More on the Meaning and Purpose of Life

Did Hitler and Mother Theresa have the same value to humanity?


Hi visitors,

I thought you might enjoy a great email I received from a fan named Jeffrey, along with my reply.


Dear Dr. Burns,

Thank you so much for the incredible effort that you and your team put into your blogs, podcasts, and Facebook sessions. I follow them religiously and found great value in every single piece of content.

As I read your blog on the meaning of purpose of life, I can’t help but want to ask a question that’s been on my mind since I read the Feeling Good book. I had a hard time understanding what you mean when you said that every human being has the same value.

Does Hitler and Mother Theresa have the same value to humanity? Some individuals offer so much more contribution to the world than others, how can they have the same value? I know you plan to address this question in your new book and I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I have a hard time resolving this dilemma in my head. I have been an achievement addict all my life.

Thank you again for your fantastic work.



Hi Jeffrey,

Thank you for your excellent question. I’m sure many people have similar concerns, and I’ve thought about this issue for decades, because I’ve had so many depressed patients who were convinced they were “worthless.” So I’ve had to ask myself this question—is it possible to judge the “worthwhileness” of a human being, or a “self,” as opposed to judging specific things they believe, do, or say?

It’s clear that we can judge specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, you can make a decision about how interesting or worthwhile this post is, on a scale from 0 (not at all worthwhile) to 100 (extremely worthwhile). Are you with me so far? But to me, that is not the same as judging whether “I,” David Burns, am worthwhile. I don’t think you can judge how worthwhile “I” am! And I certainly cannot judge how worthwhile you, or any other human being, might be. That’s beyond my pay grade, and isn’t something I am interested in attempting either!

It is clear that we can judge many, but not all, of Hitler’s specific beliefs and actions as despicable, heinous, hateful, and destructive. And we can judge some (but not all) of Mother Theresa’s specific beliefs, words and actions in a positive way.

But how do we judge a “self?”

There are several issues I will address in my new book that might be relevant to your question.

  1. Is it possible to judge your own, or some else’s “self,” as opposed to something specific that we think, do or say?
  2. Can we define a “worthwhile” or “worthless” person in a meaningful way?
  3. Does the “self” even exist?

My answers to these three questions are no, no, and no! But then again, I may be missing something really important. And I know, too, that this issue will be intensely controversial, with heated argument, perhaps on both sides.

If you think you can define a “worthwhile” person, or if you think you know how to judge a “self,” as opposed to some specific thought, statement, or behavior, let me know.

One problem to the development of a consensus on this problem has to do with motivation, as opposed to logic. It can make us feel morally superior to judge others as “bad,” and to see ourselves and the members of our own tribe as “good.” Because of the mental high this type of All-or-Nothing Thinking causes, many will have no interest in giving it up.

This is the problem of positive distortions that I dealt with in an early Feeling Good Podcast, and also in one of my early Feeling Good Blogs some time ago. Positive distortions cause violence, hatred, and addictions, as well as mania and narcissism.

Hitler capitalized on Labeling and All-or-Nothing Thinking, telling the German people they were “superior” (e.g. “more worthwhile”), and insisting that Jews and other groups, like the mentally ill, were “inferior” (e.g. “worthless.”) And millions of Germans bought right into it, as do many Nazi’s and white supremacists today.

Humans LOVE to judge others! And motivation often triumphs over truth or logic.

Inherent worthwhileness as a human being is NOT the same as value to humanity, or how worthwhile a given action is or isn’t. Some people contribute a great deal to humanity, others very little, and most of us are somewhere in-between. Is someone who contributes more to humanity more worthwhile than other people who contribute less to humanity?

Can you imagine how weird it would be if you DID believe this? Let’s assume, just as a thought experiment, that you contributed a great deal to humanity, and you concluded that you were therefore “more worthwhile” as a human being.

You and I can have a little imaginary conversation, but you have to agree to several rules:

  1. You have to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
  2. You are not allowed to rationalize or deny anything.
  3. You have to endorse and defend the belief that people who contribute more to humanity are “more worthwhile” than others who contribute less.
  4. You have to agree with the fact that you have contributed a tremendous amount to humanity, in fact, more than almost anyone. That will be something will assume for the purpose of this dialogue.

I’ll play the role of myself, you can play the role of Jeffrey, a fellow who has contributed enormously to humanity.

Now let’s see what happens:

David: Hi Jeffrey, I heard through the grapevine that everyone agrees that you have contributed enormously to humanity, more than almost anyone. Is this correct?

Jeffrey: Yes, that’s correct. My contributions to humanity are legendary! I can’t deny that! In fact, many put my contributions right up there next to those of the Pope and Mother Theresa. And if you wanted to argue that I have contributed MORE than either of them, who could argue with you?

David: That’s so cool, and I really admire all that you’ve done for others. And to be honest, I’m honored, and a bit intimidated, to have this chance to speak to you face to face. I did have a personal question, though, that I wanted to ask, if it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition.

Jeffrey: Oh, you can ask me anything you like. I always answer questions. That’s just one small part of my way of contributing to society and humanity.

David: Great, thanks! So, here’s my question. You’ve stated, I believe, that people who contribute more to society are more worthwhile human beings. Right?

Jeffrey: Right on, David!

David: And it is a fact that you have contributed vastly more than I have. My contributions would be considered average at best. So, you are you thinking, then, that you’re more worthwhile than I am?

Jeffrey: Well, David, it does kind of follow, doesn’t it?

David: So, are you looking down on me right now, thinking that I’m less worthwhile? And do you kind of look down on almost everyone, since your contributions to humanity eclipse those of almost everyone?

Now, it seems like you have two choices. You can either decide that contributions to humanity do NOT, in fact, make you “more worthwhile.” If you take this direction, then you’ve agreed that people who contribute more to humanity are not, in fact, “more worthwhile human beings.”

Or, you can insist that you ARE “more worthwhile” than other people because of all your contributions to humanity. In that case you’ll look like an ass!

The issue here is NOT whether contributions to society are worthwhile. The issue is whether your contributions, or your success, or anything else about you, can make you “more worthwhile” than other people.

It may seem like a subtle distinction, but the implications are tremendous, involving severe depression, if you conclude that you are “worthless” or “less worthwhile,” or aggression, hatred and violence, if you conclude that certain other classes of people are “worthless” or “less worthwhile.”

So here’s the brief answer: “value to humanity” is NOT the same as “(inherent) worthwhileness” as a human being.

You can also argue that inherent “worthwhileness” as a human being is a nonsensical concept, but that brings us to the same conclusion. We can judge the worthwhileness specific thoughts, feelings, skills, traits, or behaviors, but we cannot judge the worthwhileness of a human being.

My take on it only! Thanks so much for keeping the dialogue alive.


Coming Soon! Register Now!

Advanced, High-Speed TEAM-CBT for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety 

We warmly invite you to attend this fabulous, one-day workshop by Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt on Sunday, May 20th, 2018. Click on the link above for registration and more information.

  • 6 CE Credits
  • The cost is $135
  • You can join in person or online from wherever you live!

You will enjoy learning from David and Jill, working together to bring powerful, healing techniques to life in a clear, step-by-step way. Their teaching style as a team is entertaining, funny, lucid, and inspiring. This is a day you will remember fondly!

In the afternoon, you will have the chance to do some personal healing so you can overcome your own feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. David and Jill promise to bring at least 60% of the audience into a state of spiritual and psychological enlightenment, WITHOUT years of meditation. That’s not a bad deal at all!

You will LOVE this workshop. Seating for those who attend live in Palo Alto will be strictly limited, and seats are filling up fast, so move rapidly if you are interested.

Jill and I hope you can join us!



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