First Centre blog: Human value (Hugo Stranberg)

Welcome to the Centre for Ethics blog! Here our researchers will write about questions they are thinking about at the moment.

Let me start off the blog by reflecting on the full name of the Centre: “Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value.” What might “human value” mean? It is an expression I rarely use, if ever. So what sense can I make of it?

At present I am working on a project concerning forgiveness. Taking one’s starting point in forgiveness could be one way of understanding what “human value” might mean. For when not forgiving someone who has hurt me, I see her in the light of what she has done: she has not only been bullying me, she is a bully; she has not only acted cowardly, she is a coward. Forgiving her, by contrast, would then involve stop seeing her in that way.

This thought bears some similarities to the idea that each of us has an inalienable value, not derivable from what we have done or failed to do, nor possible to lose by acting in some specific way. The difficulty of forgiving also shows one way in which it might be difficult to perceive that value.

Is this a way of making sense of what “human value” might mean, a way of giving it some flesh?

Perhaps, but what makes me a bit hesitant is that value-talk, at least on the surface, is too similar to what it is supposed to be a contrast to. In order not to think about people only in terms of their qualities and characteristics, we refer to a quality that is then supposed to be of a fundamentally different kind, the quality of human value. But when forgiving someone, I relate to someone, not to something (a value, say).

At best the terms we use can help us to direct our attention in the right direction, as long as we remember that those terms are not the reality we are attending to, the reality that ultimately gives our thoughts on moral matters the importance and urgency they have. This is one thing that makes moral philosophy so challenging.


Hugo Strandberg