Yesterday, I was listening to a panel discussion on academic freedom. Close to an end, I noticed a conflict arising in me: many practical situations require that I seek and find value or utility in the connection to other humans—anyone who has ever networked to get anything done can attest to that. If you know someone (who knows someone) who can help you with a specific problem, having access to this connection can be incredibly valuable for you.
At the same time, I like to think of human beings as so much more than this kind of utility I can get. And there is a part of me that senses we can all benefit by placing greater value on people regardless of their practical utility in the moment. This leads me to a conundrum: humans possess a strong drive for seeking practical utility in the world, including through our connections, and we also have a longing that we value all humans for being human, and that we treat them equally.
How does this matter? I believe it is necessary for humanity to find a way that integrates both those sensibilities, so that both needs are well met. For one, in my own experience, I can certainly find evidence for the need to select and carefully evaluate with whom I share resources. In a recent article, Robin Dunbar explains our innate tendency to sort people we know into circles of decreasing intimacy and closeness. And I really cannot see myself valuing or treating other people just as equally relevant as my husband.
Importantly however, I do not believe this means and I do not want to suggest that I become closed-minded and closed-hearted towards others. Indeed, much of the time and effort I spend—at least the way I look at it—is in pursuit of satisfying needs which are not primarily my own. And I do happen to experience joy and value in life from those pursuits to the extent that I notice that my efforts are valuable to others and have been well received. Sharing what I can achieve seems to me a valuable pursuit in its own right, maybe even the most valuable of all.
One major obstacle towards reconciling individual needs and the value we experience from sharing with others stems from our confusion around the meaning of value. For practical purposes, we are able to evaluate outcomes we strive for through their cost or their price—how much of the resources we possess we are willing to give up at any given moment.
We have come up with a mechanism by which such a price is determined, a marketplace of commodities. We tend to forget in that perspective that much of what humans value can not be purchased. Take clean air and water, art, music, a smile on the face of people you meet, and let alone friendship. We value these aspects as enriching our lives, and yet we do not have any concrete idea how much they are worth—until we no longer experience any of them that is.
And with other humans it seems to be somewhat similar: we would not want to think about how much of our income we are willing to spend on receiving kindness from someone in a moment of need. In fact, thinking of it that way seems somewhat obscene to me. Imagine that when you are feeling really down, someone you know comes to you and suggests that you pay for being consoled and supported. Really a bit of an outrageous thought to me: friendship as a commodity. Instead, we understand that it takes effort to build and maintain relationships, and we are willing to spend the time to do so.
Much of the current public discussion about how we value other humans focuses on superficial characteristics. The marketplace creates a strong and hard to break frame of mind: we pay people their income given how much they can make through individually competing by offering their effort as a labor commodity on this market.
On the flip side, we talk for instance about race and gender as markers of how people of certain groups (and their intersections) have been and often remain treated visibly differently, at least in the aggregate. One such difference is how their superficial differences created obstacles to accessing the market. Another is how the legal system treated and treats people differently. Overall, it seems to me that people are very dissatisfied with how this discussion is unfolding—on both sides.
On the one hand, some people seem to suggest that as long as we focus on the value of the individual, we will treat people well enough. The same people, however, also strongly argue for the utility of the labor market, a kind of hierarchy that sorts people according to their value based on the scarcity of their abilities. How can those two go together…?
And on the other hand, claims and demands are made—especially by those on the progressive left—to abandon aptitude tests, as they seem to perpetuate the differences in (average) valuation we place on others. And any difference that has in the past been used to value people has become a source of concern. The way we value people creates vastly different opportunities, which brings me back to this question: is there nothing other than practical utility as a commodity? And if someone is not useful, can we safely disregard that person’s needs, just because the market would suggest that we should?
From the perspective of the person being evaluated, I can say from my own, personal experience that this can be quite devastating. Particularly for as long as I link my own self-worth to how I am being evaluated by others. This is one of the reasons that I recently joined a volunteer organization, Dragonfly Mental Health. I believe this kind of negative feedback can have extremely corrosive effects on people, and especially on people who could contribute greatly through their skills and abilities. And as much as academia probably never was an easy environment, the current climate of publish-or-perish—together with a host of other factors—creates conditions in which people often feel their worth as human beings put in question, up to them choosing suicide as an out. Feeling unworthy really is a devastating experience.
I believe that to solve the conundrum between these two ways to think of the value of others is to recognize that the core of our being, how we feel our value, and our affective responses, are shared with all humans—in fact to quite some extent with all living beings. If we can remain conscious of how life itself “feels”, and that through our choices we can either help life flourish, not just our own life but all life, then we can more readily find a way of acting that does not prioritize our own utility at the expense of others, and of life more broadly.