This article is part of a series entitled Correlates of Religious Impulse.
See also: 1. Purists; 2. Unconditional; 3. Perfectionism

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” Job famously laments; “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1] In the Book of Job, God, urged by Satan, tests Job: whether his worship can withstand the systematic destruction of his earthly blessings; whether his religious faith stands firm and never falters; whether his devotion to God is unconditional. Satan thinks that Job worships God only for the rewards he’s been given: he taunts, “Does Job fear God for no reason? … But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” [1] God knows that Job worships Him for reasons which lie beyond temptation, betrayal, and exchange. God knows that Job’s devotion is unconditional. The Book of Job extols unconditional faith.

Religion is not the only thing which functions best under conditions of unconditionality.


Parental love is also supposed to be unconditional. We condemn the parent who disburses his or her love conditionally, as a bargaining chip, contingent upon such feats as “passing the test” or becoming successful”. Conditional love during childhood has indeed been implicated in Narcissistic Personality Disorder [2]. We’re disposed, though, to condemn this behavior regardless of its apparent consequences. We feel that love, to be valuable, must be unconditional; this is part of our understanding of love itself. Love isn’t love if it’s subject to condition.

Public policy philosophers warn us against using cost-benefit calculations in certain sacrosanct areas, such as “environmental, safety, and health regulations” and, most notably, human life [3]. To weigh human lives against dollars is, indeed, to put a price on human life – and to concede that human value is conditional. These concessions distinctly violate our sensibilities. Kelman recalls the United Steelworkers’ famous comment – regarding a cost-benefit proposal to reduce carcinogenic coke-oven emissions – that “the Emancipation Proclamation was not subjected to an inflationary impact statement.” [3]

John Locke first espoused a conception of human political rights as unconditional. Locke urges us to protect the “life, health, liberty, or possessions” not just of ourselves, but also of others, “men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker.” [4] Locke’s appeal to our “maker” is more than just coincedence. God’s role, in Locke’s view, serves precisely to unconditionally establish human political value. Locke’s views ultimately have informed the bulk of enlightenment political philosophy since, including, notably, the United States Declaration of Independence’s appeals to the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” [5]

Unconditionality appears in many diverse environments – environments which, though ostensibly unrelated, all concern matters of fundamental human import. Why does unconditionality appear precisely in circumstances of profound value? What role does it play? How does it change human experience? And why is it so worth keeping around?

Competing Values

Ascribing unconditional value to certain things could, for one, release us from the obligation to perform certain cumbersome value judgments. This hypothesis’ viability is reinforced by the observation that the situations in which we ascribe unconditional value tend also to be those in which value calculation could be the most difficult. This view soon falls short. If ascribing unconditional value were a matter of mere pragmatic convenience, then we would feel little aversion towards those who bravely volunteer to expend their efforts and make the calculations anyway (as economists often do). We’re actually likely to be upset, though, by an assiduous economist’s conclusion that a human life is worth approximately $5.5 million dollars [6]. The problem appears to lie somewhere within the act of calculation itself.

Perhaps it’s the case that we’ve made some preliminary value judgments, and concluded, to our satisfaction, that certain things just happen to be strictly more important than anything else that’s presently available, and that our aversion to calculation reflects simply a fear that these important things’ primacy will be unduly disputed. This too, encounters problems. I suspect that most people — even if told to presume the existence of some hypothetical good widely accepted by society to be more valuable than human life — would still hesitate to condone the sacrifice of human lives in exchange for this other hypothetical good. These special things must be, we conclude, perceived valuable for reasons deeper than that they happen to be the best things we have at the moment. We consider them more valuable than anything.

Infinite Value

Life changes fundamentally for the better when we commune with phenomena we perceive to be unlimited in duration, scope, or importance. These “infinite” values — whether eternal truths, unwavering beliefs, or unquestioned principles — can offer us a sense that we’ve contacted something that truly matters. These values will attain special meaning. They’ll endow our lives with special meaning.

Having chosen a few things truly deserving of respect, then, human societies have tended to consecrate those things as infinitely valuable. The worshipper’s devotion, the mother’s love, the worker’s life, the citizen’s rights – these are all examples. These things lose their value when they can be withheld at convenience. They’ve been appointed to the elect of unconditional value.

In order to commune with things whose meanings we take to lie beyond practical exigency, we must, almost by definition, systematically forswear practical exigency. Having chosen, in other words, — perhaps even through calculative judgment — to adopt certain values as unconditional, we must then preemptively prohibit ourselves from subjecting the decision to further consideration. To permit subsequent consideration would be to permit pragmatic need to remain in place as a decision-making factor, disrupting the transformation we desired to undertake.

We reject attempts to ascribe conditional status to “unconditional values” because doing so damages, destroys, or denies our perceived connection with the infinite. We hold this connection valuable. By designating unconditional values, we seek to preserve it.

These designations are somewhat arbitrary. Humanity has nothing higher, though, and we’d do well to respect our own attempts to establish the foundations of infinite meaning. Perhaps we’ll eventually succeed. Perhaps we already have.

  1. Book of Job, English Standard Version
  2. Groopman and Cooper survey of Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  3. “Cost-Benefit Analysis: An Ethical Critique.” by Steven Kelman, from AEI Journal on Government and Society Regulation (January/February 1981) PP. 33-40
  4. John Locke: Second Treatise of Civil Government
  5. US Declaration of Independence
  6. EPA Environmental Cost-Benefit Analysis

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