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The Values of Life

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In Life’s Dominion Dworkin aims at defusing the controversy about abortion and euthanasia by redefining its terms. Basically it is not a dispute about the right to life, but about its value. Liberals should grant that human life has not only a personal, but also an intrinsic value; conservatives should accept the principle of toleration which requires to let people decide for themselves about matters of intrinsic value.

Dworkin fails, however, to distinguish between two kinds of personal value:

(1) the value of something to a person, when he actually or dispositionally desires it, or finds it pleasant; and

(2) the value of something to a person, when it ‘objectively’ contributes to his well-being, as defined by reference to his personal point of view, whether or not he ever perceives it as so contributing.

He also fails to distinguish between two meanings of the concept of ‘intrinsic value’:

(3) ultimate, i.e. non-instrumental personal value of kind (2);

(4) the impersonal value of something which is not good-for-anybody, but simply good, i.e. not a constituent of someone’s well-being.

Dworkin argues that the human fetus from conception onwards has a value, that it is not a personal value of kind (1), and therefore must be an intrinsic value. But the value of the life of the fetus is not a personal value of kind (2) either and therefore not an intrinsic value of kind (3): it is normally a constituent of the well-being of the pregnant woman, but that doesn’t constitute its value, and it is not good ‘for’ the fetus itself in the relevant sense, because it doesn’t have a personal point of view. If, however, the fetus’ life is allowed to have an intrinsic value of kind (4), the conservative cannot be refuted by appeal to the principle of toleration, for this only concerns intrinsic value of kind (3). The liberal, indeed, should recognize that the fetus’ life has a value, but it is neither a personal value (1) or (2), nor an impersonal value (4), but rather a relational value which gradually develops from some point substantially later than conception.
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Document Type: Original Article

Affiliations: Faculty of Philosophy, University of Amsterdam and Dutch Research School of Ethics

Publication date: January 1, 1997

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