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Re-Considering Value

I’ve had a couple thoughts during the past days which made me question: will humans as a species ever come to a stage of development where all forms of exploitation become abolished? Is there a possibility where everyone in the future will become freed from all forms of exploitation; such as wage-labor, data extractivism, etc. Or is this a burden that some of us will forever face?

The promise we keep hearing today, is that advancements in technology will bring equality to all, and make most forms of exploitation obsolete. Assuming that all humans will be granted longevity, robots will manufacture our material necessities, and humanity will finally be freed from all toils of life’s necessities—which were once a matter of survival. Even if these promises become a reality, there is still a very hard question concerning the definition of value that remains unanswered. Perhaps someone will eventually ask: is 7 billion people really necessary for production of value when machines do it a thousand times more efficiently?

Before answering the question, I want to define two important forms of value that are commonly regarded in moral philosophy:

  • Intrinsic value
  • Extrinsic value

Today, we have a system of value in place that accounts both, intrinsic and extrinsic value; but at an age where most value is mediated through the market, the former has by far become more predominate (extrinsic value). The reason why today’s predominate notion of value is incompatible with the utopian future that many of us have in mind, where intrinsic-value-producing humans coexist with extrinsic-value-producing machines; is that today’s notion of value relies on the idea that everything can have a quantifiable value based on how much material and energy is expended during the creation and maintenance of a particular commodity. In other words, this is extrinsic value since it ascribes a value to commodities based on how much natural resources, labor, and energy is expended during its production process.

But the interesting aspect about extrinsic value, is that the humanist outlook tends to ascribe a contrary form of value on living creatures, especially humans. We think that the value of a human being is not just an aggregate of matter and energy expended to sustain 10 trillion living cells that constitute a human body—to us humans, the value of a human life is something more than that. The phrases that humans use to ascribe intrinsic value to things “value in itself”, “for its own sake”, or “in its own right”. And this is called intrinsic value, or better known as—humanism.

But the biggest question that I have—and which I hope humanity will start collectively asking—is for how long can intrinsic and extrinsic value coexist without one overtaking the other? This is the underlying contradiction that philosophic thinkers like Marx tried to understand. If the whole aspect of capitalism is to put a quantifiable price on everything, what makes one think that the same won’t occur with things that have an intrinsic value, like for example, with human life?

Since the advent of basic forms of trade and mercantilism, human economies have been ascribing a market value to nearly everything that can be exchanged, exploited, produced, etc. At this stage of human development, there is barely an acre of land that does not have an extrinsic value ascribed to it. And with the advent of new technology, things like personal data, behavioral data, mental activity, DNA—all begin to possess the potential to become exchangeable commodity forms in the market place.

Every new technological advance brings a new method through which human nature can be marketed and commodified. By doing so, humans become consumers that merge with the value system imposed by the market. The market starts to “know” exactly what the consumer needs in order to stay nourished and satisfied, and in return, the consumer pays the market monetary price, personal data, consumption, etc.—all which have a quantifiable extrinsic value. In this form of evaluation, extrinsic value becomes less and less intrinsic. All spheres of human life become commodified—and eventually, humans become nothing but commodities with a quantifiable market value.

So the question still remains; how can a world that has a extrinsic value assigned to everything, welcome ‘things’ that will eventually have no value—such as the case with humans? According to the value system of capitalism, human labor could eventually have no market value because it will be substituted by machines. In such a case, will there be a ‘special’ value system that will continue to value human beings? This is still a hard question to answer.