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Inherent Versus Expressed Worth:

A Brief Study of the Unitarian Universalist First Principle


UU Principle #1: [We affirm and promote] the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Think about what this principle means to you. Interpretations will vary, even if we compare dictionary entries for all of the words. Nonetheless, most of us could probably agree that we’re being asked to recognize some sort of value or goodness in every person we meet or learn about. We will often differ in how and where we recognize this value, but most of our definitions will overlap somewhere.

That’s all well and good, but why was the word “inherent” added to this phrase? Doesn’t it just highlight that we’re to extend this idea to everybody, which is already stated later on?

I would contend that “inherent” serves a better function than simply supporting another word and creating somewhat redundant verbiage. I think the word is there to remind us that we’re not talking about any and all kinds of worth and dignity – only a certain type, the inherent type.

Let’s consider this a moment. Think about your interpretation of the first principle. Isn’t is just a little harder to practice this principle around some people? Come on, now. Be honest. You don’t have to say it aloud. I will, though; I find it harder to locate the worth and dignity of the Westboro Baptists than I find it to locate the value of, say, the members of my UU congregation. Yes, I recognize that the Westboro organization’s worth is there, somewhere, under all the hate-speech; it’s just harder for me to see. I’ll bet many of you reading this would agree.

Personally, I think that’s because, while the Westboro Baptists contain a kind of worth – worth of the inherent variety – they don’t seem to express themselves in a way that reveals that worth. So, while our principle begs that we recognize the inherent worth of all people, it is silent on the issue of expressed worth – the worth made manifest by our actions.

And, although determining the difference between inherent and expressed worth may seem but a droll semantic task at first, I think it also gives us an excellent tool for social interaction.

When we meet – or learn about – another person, we have two things to consider in terms of the first principle. In the first place, what is their inherent worth? That one’s easy. No matter how they’re acting or what they’re saying, some part of them is inherently valuable, noble in and of itself. In the second place, we must consider the person’s expressed worth. This will be difficult on the best of days, but – by the nature of its definition – it will having something to do with how the person acts.

So how can we put this concept to use in our relationships? Well, in the first place, it encourages us to never give up on ourselves. No matter what we’ve done, and no matter how bad it was, there is always an inextinguishable flame of dignity inside of us. And this inherent worth always provides us with a reason to improve ourselves and our world, no matter how much our actions may have marred us.

And this stepping stone to forgiveness isn’t just found inside me or you or John Smith. It exists within every person. Therefore, even if we cannot trust the actions of another person, we should always trust that there’s a core of inherent worth inside of them – even at those times when we can’t see it manifesting itself.

This idea of separating inherent from expressed worth can actually serve as an excellent model as we learn and educate others too. You see, every child – everyone who has to learn anything, in fact – needs a feeling that someone, somewhere loves them unconditionally. To survive physically, we need food and shelter and water. But to survive emotionally, the most important thing we need is unconditional love. And what is love without condition but an acceptance of one’s inherent worth, of a value or goodness unchanged and unchanging?

When I discuss character issues with my son, I tell him that he is a good person. I may not like his actions – it’s even possible that he might do very bad things that I would revile. But I have always, and will always, love him and know part of him to be good. That will never change. I believe that affirming these feelings for my son will help him in school; more than this, I think they’re necessary to his being a happy person.

The recognition of a difference between inherent and expressed worth can enable and empower positive social relationships that simultaneously promote the values of responsibility and forgiveness. It’s a tough balancing act, but at least we have the first principle to remind us of our goal.

Imagine, though, a world in which people conflated inherent and expressed worth. We would expect people in such a society to judge each other’s value based on actions. In such a society, people would constantly worry if they’d managed to permanently ruin their goodness by acting in certain ways; they might even give up on being good if they thought they were irredeemable. Their worth would always be uncertain, even expendable. At the same time, people who acted with worth would be overlooked or even scorned. People in a place like that would be unlikely to forgive others but, almost paradoxically, also have trouble teaching others to be conscientious and responsible. Such a society would be a haven for guilt and anger, arrogance and weakness. It sounds to me like a pretty unhappy place. Can you imagine it yet?


Author: Scott Hill


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