Five years ago my niece Delaney was born.
I started with the sentence, “Five years ago my niece Delaney was born.” Note the lack of caveats and clarifications in that sentence. Delaney has Down syndrome, but that fact is a footnote in the story of her birth, just as the chemical imbalance in my brain that requires anxiety medication is a footnote in mine.
On October 28th 2018 I got a tattoo symbolizing my love for someone with Down syndrome. I got the tattoo because the basis on which we gauge a person’s so-called “value” to society should be rooted in each person’s capacity to express love and creativity, rather than their ability to generate economic output.
Each of us is shaped by many factors. Our families (biological and otherwise) guide our personalities. The strengths and weaknesses in our bodies and minds build our perspectives. Christians believe that God shapes us in the womb, but I think we can all agree that each of us has innate capacities and deficiencies.
Things that shape us and the ways we shape the world
Similarly, each of us has an effect on the world surrounding us. By virtue of our amazing brains we are each able to be expressive. We can form ideas and feelings and project those into the world. These expressions, and the capacity to form them, is our humanity. It’s no coincidence that the study of such expressions is called “The Humanities” — expression makes us human.
These expressions, regardless of form, are the core human value each of us provides to the collective human society. Some of us also provide value in other ways. I am a software engineer; I provide economic value by creating computer tools to help build better aircraft. In doing so, I provide economic value to society. My engineering contribution provides a push to the overall economic velocity of the society. When I write a book or paint a picture, I provide a push to the overall human velocity of society.
Societies have Economic and Human Velocities
Economic value is straightforward to measure. Generally speaking, when you’re contributing to the collective economic velocity, you are doing something for which you could be replaced by an equivalently skilled individual (or robot) with no noticeable effect. For example, cleaning your house, mowing your lawn, or working at your day job all fit the definition of contributing economic value. The value of such efforts are typically measured in dollars.
Human value is added when you could not be replaced by anyone else. When I am talking with my friends, I could not be replaced without effect — the replacement would not have the same combination of influences and abilities that makes me, me. Human value is hard to measure. How much money is conversation with me worth?
There is a long history of tension between human value and economic value. In totalitarian regimes, those incapable of contributing to the economic velocity of the society have been cast off, sometimes in brutal fashion. The Spartans are said to have cast aside children born weak. The Nazis killed the disabled alongside Jews in the Holocaust. Totalitarian regimes view the progress of the state as a whole (measured by economic velocity) to be the sole objective of human existence.
Prioritization of economic velocity over human velocity is not limited to totalitarian states. All states, by virtue of evolutionary pressure to survive, must have some economic velocity – no society can survive by painting and music alone. However, the temptation to abandon our human velocity in sole pursuit of economy risks losing our reason for living in the name of merely surviving.
This tension in prioritization is not limited to societies and nation states. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is a guest in the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42). Mary sits with Jesus, but Martha works hard preparing their home for Jesus. Jesus praises Mary and rebukes Martha. Jesus placed the human value of time together over the economic value of a cleaned home.
This brings me back to Delaney. Delaney makes immense contributions to our human velocity. No one else possesses the same combination of unique traits that make Delaney, Delaney. If Delaney was replaced, our lives would not be the same.
I could write a summary of what makes Delaney such a wonderful and powerful engine of humanity. I could wax poetic about her sassy attitude or the gleeful way she greets me, but those descriptions would invariably fall short. A person is not a set of attributes, and any attempt on my part to introduce her in words would be like trying to describe a painting one brush stroke at a time.
That’s the thing about human value. You can’t supplant it with description. You can’t replace it with a robot or a stand-in. I can’t create the art that Delaney makes any more than I can bring her attitude to a party.
I struggle every day to keep my priorities in order. Every day I’m tempted to keep my nose to the grindstone from dawn ‘til dark, and every day I have to remember that my economic value exists merely to provide for the human value of me and my family.
Human value is impossible to quantify because it can’t be replaced or compared. Each of us brings personality and creativity to the world, and each of us shapes what we bring according to our gifts and strengths, as well as our limitations. My limitations may be different from yours, but that does not make me more or less valuable than you.
My tattoo is three chevrons. The chevrons represent the three copies of the twenty-first chromosome that cause Down syndrome. It is an ever-present reminder of Delaney, and it is a reminder to me to prioritize human value over economic value.