How Do You Value a Human Being?

How do you value a human being?

Only two kinds of humans have a clear consensus value: first responders and what one might call first actors. Doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, cops, and modern soldiers are all first responders; valued because they defend one of the two borders of the human condition against the unknown; the border across which existential threats emerge.  At the other border, the exploratory frontier of the human condition, we find our first actors — scientists, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, mystics and (when we interior civilians are feeling particularly generous) philosophers. They are the prime movers of the human story.

First responders restore a local human equilibrium after a negative disturbance; first actors disturb a local human equilibrium in positive ways. Both are boundary actors, charged with precipitating a response to things happening at the boundary between the changeless fictive interior of the human condition and the restive chaos of the universe beyond. The value of boundary actors is assumed. The value of interior actors usually requires justification.

Boundary actors are assumed worthy. Using them as a yardstick, everybody else must make their own case.


The reason a doctor is valued even if the person whose life she saves is widely regarded as a useless waste of space, like say a management consultant, is that any human is seen as having a certain minimum intrinsic value, regardless of the virtues of the specific human being saved. The market cap of humanity is at least 7 billion H, where H is some indeterminate function of your humanist philosophy.

The problem is solving for H.

The doctor is valued for restoring the notional value of a generic human in response to a disturbance like a heart attack, rather than the actual value of a specific human. It is a sort of fake accounting, where the notional becomes real through the medium of a specific saved human.

Perhaps, you might feel inclined to argue, this is because a doctor might learn as much from saving a worthless heart as a worthy one. But this is not the kind of utilitarian argument usually deployed. The notional worth of a human being is a first principle in humanist philosophies, not a computed value.

The specific value of a doctor, a first responder, is really a function of the repeated affirmation of a generic principle of sanctity of life, estimated in terms of notional human lives saved, but indexed to the number of real lives saved.

Of course we don’t really think every human is worth their notional underwritten value as a mere member of the species. Not even notional women and children merit that kind of assumption in practice. To the extent we can get away with it — and this includes doctors as much as immigration officers — we treat other humans according to some cynical sense of what we think is their intrinsic value. We only get mad about it when it gets particularly blatant, ruining our notional sense of our own goodness based on notional lives valued through being saved by doctors and so on.

There is a lot of notionality in our ideas about ourselves. There is a good reason for it though.


Where does our cynical sense of what we think is the intrinsic value of humans come from?

Douglas Adams’ B Ark  idea in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is so funny because it partitions humanity at large into groups of differently valued subspecies, not along tribal lines with ingroups devaluing outgroups, but absolute ones based on a caricature of our intrinsic valuation instincts.

Imagine a doctor in a fictional Golgafrincham who accrued humanist merit points at the rate of 1 point per A-ark or C-ark person saved, but 0 points for B-ark people saved. That is what it would mean to value humans intrinsically for who they specifically are and what they specifically do, rather than notionally for simply being.

Loosely speaking, A-ark people are first actors, C-ark people are first responders (categorized with communist expansiveness to include all “real workers”), and B-ark people are interior people, who cannot be directly valued because they do not operate at the boundary between the human condition and the risks and opportunities of the material universe. The list of professions assigned to the B-Ark is revealing: Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, account executives, and most famously, telephone sanitizers.

The joke in HHG is of course that after the B-Ark leaves, everybody left on Golgarincham dies shortly after due to a virus spreading through unsanitary telephones. Telephone sanitizers in HHG could be called a C-Ark first-responder group mistakenly assigned to the B-Ark. A dealer in real risk mistakenly taken for a dealer in social risk leading to a civilization destroyed by a classification error.

Or perhaps the point is that there is no such thing as a worthless person. That’s what the idealists hope.

Historically of course, differences in valuation have been based on identity — male or female, master or slave — rather than even a caricatured sense of intrinsic value backed up by cartoon narratives.

But power only serves to distort how we value humans, it is not itself a valuation model. We still don’t quite get how we get to our A/B/C ark instincts.


Things get tricky when you go down the value totem pole from boundary actors, and actually try to value people intrinsically above the basic human value level in non-joke ways.

It might seem that we already do value people intrinsically, valuing people who do “real” work over people who do “bullshit” work. But how true is that claim?

Is a truck driver valuable? Of course. He does “real honest work” in the ceremonial language of human valuation. A true C-Ark type. Not like those evil B-Ark marketers who sell sugary cereals to kids, poisoning them and making them obese. That’s worse than bullshit work you might say.

What about a truck driver who primarily drives trucks for a company that sells sugary cereals? Or an honest steelworker who makes steel girders that go into buildings made by honest construction workers, only to be filled with empty-suit types figuring out how to sell sugary cereals to kids (to be trucked to them by honest truck drivers)?

Here the superficial logic of apparent intrinsic valuation breaks down.

Despite these gotcha economic web loops, the truck driver is still more valuable than the makers of the sugary cereal he might be shipping around, but it’s not a function of his function. He is notionally valuable regardless of the kind of load he trucks around, because the notional truck driver drives some sort of notionally valuable cargo around.


The truck driver’s apparently empirical intrinsic value is just a degree removed from a different notional construct — a particular idealized kind of work.

Truck driving is seen as an intrinsically more virtuous act — closer in our civilizational mythology to the doctor at the boundary — than selling sugary cereals. The specific truck driver may be enabling a junk food economy supply chain, but the notional truck driver is valuable because he could in principle be carting medicines around for our good doctor. It’s a degraded form of value though, since it is a function of notional what-if function. Unlike the doctor, who saves notionally valuable human lives, a truck driver is valuable because he might be moving notionally valuable goods around. Note that we don’t do something quite as irrationally empirical as valuing truckers by the weighted average of value of goods the trucking industry actually carts around. That would make too much sense to make sense.

No, the truck driver is valued in terms of his narrative distance from boundary actors in the story. You might say professions are valued loosely in proportion to the number of speaking lines they get in stories about humanity on TV rather than whatever they do in real life.

Ever notice the kinds of patients featured in hospital advertisements? There is the doctor shaking hands with the gruff truck-driver who just had heart surgery. There is the nurse hugging the cute child who was just had cancer cured. No B-Ark types ever feature in these ads. And we assume the truck driver carts noble things around, not sugary cereals. And that the child will grow up to be a doctor or something, not a television producer.


The economic valuation of people, in terms of say how much they get paid, or how much their education costs, is equally meaningless, but in a different way. The narrative value of a human is their value in the economics of pricelessness rather than price.

There is no intrinsic valuation of humans and arguably there shouldn’t be. That does not mean we’re all valued equally as humans of equal dignity though. We’re all very different species of spherical cows in a narrative economy of notional values and functions. The minimum may be H but there is no known maximum. That’s why we are able to tell ourselves that some of us might be gods.

The valuation of humans in terms of interior function in sustaining the human condition is a beautifully circular question-begging exercise, where humans get more valuable as they get functionally abstracted all the way to that noble state where doctors and firefighters earn big points for saving them, and therefore end up as exemplars of the most valuable sorts of humans against whom others are measured in terms of such expansive virtues as altruism, empathy, and generosity.

This is a feature, not a bug. You cannot value someone in terms of what they do without running into such circularity. You have to look outside the human condition to find a way to value a human within it, hence the importance of boundary actors in the picture.


You could say that we only directly value boundary actors, because they are the only ones we can value, in terms of their performance against the unexpected. Everybody else must be valued relative to them. That’s what puts them on top of the totem pole.

What do boundary actors actually do? They may be getting paid in esteem on the basis of the number of notional humans they serve, but the service itself is interesting to consider.

Both first responders and first actors act to preserve a narrative condition; the state of a story, the story, the story of homo sapiens. First responders act so as to not lose the plot. First actors act to develop the plot.

What narrative is this? Why the grand one of course, the one served by our zoo of notional constructs, within which value is proportional to distance from the boundary, not the material significance of the function. If politicians have a job at all, it is broadening or narrowing the scope of this narrative to gatekeep who gets to count as human, by representing selected notional voices in a notional storyline about the notionally human. Politics is the ultimate B-Ark job (though the job consists in BIRGing A and C Ark types)

Politics gets uglier when the narrative shrinks, and more idealistic when it expands. If you nail the felt scope of the narrative, you get elected. If you draw the boundary of human too broadly or narrowly, you lose elections. To redraw the boundary well, you must renarrativize the roles of boundary actors well.


When first responders fail, and people die of say cancer, fires, floods, or viruses spreading via unsanitary telephones, we are struck by the senselessness and randomness of the human condition. First responders are first responders because they act to preserve the possibility of meaningfulness in the human condition by keeping the senselessness of the universe at bay. While the cops and doctors are protecting us, the story just might make sense.

First actors, on the other hand, by moving the action along in ways that reinforce prevailing patterns of meaning-making, keep the narrative realizing its own potential for meaningfulness. They make the human story worth the cost of staying alive to witness, thereby providing a trivial answer to the question: is human life worth it — yes because people are paying the cost of staying alive to live it.

So first responders make life possible, first actors make it worthwhile. Between the two value of some sort is being created at the boundary of the human condition. What sort of value is it, and how can we value humans in terms of it?


You could say that the cost of preserving a narrative condition serves simultaneously as the value of everything included in the narrative —  in notional terms of course. This value first accrues to the boundary actors, and then diffuses into the interior by the logic of narrative proximity, brokered by politics.

In short, humans are valuable because they’re in a story that says they are. The story is valuable because it does not tell itself. Those who enable the story to be told do so by paying a cost to preserve its narrative coherence. The sum of those costs becomes the value of the story itself.

Here’s the kicker, the moral of the narrative whose value boundary actors fight to preserve and further is simply that humans do in fact have value. That cost of preserving the truthfulness of that Boolean assertion of value is paradoxically the source of all value. The work that goes into keeping it coherently stated is in fact the value being asserted by it.

A paradoxical implication is that a story that faces no external threats or opportunities to grow is a story that costs nothing to preserve, and is therefore worthless and cannot assert the value of humans. A timeless happily-ever-after utopia, where all matters are finally settled, is a world in which humans are necessarily worthless because the story costs nothing to tell. Ironically, lived civilizational narratives have value only to the extent that they appear to be slouching towards this worthless redemptive condition.

To put it as simply as possible: the value of a human being is 1/7b the cost of telling the story that humans have value.

There is something very suspiciously proof-of-work-like about this whole shady scheme. But I’m hodling.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. My chief and nearly sole evaluation parameter is how they treat (even in words; but in acts first) the living entities mankinds tags “animals”.
    There the societal programming is measly, the Super-Ego is left our of the picture, … and you see who they are, and what morals, empathy, compassion mean when they are not dresses put upon self-interest.

  2. I find the initial categorization and certain assumptions here to be a bit arbitrary from my experience of human beings, how they value, and how I value. For one, artists, for example, seem to me to be quintessentially of questionable value. Admittedly I live in a relatively conservative part of the United States, but it is my experience that human beings often denigrate artists as being superfluous, and often people who do not much appreciate art, to the extent that they do appreciate art, tend to appreciate that art which does not push boundaries, but if anything reaffirms boundaries. Cliche music, movies, those kitch and horrid things that administrators or managers or the guy who owns the company I work for might hang in a bathroom.
    My mind also keeps returning to a profession I was surprised you neglected to mention: farmers. In a society where droughts or famine are a fundamental realm in which the unexpected is contended with at a level that is certainly existential, this might be obvious, but in a sense the farmer might be THE boundary worker. I guess my logic is that civilization is a phenomenon that supersedes humans who do agriculture. It was a hell of a boundary to cross from hunting-gathering to agriculture, and most all other professions are predicated on farming, though it’s easy to lose sight of in this day and age, perhaps partly because of truck drivers and the like.
    Lastly, the idea of human valuation as being solely either intrinsic or based on the function of one’s profession isolated from the individuals life otherwise is strange to me. Sugary cereal admen are not only sugary cereal admen, but often also sons or daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, volunteer soccer coaches, chess champions, ribbonfarm comment writers, good listeners, Bob Dylan fans, Bob Dylan’s girlfriend, Bob Dylan’s wife, sufferers, drug addicts, etc.
    Anyway, I guess to me human value comes from maybe two sources. Suffering or capacity for suffering, and potential or capacity for experience. That’s the bassline, the part that’s intrinsic and it’s source. Then if you want to compare value for some likely questionable or somehow legitimate reason you could bring in other things like, “is the person a doctor or a janitor, ascetic wiseman or a drug addict, my sibling or some person from an outgroup I don’t identify with,” and so on. But the basic intrinsic value comes from the basic knowledge that any other person is experiencing life and consciousness just like me, and it’s an undeniable fact that being can be more or less good or more or less terrible. But all humans are in some way equal in their simple being, that incessant act of experiencing that runs the gamut of all you or I’ve ever known.

  3. The classical form of valuation without price which has become vulgar today is ordinal: the ranking. We can create arbitarry ranks using simple anti-symmetric, binary relations such as “is more important as” or “is more respected as”. Academics still use rankings, the military has ranks but for most of us ranks are infotainment trivia without any real consequences, like the lists of the “100 best songs of the 20th century” or the “10 most important economists”. They take the not-even-wrong form of an opinion poll, a reflection of the zeitgeist, a social sample, a momemt of democratic enlightenment. Although most of the priceless valuations are ephemeral “and not so important” themselves, occasionally new numbers and ranks are popping up and being taken deadly serious: the number of spectators, followers or page hits. China is supposed to gamify the whole life using a “social points” ranking.

    Ranks may carry the promise of true reason and rationality, unlike the unstable equilibria of price, which are often counter-intuitive in particular when compared to the ranks. If X is so useful why don’t people who do X earn more? Yes.

  4. Is it by chance that “stories” and “narratives” are hot in the humanities right now? Are they their last and only chance of reteritorialization after they have lost “numbers” early on and “arguments” to the patient work of real sciences? They are on the way out of the high culture, whose more traditional humanistic forms they have burned but they still have the ordinary folks with their stories, a huge and irreducible mass of it, which is open to endless analysis.

  5. There is something deeply unsatisfying about this think piece. You characterize two type of roles – First responders and First actors – in contrast to ‘people’. This is significantly incoherent – if you are going to discuss value in relation to roles (that people fulfill) then the proper contrast is – ‘not people’ – but rather ‘citizens’.

    It is the quality of a society’s or a nation’s or city’s citizens that measures the quality and value of the larger unit – the boundary roles emerge out of that ground of value that citizenship provides.

  6. Alex Goncalves says

    While there are interesting ideas here, I’m not so certain they don’t amount to a collection of fascinating falsehoods. Perhaps the biggest issue is that the ideas rest on a number of suppositions that are questionable. There are two such suppositions in the second sentence.

    The first assertion is that first responders and first actors are categories of humans, as if the role denotes some essential feature of a person. The second supposition in that sentence is that those two categories of people have clear consensus value. You list cops and soldiers as examples of first responders. I don’t think it’s well established that there is a clear consensus about their value. My sense is that specific communities and constituencies have differing assessments of the value of these to classes of actors.

    A perhaps larger problem is that you seem to ignore the fact that we can only hope to rationally assess a human’s value within a specific, transactional context. Is footballer X as valuable as footballer X to a particular team at a particular point in time? Here we can weigh the relative merits of different skills and qualities as they stack up against the team’s needs. However, the more we look at and value specific attributes, the more we move away from a global sense of the person’s human-ness.

    I’d argue that valuing (judging) a human being as a human being is primarily an emotional act, not a rational one. Rational sounding narratives about human value are largely posthoc rationalizations. That’s not to say that the conclusions reached are wrong, they’re just not actually arrived at in a rational fashion.

  7. Alex Goncalves says

    * these TWO classes of actors
    ** Is footballer X as valuable as footballer Y
    apologies for the typos

  8. Is this the basis of fiat money?

  9. This is perhaps an accurate account of the folk concept of an individual’s notional value. However, I’d argue it provides a flimsy, ad hoc accounting for H. In my personal measuring scheme (setting aside the likelihood that none of us has intrinsic value), the greater a person’s quality creative output (be it theorems, artworks, or Ribbonfarm posts) the greater their H. Against this metric, A-Ark people are deadweight, as they merely restore system equilibria, rather than enrich the system as a whole. In a more rigorous sense, A-Ark types ‘restore’ a system’s entropy levels, while creatives actively reduce system entropy.

    • Alex Goncalves says

      If it could even be said that A-Ark types ‘restore’ equilibrium. Impacts ripple outward from the initial point of impact.