The Value and Dignity of Humanity: Psalm 8 and Peter Singer

Have you ever thought about one of the underlying assumptions behind almost every Hollywood thriller? It is the value of human life. Basically, because we value human life, the hero will bend over backwards to ensure that the nerve gas isn’t released into the city’s gas supply or to stop the nuclear warhead from being detonated. These movies would be pretty short if the hero simply did a cost benefit analysis and concluded that it would be simply too expensive to save the city. No, the underlying assumption is that human life is precious.

But when we try and analyse why human life is valuable things get a bit more tricky. As Christians we know that human beings are created in the image of God and animals are not. But when we are pressed we often find it hard to say more than that. Increasingly, though, it will be important that we are clear on the value of humanity, since as our society in the West turns its back on its Christian heritage, voices are being raised that question the assumption that there is anything special about humanity. So, for example, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer has argued that to favour human life over animal life is actually a form of ‘speciesism’.[1]

The Bible gives us a different perspective, and perhaps the clearest example of its perspective is Psalm 8. David asks the question in verse 4: what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?[2] And the Psalm gives us 3 parts to the answer.

  1. Human life is valuable because even in its weakness it brings glory to God (v.2)

The first point David makes is that God’s glory – his strength, his majesty is shown in the weakest member of humanity: 2 Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

Even young children praise God – their mouths can testify to God’s strength and that silences those who oppose God. That is how Jesus uses this Psalm in Matthew 21:16 as he enters Jerusalem and people complain about the children heralding his entry. But the idea is also that God proves his strength in that he can sustain even the weakest member of the human race. If anything shows humanity in its frailty it is a baby. What chance of survival does a baby have left on its own? But even more, what chance does a baby have when it is surrounded by the types of people described in this verse – foes, the enemy and the avenger? A baby wouldn’t stand a chance. But God declares his greatness in saying that he can and does sustain infants and nursing babies in this situation.

Children give God glory – whether specifically by praising him, or implicitly by the fact that he sustains them. Thus the value of the weakest frailest human life is that it testifies to God.

This perspective is by no means universally held to. Peter Singer has denied that all human life is equally valuable in a series of distressing statements: ‘Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons’ and so ‘[k]illing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings’.[3] Further, he argues, ‘It does not seem wise to add to the burden on limited resources by increasing the number of severely disabled children’.[4]

The message of this Psalm couldn’t be more different – humanity – even in its weakest, frailest form is purposeful and valuable because it gives God glory.

  1. Human life is valuable because in its dominion it displays the glory of God vv 3-8

In the Psalm David actually hesitates as he considers the position of humanity. He looks at them in relation to the universe and in fact to God himself. He looks at the vastness of the universe and he can’t fathom why God should care for mankind who seems so insignificant. And the universe is only the work of God’s fingers (verse 3). The image is that God just spun this vast universe into existence off the end of his fingertips.

But it is this vast, powerful God who creates the universe so effortlessly that gives humanity our dignity: 5 You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour. 6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: 7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, 8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. In these verses David is echoing Genesis 1 and he underlines the dignity of humanity over and above the animal world. Our dignity stems from the fact that God has crowned humanity and given us dominion over all of creation. Nothing in creation is excluded. Humanity was created to rule it all. Human life is valuable because in its dominion over the rest of creation it displays the glory of God

And so because of this placement and positioning by God, human life is more valuable that animal life. So the fundamental difference between a day old baby girl and a day old baby cat is that the baby girl has been given this position above the rest of creation. Human life is valuable because in its dominion over the rest of creation it displays the glory of God.

And yet, there is a problem with all of this. It just doesn’t seem to fit with our experience of the world. We don’t seem to be able to control the world like this psalm supposes. This psalm just doesn’t seem to fit what we know of our world which is ravaged by sickness, disease and death. And so really this psalm awaits a greater fulfilment. Someone of whom these words could be truly said. Someone who is ‘humanity’ personified. Perhaps as David was writing this psalm he was not so much reflecting on everyone around him, but rather looking forward to someone who would fulfil all that human beings were meant to be. And that is precisely how the New Testament writers understood it.

  1. Human life is valuable because of Jesus! vv1-9

Hebrews 2:5-9 reflects on Psalm 8 in relation to Jesus. In 2: 9 the writer names Jesus as the one who fulfils this Psalm. He fulfils the psalm by becoming a man, undergoing the suffering of death and then – being raised from the dead – he is crowned with glory and honour. Jesus is the man supreme, the true son of man. But the writer also notes that even now we don’t see this world as it should be ‘at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him’. People still die, people still rebel against God. This is not the world of glorious perfect dominion that the Psalm promises us. But the writer has already alerted us to that in 2: 5 in that he is applying the psalm to ‘the world to come’. We will not see Psalm 8 ultimately fulfilled until this world is restored by Jesus when he returns to consummate his rule.

And so Psalm 8 shows us that human life – even in its weakest form – gives glory to God. We were created with a dignity given by God. But our dignity is marred. As such when we look at humanity we can’t help but get a confused picture. And so there is a tension that runs through each human being…except one. Because there is one who fulfils this psalm perfectly. Jesus has been crowned with glory and honour. And although we do not see everything subject to him, when this world is renewed, he will be seen as its rightful king and lord.

And so crucially that is the ultimate answer to our question. Why is human life valuable? Human life is valuable because God became a man in Jesus. Jesus remains a man and always will remain a man. God has crowned and glorified humanity in Jesus.

When we have no objective truth to appeal to all we can appeal to is economics: ‘It does not seem wise to add to the burden on limited resources by increasing the number of severely disabled children.’ Increasingly it will fall to Christians to care for the weak because our society will no longer have any reason or desire to. And so it is crucial that we, as Christians, take the message of this psalm to heart. That we see that all human is valuable. Because of Jesus we can love cherish and value all men, women and children. May God help us.

Dr Peter Orr

[1] Peter Singer, ‘Speciesism and Moral Status’ in Metaphilosophy 40 (2009), 567-581.

[2] All Scripture quotations NIV 2011.

[3] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, (1st ed.; Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 122, 182.

[4] Helga Kuhse and Peter Singer, Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (Studies in Bioethics; Oxford: OUP, 1988), 171.


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