Of Ultimate Worth?

In a recent interview with “Die Zeit,” the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz is quoted as saying that “we love according to the rules of the market.” When I asked a renowned economist if economics knows anything about the Kantian concept of human beings as “ends in themselves,” as being of incomparable, ultimate value or worth, he politely sent out an inquiry to several of his colleagues – and the answers came back with a polite “no.”

Illouz claims that we love what is difficult to get, supporting the “natural law” of economics, of supply and demand. Without getting into the intricacies of the relation between demand and supply, one can easily see that not everything that is in short supply, for example intelligence, is therefore in great demand. Equally, not everything that is in great supply, for example political inanities, is therefore not in great demand.

To the Highest Bidder

To the Highest Bidder

The trick of the market place is to somehow create a demand, while at the same time insinuating that one would join the ranks of the few privileged owners, if only one could get one’s hands on what is being sold. It’s a game and one has to grant that it is played in the “love scene” as much as it is played by Apple marketers. Even God knew how to market his apple by saying that Eve couldn’t have it.

So is there really nothing else? Is all worth and value part of an infinite chain of tradable currency? People who teach their young how to sell themselves to employees and to a “good catch” in the fishy markets of love, certainly don’t seem to know anything else.

How can one convince a self-merchandising human that there may be something beyond The Sell, something that has integral value, a worth of its own? Kant suggested that, since human beings are the creators of value, they should not be placed on the same level as the values they create. However, the premise to this famous claim is precisely that we human beings create all sense of value. In other words, there is no binding necessity to the proposal that human beings should be held above all economics of the market.

Sociologists and economists aside, there is still something obscene, at least to some of us, if we heard ourselves saying: “I love you dearly, because other people want you and because of what I could sell you for on the open market.” Yet, it has to be granted that we keep building some legal restrictions against the temptation to sell each other and ourselves: apparently the inclination to treat humans as market objects is fairly high.

Again, how can we convince ourselves and others not to see human beings as having only market value? The Germanic root of “worth” (from the Gothic “wairp”) also means “having dignity,” and last time I looked having dignity means not to be for sale. The Latin root of “value” (“valere”) implies being well, thriving in one’s own way, which again is something not measurable by anything but one’s own individuality, one’s unique sense of self.

The point is that we have to choose whether to create a life that has its own worth and value, and whether we grant each other this ultimate dignity, or whether we are mere manipulators of and slaves to the market, where deception and life without all dignity rules even such saleable, utilitarian fictions as “I love …”

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2 Responses to Of Ultimate Worth?

  1. Sally says:

    “No binding necessity” behind regard for persons as more than marketable? You’ve just admitted Kant to the ranks of the postmodern!

  2. Georg Gadow says:

    Even Kant would not have proposed that someone like Gingrich is bound to be reasonable. One would have to be free to be rational before one can see the necessity of it. Postmodernism, as well, is too rank (from admitting all) for the crispness of the life of reason.

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