Personal Worth vs. Inherent Value

The Modern Survival Guide #14

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But I think my views are worthy (I hope, anyway), so I’m sharing them. Coincidentally, in this article I want to talk a bit about how we judge personal worth and value, and why these concepts are different.

In modern society, as in all societies before, people are not all of equivalent worth. If that sounds harsh, it is, but it’s why the President walks around with bodyguards and you (probably) don’t. However, it is vitally important that society treats everyone as though they have the same inherent value, regardless of perceptions of individual worth.

A lot of people have trouble with at least half of this concept. Some people will loudly state that everyone is worth the same, which is ridiculous; they are confusing worth with inherent value, and worse yet, devaluing individual differences. A lot of other people will loudly state that a person’s worth should determine their inherent value, which is equally ridiculous; these people are falsely equating two separate concepts, and worse yet, placing way too much emphasis on wealth and the luck of the draw. It’s important in social discussions to maintain the difference between these concepts, and understand why they are both important.

Onward to definitions. For the purposes of this discussion, your worth is your education, social relationships, job, social class, power, personal wealth, and your accomplishments — all the things that every society uses to assign you to your slot in the social hierarchy. These slots are not equal, and the individual components that make up this judgment are not equal. How this all works is largely dependent on the society in which you live.¹

For the purposes of this discussion, your value is how your society treats any given individual by default. This is why I called it “inherent” value earlier; it’s something built into the social structure and you don’t have to do anything to claim it. In the US, people are all (supposedly) assumed to be equally valuable under the law, which is to say that we believe the law ought to apply to everyone in the same way.

Here’s where things get a little complicated: a person’s worth absolutely does have an impact on how they are treated in the legal system and society at large. But their value does not change. This is a conundrum. How does something like personal worth not affect personal value? And why does value not have a larger impact?

Let’s take an example. An otherwise unknown stockbroker who embezzled money will probably get a lighter sentence than, say, Bernie Madoff. This is because Mr. Madoff’s notoriety and the magnitude of his crime made him worth less in the eyes of society.² However, we didn’t drag Mr. Madoff out into the street and stone him to death, either — his life was still assumed to have value, and was protected by law.

In large part this distinction is due to political philosophies of justice that are entrenched in our society (whether we consciously recognize it or not). One of my personal favorites is the idea of the “Original Position,” which was posited by a man named John Rawles. In short, this thought experiment argued that an equitable social system is best achieved if a society’s rules are created such that they would be acceptable to anyone in any social position. The best way to accomplish this goal is to equip every citizen with inviolate basic liberties. The Constitution and the American legal system are built on such ideas of civic equality, even if the country doesn’t always do a good job of living up to them.

Equitable social systems are very important. They keep people from revolting, for one thing, and tend to make life much more livable for everyone involved. This is why equitable social structures have so much resonance in national politics and everyday life — it’s usually in everyone’s interest to ensure that people are happy, productive, and not… you know… rioting. It’s also generally seen as the morally proper approach to social order.

Therefore the American definition of a person’s value is based on core liberties and rights, and the acknowledgement that everyone deserves some of these liberties and rights regardless of social station or crime. This serves as a backstop for ideas of social equality — there are no nobles in the US, only rich people. That may not sound like a major difference, but it is; mainstream culture does not make the argument that one group of people are favored by God or destiny (although some of the weirder Prosperity Gospel groups try really hard to do this).

At the same time, American culture places enormous importance on a person’s personal worth — particularly in terms of jobs, finances, education, and personal (not communal) accomplishment. It’s a hard truth to come to terms with, but most people will see you in terms of what you do, not who you are, and there are some jobs that are considered more worthy than others. In large part our modern American social classes are built around employment status and personal wealth. There’s not a lot you can do about this, aside from recognize that it’s a thing and make your plans accordingly.

This is why most social systems respond differently to people with greater or less perceived worth. Societies are operated by people, and American people are generally more concerned with perceptions of worth than they are with ideals of value. Thus, it’s apparently perfectly acceptable in America for politicians and social pundits to accuse poor people of being lazy, defend higher degrees of incarceration for black people, and argue against equal pay laws while at the same time proclaiming the good word of the basic principles of civic equality of all Americans, as enshrined in the words “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”

There are three takeaways from all this:

  1. Don’t assume that everyone will see or acknowledge your value. Most people don’t care about your inherent value (priests, social workers, pro-bono lawyers, and the occasional empathetic person might; don’t hold out hope for Congressmen). Most people care about your worth. What this means is that, if you want to be seen as worthy, you have to acquire worth. Not everyone can do this, and sometimes that’s an indictment of a society more than it is a judgement of a person.
  2. Don’t assume that a society’s measures of worth or value are fair. They are not. They are frequently the product of deliberate meddling by one group or another, for the purpose of favoring a particular set of goals or people. Should Wall Street brokers be worth more than teachers? Probably not. Do we treat them as if they are worth more? Hell yes.
  3. Don’t assume that a society’s measures of worth or value are constant and unchanging. They are not. Gay people in the US are valued far higher in 2017 than they were in 1950. The measures of worth and value change along with world events, and it can go VERY badly for you if you get stuck on the bad side of history (just look at the Cultural Revolution in China for a textbook example of values shifting overnight to the detriment of many, MANY people).

In general, then, remember: broadly speaking, your worth is what you make of yourself; your value is what you are. Try not to get these things confused, and the world will make a lot more sense.³ It won’t necessarily look any better, but it’ll make more sense.

¹For example, in the US janitors are manifestly worth less than doctors. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to train a doctor; almost anyone with a strong stomach is already qualified to be a janitor. The worth disparity exists because in the US, your place in the social hierarchy is largely dependent on your job, how much money you make, how much education you have, and your opportunities for social mobility. We do not value age, community impact, or interpersonal contributions anywhere near as highly.

²Sometimes anonymity is a good thing.

³Teenagers, for example, are all screwed up because of this. They have the expectation that their value is the same as their worth, not realizing that they haven’t yet accrued many worthy qualities.

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Allen Faulton

Allen Faulton

Searching for truth in a fractured world.