Lately I have been thinking a lot about the different ways that we can value things. In particular I have been thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic value and how this relates to Kantian ethics through his views on respect. When we value something extrinsically (or instrumentally) we value that thing for the sake of something else. When we value something intrinsically, we value that thing for its own sake.
Kant’s major contribution to the concept of respect was to say that it was owed equally to all, in contrast to older views that honoured only those in the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Kant justifies the idea that we are each owed equal respect by talking about how each person has intrinsic value, which he calls “dignity.” Human dignity, according to Kant is the idea that we are not fungible in the way that commodities are. Dignity is a special kind of value that Kant contrasts with price. It is because persons have dignity that they are owed respect, which entails treating others always as ends in themselves (or, as intrinsically valuable), and never as mere means (as having only extrinsic value).
In North American culture we often talk about human dignity, official documents like the declaration of independence, the UN declaration of human rights, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms all contain references to human dignity or human equality that echo Kant’s concerns. The question I have is: how well do we promote this view? Although we claim to think that Kantian respect is important, that all people are born equal and are intrinsically valuable, I think we fail to promote the idea that people have intrinsic value and more often think of people in terms of their extrinsic value, particularly their usefulness or productivity.