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.


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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.

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Jill and I hope you can join us!



4 thoughts on “More on the Meaning and Purpose of Life

  1. Explicit conversations as in your example above is not the norm in human society, but there is such a thing as status throughout the animal kingdom. People are interested in having favorable interactions, like sharing resources and cooperating, with those who have achieved high status and success. Females prefer high status males. Even lobsters, like humans, become “clinically depressed” when they keep loosing fights. Their serotonin level declines as they tumble down the social hierarchy.

    In all your case examples of people fretting about their achievment in some area, the fact that the patient DID achieve success in some OTHER domain always sneaks in. This wouldn’t need to happen if achievement was truely irrelevant, would it?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • Hi Sigal,

      Thanks for the excellent comment! You are so right. People like individuals with high status and achievement, that’s for sure. Our experience adopting cats also shows us that status and hierarchies dominate in the animal kingdom, too. Everyone seems to love a winner!

      The question I am addressing is whether or not you want to base your own feelings of self-esteem on status, achievement, love, or success. There are pros and cons, so when I’m treating someone, a Cost-Benefit Analysis can be one of many useful tools. Unconditional self-esteem tends to be more relaxing and freeing that basing your self-esteem on something you think you “must” have to be worthwhile.

      And once you’ve developed unconditional self-esteem, you can get rid of it as fast as possible, once you realize you don’t even need it any more! If you are interested, you can read more about these concepts in the chapters on the Love Addiction and the Achievement Addiction, as well as other Self-Defeating Beliefs, in my book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, or in The Feeling Good Handbook.


  2. I find it really odd that we base our self-esteem(worth) on our attributes, abilities and personality traits considering we don’t control most of them. It seems like a recipe for disaster.

    In school I was in the bottom math class but was the top person in that class. I got a little ego pleasure out of taking credit for my math ability and judging others for having a worse ability than me. I think I got an award for being the top in the bottom class and eventually they moved me up to the very top class, but this time i was near enough at the bottom of the top class performance wise on tests. Everyone around me was suddenly doing better than me and I began to feel unworthy.

    If i realised at the time that I didn’t control my math ability, then I wouldn’t have gotten pleasure when I passed in the bottom class, but I also wouldn’t have felt pain when I failed in the top class. And I wouldn’t have been incentivised to judge others who had a worse ability than me and I wouldn’t have felt inferior when there were people who had a better ability than me. Because I’d realise that my math ability has nothing to do with me and their math ability has nothing to do with them since we don’t control the ability. If we had control then every single person would just choose to get the rights answers. You can’t take credit for what you don’t control. Well you can, but you suffer tremendously at some point.

    Not only that but this actually leads to bullying. Normal people just judge people to be worse in their head and get ego pleasure(Self-Esteem pleasure). But some people feel the need to do this outwardly at people(Bullying) . They have to show the other person in reality that they’re worse for whatever attribute, ability or personality trait they have or don’t have. But this comes back to hit the bully. If a bully bullies someone for being shy and the bully gets pleasure because they think they’re confident – then if the bully ever at some point feels shy then they’ll feel bad about themselves.

    If the bully had realised that he wasn’t responsible for his confidence (because he can’t control how he feels. If he did then he’d choose to be confident forever and would choose never to feel shy) then he’d realise that the shy person wasn’t responsible for his shyness. Instead of bullying there’d be compassion.

    Realising that we don’t control our feelings or abilities would also eliminate the vast majority of judgement in the world. You can’t get ego pleasure for something that you don’t control. And most people judge others almost exclusively on what they don’t control( abilities,attributes personality traits)

    Our culture tends to reinforce this idea through giving awards to people. If an actor gets an award at the Oscars for best performance, then if they’re competing next time round and there’s an actor that beats them, then it could be possible that they’d feel a bit of pain. If they realised that they didn’t control they’re acting ability( because if they did then they’d just choose to be better at acting than the better actor) then they wouldn’t feel unworthy. They might lose the pleasure when they win the award but they wouldn’t feel the pain if they lost it.

    It’s the same in school. If you get pleasure for getting an award for being at the top of the class then if you run across someone who’s better than you at that class then you might feel pain. But if you realised that you didn’t control whether you got the right answers for the assignments( since if you were in control then you’d choose to get them all correct) then you wouldn’t feel pain.

    I think it would help depressed people a lot as well. If your a failure in life because you aren’t smart or talented or good at financial management or confident. If you realised that you didn’t control any of those attributes, then i think it would be impossible to be depressed. If a person who was a failure had control then they’d just choose to be successful at everything.

    Anyway, that’s my perspective on self-esteem!

    • Thanks, Wells., for another thoughtful note. I notice that you did not respond to a question I asked yesterday about your first note. Were you aware that you ignored that question? If I’m “off” on this point, please accept my apologies! Sometimes I, too, talk over others, and do not always “listen” skillfully. I get in trouble on this, sometimes, too! david

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