Is valuing life undervaluing it?

People often object to human life having a value placed on it, explicitly or implicitly. (I’m told there are good reasons, apparently to do with dignity, compassion, holism, souls and me being sick and inhuman, but I must admit they seem incoherent to me – if anyone would like to explain in writing I would be grateful). The pressing question then:

What alternatives are there to placing a finite value on human life?

One could not value human life at all. Ironically, this is what those who try to put a value on it, or assume it has one, are generally suspected of. Any value they give a life can be equated to the value of, say, a really vast number of rolls of toilet paper. Or heaps of SUVs full of McDonalds’ hamburgers and books by Ann Coulter. Thus it’s not enough; if you can put a value on human life you don’t value human life.

The other alternative looks better: value human life infinitely. There’s probably still conflict with your intuitive morality however. If any amount of human life is infinitely valuable, as long as someone is alive the universe can’t get any better. Why preserve extra lives?

Infinitely valuable human lives should also be protected from anything that might shorten them for lesser aims, such as life. We barter slight risks constantly for the quality of our experience, among other things. Unless you’d like to argue that nachos and car trips are also of infinite value, so can be traded with smidgens of human life, what are you doing out of your protective bubble?

Another alternative is just to not think about it. Hold that lives have a high but finite value, but don’t use this in naughty calculative attempts to maximise welfare! Maintain that it is abhorrent to do so. Uphold lots of arbitrary rules, like respecting people’s dignity and beginning charity at home and having honour and being respectable and doing what your heart tells you. Interestingly, this effectively does make human life worthless; not even worth including in the calculation next to the whims of your personal emotions and the culture at hand.

The only way to value human life is to place value on human life.

For more on how to feel about this, see Philip Tetlock.

11 responses to “Is valuing life undervaluing it?

  1. You are not considering the possibility that 'value' could be a vector, rather than a scalar.In other words, the only possibilities are not on the interval (-inf, inf). If 'value' is structured as a vector of multiple scalars, say [A, B], and comparison between values is defined such that A strictly dominates any value of B, then you can have the following:V1 = value(toilet paper) = [0, 1]V2 = value(magazine) = [0, 5]V3 = value(SUV) = [0, 30000]V4 = value(magazine, SUV) = [0, 30005]V5 = value(human) = [1, 0]V6 = value(human, toilet paper) = [1, 1]V7 = value(human, magazine, SUV) = [1, 30005]V8 = value(2 humans, 100 SUVs) = [2, 3000000]and then the following is true:V1 < V2 < V3 < V4 < V5 < V6 < V7 < V8I think this is the kind of arithmetic which most people implicitly believe, and it does make mathematical sense, if you assume that:(1) all humans are equally valuable, and(2) one life is worth any quantity of goods because goods can be produced, but death is irreversible.I do not believe either. There are certainly many humans whose value-added is negative (people who steal, rape, murder).And certainly, the value of those whose value-added is positive, varies widely depending on their potential to produce – in any way, shape, or form, something that is appreciated by others.

  2. I have considered that, but nobody acts as if that were true, which means it is not how anyone’s values system works, which means it is not true. Because physically human life can be traded for other things, if we were to maximise human lives we would have nothing else but what was totally necessary to them. i.e. just enough food, water, and warmth to not die and nothing else. All other resources should be directed toward there being more people. In saying what is ethical I see no alternative but to try to bring about what other people want. Even if I were to value human life over all else, as a separate incomparable value, to act to do so would be self interested, not ethical. Other people do value additions to their lives as tiny proportions of life itself.

  3. People don’t act as though potential people have value; potential people have no value. Existing people, however, have value over and above any material things. Furthermore, people argue violently over the exact point at which a potential human being should be considered to have made that shift.I’m not sure I understand your second paragraph, but perhaps I address it in the above nevertheless.

  4. Your first line doesn’t follow from mine. Potential people, if they become real, value themselves. Thus their existence is as as valuable as anyone else’s. Living people’s behaviour is useful for figuring out what those people value, but that is pretty much irrelevant to valuing someone else’s life.Things are valueless without any people to value them, but some reduction of life can be traded for a different experience of it, no?My second paragraph = Why is your preference for lives over other things relevant to what should happen in the universe?

  5. Katja: “if we were to maximise human lives we would have nothing else but what was totally necessary to them. i.e. just enough food, water, and warmth to not die and nothing else. All other resources should be directed toward there being more people.”denis: “People don’t act as though potential people have value; potential people have no value.”Katja: “Your first line doesn’t follow from mine. Potential people, if they become real, value themselves. Thus their existence is as as valuable as anyone else’s.”Let me paraphrase that.What people apparently think should be valued more highly than anything material is not “lives” in general, but preservation of lives that already exist.On the other hand, people don’t behave as though creating new lives has fundamental intrinsic value. It very much depends on circumstance. People put great value on some new lives being created, but possibly a negative value on “too many” lives, or creating lives in the “wrong” conditions, and so on and so forth.I’m just discussing here how I perceive most people feel.Katja: “Things are valueless without any people to value them, but some reduction of life can be traded for a different experience of it, no?”Things have no value in and of themselves, and have different values to different people. Hence trade.Assuming that my life has to be finite, yes, I would agree that a certain fraction of it could be traded for a preferred kind of experience. This is probably how many people would think. However, a large number could still want to extend their lives at all costs, and they are entitled to that preference.Katja: “Why is your preference for lives over other things relevant to what should happen in the universe?”I am still befuddled, probably by your introduction of this strange concept of an objective should. I know only want.What do you want?

  6. I think we got a bit confused here.Let’s return to your original post.You state that the only way to value human life is to assign it a finite value, on a scale such that it can be matched by a certain large number of rolls of toilet paper.Consider the following thought exercise. Alien god Xenu comes to the Milky Way and presents the inhabitants with a finite number of magic power plants which can generate power eternally. Each plant emits more power than a star. As opposed to stars, Xenu’s power plants will work eternally, and can sustain life in the galaxy long after the last stars have burnt out.Xenu’s power plants will never break down. They can, however, be destroyed if not protected. And if destroyed, can never be replaced.If just one is destroyed, that means 100 billion lives less can be sustained simultaneously after stars collapse.And if all are destroyed, then all life in the galaxy will eventually come to an end.So now: is one of Xenu’s power plants worth an infinite, or a finite, number of rolls of toilet paper?Clearly you can put a finite value on a Xenu’s power plant, if you define it in terms of other Xenu’s power plants. For example, if one plant gives twice the energy of the others, it is worth two of the other Xenu power plants.And if you could replace one of the lost power plants by foregoing 100 trillion rolls of toilet paper, then yes; such a plant would be worth that number of rolls of toilet paper.But as long as the plants are irreplaceable, the value of one plant outstrips the value of anything else, except an equally powerful plant.You can still do value arithmetic, but only with values that are on the same scale.

  7. The following thought just occurred to me. From the perspective of public policy – even if you value lives as being in a whole other category than material goods, i.e. as ‘infinitely’ more valuable – saving a life still has a finite material value.Because resources are finite; and spending resources saves lives; and lives are supposedly infinitely important; it follows that resources must be spent on saving those lives which cost the least to save, so that the maximum number of lives can be saved.It follows, therefore, that if project A would save lives at a cost of $1m each, but project B would save lives at a cost of $100,000 each, then project A cannot be attempted until the life-saving potential of project B has been exhausted, or until the returns of project B diminish to the point that saving another life costs the same as with project A.This is not the same as saying that a life is worth $1,000 if that’s what it costs to save it. The value of a life depends on the person doing the assessment. But clearly, if we hypothesize that lives are uniformly valuable, then resources should be focused on saving the lives that are easiest to save first, so that the maximum number of lives can be saved.For the record, though, I reject the premise that lives are uniformly valuable. The above logic is only valid only for those who do accept that premise.

  8. That you can replace a Xenu power plant or save a human life at a certain cost does not imply that that is its worth.Xenu power plants are only valuable if you have something to power with them. If the presence of that thing is tradable with power plants, there is an optimal number to sacrifice. Also everything has a relative value.

  9. Your logic is valid if lives aren’t uniformly valuable. Compare cost per estimated value of life saved instead of per life.

  10. Pingback: Estimation is the best we have | Meteuphoric

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