A few months ago one my therapy groups at my NYC practice got to talking about the subject of self worth. There’s no reason this should have been surprising. Self-worth is seen as nearly synonymous with self-esteem, one of the cornerstones of just about any framework of psychological well-being. One of the earliest and most widely accepted definitions of self-esteem views the concept in terms of a “stable sense of personal worth or worthiness.”

And so the puzzled look on my face was no doubt, well, puzzling to my therapy group who, understandably, was looking to me, as their therapist, to jump right in.

Only I wasn’t thinking so much about psychology as I was about moral philosophy and, in particular, this article from the New York Times. It turns out that various Federal agencies assign cash dollar amounts to the value of a life ($9.1 million for the EPA, $7.9 according to the FDA, and around $6 million for the Transportation Department, according to the article).

These absurd numbers were bouncing around in my head as the group asked questions of one another like, “What gives your life worth?”

I interrupted. While I get that the Federal government needs to set about the gruesome task of setting values for various kinds of damages for various sorts of transgressive behavior (polluted water, tainted meat), I don’t find a discussion of self-worth (or other-worth, for that matter) to be so tasteful in group therapy.

People don’t have worth

Of course I don’t mean to say people are worthless. I’m saying something similar to what’s conveyed when one refers to a painting or a loved one as “priceless” (it doesn’t mean it’s cheap!). There’s a moral position here on what it means to be a human being. What I’m not saying, even, is that “all human life has worth.” I get the sentiment there, but what I’d like to call into question is the very enterprise of assigning worth (valuating, as they say down the street from my New York office on Wall Street) to human life.

We assign value to things so that we can trade them, or sell them for parts. Valuation is necessary to comparing relative value as part of the process of buying, selling or investing in them. (Need I remind you of the sordid history of buying and selling humans?)

What would it mean to give up the notion or worth?

What would it mean? In fact, I’d like to propose giving up all forms of pseudo-economic language as applied to human beings: value, worth, investment-in, cost. We’d have to find ways of talking about the importance of being proud of who we are, of striving to make our lives better and being giving to the world that don’t require us to talk about ourselves and one another as objects, where we can assert the dignity of all human beings without resorting to the indignity of assigning worth.

We have to accept that human life is not so much precious or valuable as it is absolute. What more can we say of the virtue of human life than that it’s human life? Ours, our neighbors, those with whom we’re sharing world?