Intrinsic Value and Emmet’s Enlightenment

If we interpret The LEGO Movie as being driven by Emmet’s quest for discovering his value, the real philosophical turning point in the film is not when Emmet’s double-decker couch permits the Master Builders to escape from the sinking submarine and they realize that Emmet’s ideas actually are useful. Rather, it is when Emmet realizes their approval is irrelevant to his value. While Emmet despairingly laments that he has failed and that he is not “The Special,” Vitruvius’s ghost appears to him with the message that he simply needs to believe that he is “The Special.” Seeming to undergo a major internal transformation, Emmet sees through the illusion of value that President Business has constructed. The judgments of others cannot determine his value as a person, nor anyone else’s value. Emmet places himself within a philosophical tradition that affirms the mind-independent, intrinsic reality of human value, of which the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is one of the most notable proponents.

According to Kant’s account of the value or worth of human persons, our value cannot derive from anything external, as it does for Frankfurt. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant makes it clear that simply being valued or desired by someone is not sufficient to establish any unconditional value.4 Our value is something intrinsic that derives from our very nature.5 For Kant, it is human rationality that makes us “ends in ourselves” of absolute, unconditioned worth, for “rational nature is distinguished from others in that it proposes an end to itself.”6 Having the characteristic of rationality is not merely instrumentally valuable because others deem it to be so, but it is valuable in itself, independently of anyone’s opinion. Since rationality is something fundamental to human nature, all rational humans are valuable by their very nature, and nobody’s opinions can add to or detract from this value.

This sort of principle—that everyone has real, stable, and inherent value—seems to be what Emmet has in mind when he tells President Business, “You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things. Because you are ‘The Special.’ And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us.” Of course, unlike Kant, Emmet does not seem to ground the value of persons in their rationality, and it is not entirely clear what he proposes as an alternative source of value. It seems likely, though, that Emmet thinks that each individual’s unique capacity for creativity may be what grounds her value. However, Emmet’s main point is to emphasize that no matter what others believe about him or tell him, he is still a special and valuable person. Emmet thereby places himself in the philosophical tradition of Kant and those who think that people have intrinsic value independent of anyone’s value judgments.

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