Wednesday, April 7, 2021

What does it mean for persons to have infinite value?

It is intuitive to say that persons have infinite value, and recently Rasmussen and Bailey have given some cool arguments for this thesis.

But what does it mean to say that humans have infinite value? If we think of values as something very much like numbers, then I guess it just means that humans have the value +∞. But we shouldn’t think of values as numbers. For instance, to do that loses sight of incommensurability.

We probably should think of value-comparison as more fundamental than “having value z”. Thus, there is a relation of being at least as valuable as on possible items of evaluation (substances, properties, pluralities, whatever). This relation is reflexive and at least arguably transitive.

We can now define:

  1. x is more valuable than y if and only if x is at least as valuable as y but y is not at least as valuable as x.

Next we can try to define a relation of being infinitely more valuable than. One approach is:

  1. x is infinitely more valuable than y if and only if x is more valuable than any finite plurality of duplicates of y.

I am not quite sure this works, given that sometimes the value of an item rests in the fact that it is the only one of its kind, and then a plurality of duplicates might lose out on an aspect of the value. If we focus on intrinsic value, perhaps we don’t need to worry about this. Or maybe we can proceed probabilistically:

  1. x is infinitely more valuable than y if and only if for every natural number n, a 1/n chance of x is more valuable than certainty of y.

Or perhaps we can take being infinitely more valuable than as a primitive transitive and irreflexive relation.

But now, if what we have are the above ingredients, what does it mean to say that something has infinite value? Here are two options, a maximal and a minimal one:

  1. Maximal: x has infinite value if and only if x is infinitely more valuable than everything else.

  2. Minimal: x has infinite value if and only if x is infinitely more valuable than something else that has positive value.

On the maximal option 4, you and I do not have infinite value, since you are not infinitely more valuable than I and I am not infinitely more valuable than you. Indeed, only a being like God is a plausible candidate for having infinite value in the maximal sense.

In the minimal option 5, “has positive value” is added to avoid the potential problem that literally everything that has positive value has infinite value, because anything with positive value is infinitely more valuable than something with no value or with negative value. What does it mean for something to have positive value? I guess it’s for it to be more valuable than nothing. (I am using a very broad sense of “item”, including such “items” as “nothing”, when I talk of value in this post.)

But option 5 probably doesn’t capture the intuition that infinite value distinguishes persons from, say, trees. For while arguably a person is infinitely more valuable than a tree, it is also quite plausible to me that a tree is infinitely more valuable than some non-living things like fundamental particles. Or if you don’t share that intuition, suppose eternalism. Then a tree that exists for a year could be infinitely more valuable than a tree that exists for an instant, since there could turn out to be infinitely many instants in a year.

In any case, whether these speculations about the value of trees are right, the important point is that the intuition we were trying to capture with the statement that persons have infinite value was that persons have a lot of value. But having infinitely more value than something of positive value could just mean that you have infinitely more value than something of infinitesimally positive value, which is compatible with not having much value at all.

If the above is right, then it’s false or unhelpful to talk of persons having infinite value simpliciter. What may make sense, however, are specific comparisons such as:

  1. A person has infinitely more value than a dollar


  1. A person has infinitely more value than a tree.

We might try for something more daring, though:

  1. A person has infinitely more value than any non-person.

I think (8) if true would capture a fair amount of the original intuition, and do so without any arbitrary singling out of a unit of comparison like a dollar or a tree. But I do not know if (8) is true. There could be kinds of good that we have no concept of, and those kinds of good could be at least incommensurable with the goods of persons. Something with such a good need not be infinitely less valuable than a person—they might be mutually incommensurable.

So, speaking for myself, I am happy with sticking to a fairly arbitrary unit, and going for something like (6) or (7).


Ibrahim Dagher said...

I wonder if, in support of (8), one could point to the fact that a personal being grounds all of reality? Such an argument would, of course, only be open to theists. But I am one, so I will ignore this problem for now :P

Given that a person grounds all of reality, and is so fundamentally perfect that He is without need of an explanation for His existence, there must be something about personhood itself which is an absolute perfection. After all, on most theistic meta-ethics, God grounds morality and value itself. So, in some sense, it seems personhood grounds value. This should at least give us good reason or confidence in our intuitions for (8). Perhaps it is better put as follows: the existence of things that could be more valuable than personhood, at least given a theistic ontology, seems unlikely, if not flat out impossible. Indeed, I am tempted to say there is nothing which could be *inherently* more valuable than personhood. Perhaps God could make some non-person item more valuable than a created person, though.

Alexander R Pruss said...

While God is a person, that does not mean that personhood is the only good God has. It seems not unlikely to me that God is good in ways that go beyond personhood as well. There could be some ways of being good which God has but that are as completely beyond our understanding as morality is beyond the understanding of a worm.

Note that to dispute 8, we don't need these forms of value to be greater than personhood. It suffices that they be incommensurable with personhood.

Walter Van den Acker said...


God's personhood is identical to His goodness. God doesn't "have" goods.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There are different ways of participating in God's goodness. One way is by being a person. There may be other ways that we have no ken of. Each way of participating in God's goodness yields a distinct attribute of God, a distant "way" that God is good, even though the truthmaker of each of these attributes is the same.

Arath55 said...

Do you have any papers talking about wether Gods omniscience negates his omnipotence?

It’s said, “If God were all knowing, then he would know everything. Including his own future, all of his choices and all their probable outcomes, making his future predetermined and negating his own free will, thus making him less powerful than destiny and subject to fate.So his Omniscience would negate his omnipotence. Now if you withhold his power to know his own future, thus negating his omniscience, that would not change his future he just wouldn’t know about it. He would still be subject to fate and he wouldn’t have the power to change what he doesn’t know. So with withholding his on the science, would negate his omnipotence” is this argument fallacious? I’m very new to arguing about God but this seems fishy, I just can’t put my finger on it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I know that I will have dinner tonight, and yet my choice to have dinner tonight is quite free.

Walter Van den Acker said...


You do not know that you will have dinner tonight.
You can choose not to have dinner at any time before you actually start eating. That is, if LFW is true.

Benjamin Stowell said...

I just had a thought today about when I visited family for Thanksgiving in 2020 and saw my nephew there (2.5 years old). I was overwhelmed with a sense then that my nephew has infinite value. Indeed I feel that were someone to suggest that he has extreme but limited value, I'd be deeply offended at the notion. This sense of infinite value seems to be simply unlimited value. But why would persons have unlimited value rather than a tree? What does it mean to have value, limited or otherwise? What is value grounded in? What does it mean to have grounded vs ungrounded value? I'm still trying to work it all out, but my intuition thus far is: my computer has limited value. It allows me to do many good things, such as read Alexander Pruss' blog. But were it destroyed, nothing wholly unique would be lost. My nephew on the other hand has a wholly unique first person perspective that includes a unified experience persisting through time and faculties of meta-cognition, imagination, creativity, morality, choice, language, relationship, virtue, and so on, and there are qualities within these faculties that are in principle without limit.