The Value of a Life

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There is no value in life except what you choose to place on it…

Henry David Thoreau

Price Tag on Life [GwENvision / Flickr]

When we were putting together our show, The Good Death, we spent a lot of time discussing the most cost effective way to die. These conversations often had us talking about the other side of the equation: what is the value of life.

For nearly three years this question became the center of Kenneth Feinberg’s existence. A mediation attorney, Fienberg was appointed to head the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

I was asked to play Solomon, to be both judge and jury, in calculating appropriate compensation in each individual case. But how do you presume to put a dollar value on a life that ends prematurely? How do you calculate a victim’s pain and a survivor’s emotional distress? It is a near impossible task.

Kenneth Feinberg, What is Life Worth?

‘What is a life worth?’ is an age-old question but it is one that is answered every day, in subtle ways; from the headlines in the New York Times to the obits in the back–who’s making the cut?

How do you value your life? Would you put a higher price on the guy next door or the guy halfway across the world? Who would be the person you’d save from the burning building? As a nation what countries are we chosing to rescue from the burning building? Have 9/11, The Tsunami, Katrina, the ongoing carnage in Iraq and Darfur changed the way you value life– yours or anyone else’s?

We’ll be discussing this from relative viewpoints. Give us your thoughts, whether they be actuarial or existential.

Kenneth Feinberg

Mediation attorney, special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, author, What is Life Worth?

Peter Singer

Utilitarian Ethicist, teaches at Princeton University, author, Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and most recently, The Way We Eat, written with Jim Mason

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield

Vice President, CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership,

Extra Credit Reading

Melly, Sometimes I Hate Being Right, All Kinds of Writing, August 3, 2006.

kevmania, How much is your life worth??, dr_robotnik, August 13, 2006.

kt, Price Check in Aisle where?, Killingtime: Diary of a Hitman [Fiction], January 17, 2005.

Jen, Saturday — well, Sunday., Where I wax on and on about everything, January 8, 2006.

Melina, Life is cheap in Haditha…, RIPCoco, June 3, 2006.

Stentor Danielson, Utilitarianism without data, debitage, June 6, 2006.

Teethwriter, Woman sues the NYPD Police Department, Word of the People, March 27, 2006.

Michael Specter, The Dangerous Philosopher, The New Yorker, September 6, 1999.

Elizabeth Kolbert, The Calculator: How Kenneth Feinberg determines the value of three thousand lives, The New Yorker, November 25, 2002.

Related Content

  • Two people close to me died in the past year. Death is so final and mysterious I am still wondering, “Where did they go?â€?

    That, plus seeing my friends and myself getting older has given me a slightly new perspective on the brief and precious nature of life.

    Taking time to be with the people I that I love, spending time in the places I love most and doing what I love to do is how I value my life.

    It is hard enough for the deaths close to me to sink in. Deaths out in the larger world, like the Tsunami or Katrina deaths seem more like stories to me even though I know they are true stories and these lives are as precious to the people who have lost them as mine is to me. These stories serve to remind me that life is short and precious and you never know how or when your own story will end.

    Knowing life is short, enjoy it day after day, moment after moment.

    Zen Master, Suzuki Roshi

  • chilton1

    Arthur Porges calculates $1.98 in his 1985 short story “$1.98�

    I guess we need to factor in inflation.

    I found this elemental breakdown-

    65% Oxygen

    18% Carbon

    10% Hydrogen

    3% Nitrogen

    1.5% Calcium

    1% Phosphorous

    0.35% Potassium

    0.25% Sulfur

    0.15% Sodium

    0.15% Chlorine

    0.05% Magnesium

    0.0004% Iron

    0.00004% Iodine

    -with trace quantities of silicon, fluorine, manganese, zinc, copper, arsenic and aluminum (this will also depends on where you live and what you eat i.e. some of us may be more valuable than others)

  • chilton1

    I should apologise for crudely confusing a human life with a human body.

  • chilton: not at all… I think its good to be reminded that we are really just dust put together in some weird kind of temporary fancy configuration.

  • Mark Wolfe


    Conventional wisdom says that the more of something you have, the more important it is. The more money I have, the more significant I can make myself. The more spores of anthrax I have in my body, the more important it is for me to check over my last will and testament.

    As a journalist, I have come across numerous examples on the wires of loss of life and catastrophe. When I was tasting the wires to determine which stories out of the literally hundreds that are put out by the various agencies, Associated Press, Reuters, AFP and so on, would actually go into the newspaper, there was a certain litmus test to pass.

    The fact that people died in an accident is by itself not enough to get in the paper. WHO they are, WHAT NATIONALITY they are, HOW THEY DIED and HOW MANY DIED must be considered.

    WHO: One president of a G8 country is worth about a dozen presidents in Africa. One president of a G8 country is worth 20,000 Papua New Guineans, maybe more.

    There is also the issue of fame. Michael Jackson may be a disfigured putz, but if someone stabs him through the heart with a shard of a broken “Thriller” album, stop the presses. On the other hand, when someone super-famous like Sir John Gielgud dies, people think, “Duh, who’s he, man?” HE WAS ARTHUR’S BUTLER, YOU SHITHEAD! And he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for the part, by the way. Of course he was really known as an outstanding Shakespean actor. But he was off the radar of current appeal at the time of his death.

    So who you are, and how you are regarded when you kick is important.

    WHAT NATIONALITY: The Abu Sayyaf kidnaps 10 people. Five are Filipinos and the rest are Australian. They cut off the heads of five. Five Flips doesn’t cut it for the front page (if you’ll pardon the pun). Five Aussies, probably.

    HOW THEY DIED: A ferry sinking might be pretty sexy, but not if it was full of Indians or Pakistanis. Airplane crashes are only interesting if they are big passenger planes (full of people) and only if the thing falls out of the sky over First World territory. A plane crash in Bulgaria? Did you hear a fly sneeze? Me neither.

    A car bomb goes off and kills six. No big sticks in it’s in Iraq. But let someone set off a car bomb by the now-defuct New York World Trade Center Building, killing the same number, and it’s the news of the year.

    HOW MANY: In 1994 more than 500,000 people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority, were killed in massacres organized by the Hutu government, then in power in Rwanda. The United States, big brother to the world, stood by and did nothing. Maybe it was because they could not see how precision bombing could win the day, or that the two ethnic groups looked exactly alike to them.

    So why are Americans so worked up about 9/11 and the 3,000 or so dead in New York, Virginia (not Washington, please. The Pentagon is in Arlington, Virginia, a separate state last I checked) and Pennsylvania (‘member that plane that went down that everyone forgets?). Sure, terrible loss of life, but compared to Rwanda, as an example, it’s not even a stone in your shoe.

    The point here is that human life is not equal. 3,000 is a hell of a lot, but so is one if it’s your son or daughter. I wonder how strong the US reaction would have been if six people had died in a different terrorist attack on U.S. soil other than 9/11. Would Bush be drinking the blood from the head of a sacrificed lamb to give him the divine strength to overcome the enemy?

    Somehow I doubt it.

  • markdefrates

    Is it possible to develop a metric to value a life in its entirety? A compensations lawyer values a life by the lost future earnings. Life insurance values a life as a contract between insurer and insured. Mark Wolfe, in the prior message, values life, as a journalist, by papers sold. Members of congress and assorted ministers valued Terry Schiavo’s life according to what she represented, an abstraction that was certainly not the way either her parents or her husband valued her. President Bush apparently values the alleged life of a doomed blastocyst greater than the life of a mature and sick human being. or so, at least, some of his critics would allege. What about the dreadful ratio that appears to rule in the Middle East, where the loss of one Israeli life seems always to be countered by the loss of ten or, these days, a hundred Arab lives? This ratio also appears to hold true in Iraq, where one soldier was quoted by Andrew Tighman of the Washington Post as saying; “Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant.” Recourse to religion tends to encounter the crazed inconsistencies of preachers like Pat Roberts ordering the assasination of Hugo Chavez. Did Roberts forget his Sixth Commandment? And back in the Middle East the horro at Qana is much greater because half the dead were children, blasted out of existence, and children, perhaps as a result of a genetic imperitive, are valued greater than adults. Is there such an absolute as the sanctity of human life, and if there is, what are we to make of Buddhist monks immolating themselves in protest against the Vietnam war? More controversially are Arabs who consider suicide bombers martyrs violating a moral absolute, or expressing their powerlessness or simply approving an assymetric weapon of war? These are only questions. I do not have absolute answers. I have few answers even for myself. I am content with that. I am suspicious of the absolute answers of so many in the public eye. I believe I would do and have done whatever I could to help others but I am not usually confronted, in my day to day life, with the moral dillemnas I see in the world. I doubt that I could make a determination, or evaluate, my or anyone else’s life unless and until I was faced with its imminent loss. Can you?

  • nother

    An equation that popped into my mind:

    Love – Compromise = value of life

  • nother

    I bought a nice rose for a lady friend of mine a couple of weeks ago, I paid the guy at the counter $4.50 for a rose wrapped in a bed of babies breath. Now I ask you, If I had come across that same pretty pink rose days earlier blooming fully in some nearby fertile field, if I, in a melancholy state, serendipitously came across that exact rose at sunrise with fresh dew dripping off it’s peddles and warm bright rays of sunshine that seemed to illuminate a kind of pride in this flower – If such a startling sight wriggled a reluctant smile from deep within and ultimately made me think to myself, “it’s good to be alive!â€?

    Would the value of that same rose be $4.50?

    I’m am forever inspired by the electric words of my man Ralph Emerson “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is not time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.�

    So I would conclude that the closer we get to nature “in the present” the higher the value of our life becomes.

  • chilton1

    Why is it? That we have to measure everything

    Even rulers…

    “A Ruler of convenient size is about twenty inches long, two inches wide, and a fifth of an inch in thickness. It should be made of a hard material, perfectly straight and smooth.”

    Charles Davis, 1853

    Elements of Surveying, and Navigation with Descriptions of the Instruments

    It is this act of measurement, quantitation that reduces things. It is like drawing a diagram of love, life or a rose on a flat piece of paper.

  • Mark Wolfe

    First, Mark Wolfe was speaking on what is newsworthy in relation to death(s) in print, not specifically about his personal feelings as a human being. It is simply a fact that if you die suddenly, few people care; if President Bush is assassinated, very many people care (for better or worse).

    Second, the question is asked: Would you put a higher price on the guy next door or the guy halfway across the world? Having lived half my life in a land not of my birth and of a language I had to acquire, I’d have to say that getting to know people who are different culturally from you make a hell of a difference when it comes to compassion for your fellow man or “squashing an ant.” In a twist on the old adage that we fear what we don’t understand, we basically don’t care about people we don’t understand.

    So the answer to how much is a life worth? How long is a piece of rope? A life is determined by those around it — its contribution to society, its fame, and its endearment by others.

    All human life is sacred, but some are more sacred than others.


  • A key part of the equation for the value of a human life is “to whom”. I believe actuaries have charts for the market value we place on a life in the US.

    Beyond that, the value of a life – versus life itself – is infinite and nothing and everything in between.

    In a burning building, I don’t think anyone has time to judge the value. I think choices are made more randomly. Metaphorically, the answer will be different for each individual.

    I feel that my life became more valuable once I had a child. Both because the value of my job as the rearer of another human being is valuable but also because the cost of my death is so much higher to her than it ever would have been to anyone else. I suppose then that I apply value based on what we do for others. Not on what we have accumulated for ourselves – in money or in fame.

  • Mark Wolfe

    “I feel that my life became more valuable once I had a child.”

    The fact is that the common concept that children dying is somehow a greater tragedy than an adult losing his life is simply an emotional response, not a rational one.

    The fact is that children are not productive in society (quite the opposite, they are a drain on society in terms of resources and time). Moreover, it is unclear if a child will be productive in the future at all, or a liability.

    Any adult killed is economically more of a loss then that of a child. So as far as “value,” the death of a child is less important than that of an adult.

  • chilton1

    re :“I feel that my life became more valuable once I had a child.�

    Evolutionarily your life may have become less valuable (well a least once this child has reached reproductive age – your job is done)

    …it is the very reason you die

    to make some room

  • Chelsea

    Talking about the worth of a child compared to the worth of an adult is a topic I hope we address on this show. It’s certainly a conversation that we’ve been having around the office.

    In working on this show I continue to think about Mailena Del Valle, the woman who died in Boston’s Big Dig I-90 connector tunnel, when a ceiling panel fell on her car. She was an immigrant from Costa Rica who worked as a baker, housekeeper, and nanny. By society’s standards , before she died, one could argue that her life was not of much worth but now it is potentially worth millions. As a casualty of the Big Dig, Mailena Del Valle is also symbolically worth a fortune. When she died people across Massachusetts probably thought ‘that could have been me’ and it is precisely that empathy that has established her as the universal victim. The same empathy occurred on 9/11 when we watched what the consequences were for the thousands of people who went to work that day. As Mark Wolfe has pointed out, empathy plays a huge role in how we value the life of others. Do we really have the patience and imagination to feel empathy for those who reside outside our immediate reality? What are the consequences if/when we can’t?

  • Mark Wolfe

    Chelsea said:

    “I continue to think about Mailena Del Valle, the woman who died in Boston’s Big Dig I-90 connector tunnel, when a ceiling panel fell on her car. She was an immigrant from Costa Rica who worked as a baker, housekeeper, and nanny. By society’s standards , before she died, one could argue that her life was not of much worth but now it is potentially worth millions.”

    Huh? I thought you were with me here. Yes, the fact is that this woman was very productive in society — a baker, housekeeper and nanny. The economic loss and social lose by her death are clear.

    Contrast that with what would be the case if an infant had died in this accident. Raising an infant costs time and money. Arguably, that time and money could be now better spent.

    Sure, I understand the nature of potential, as in the possibility that the infant could grow up to be a very productive member of society (and if you watch too much TV, maybe even grow up to be the one to cure cancer), but this is the lottery ticket mentality.

    Chelsea’s idea that the deceased woman is now “worth” millions is true only in the sense that her passing was a catalyst for others to “cash in.” The woman’s intrinsic value ended with her life.

    Of course the real question regarding a broadcast show here is what “worth” do you mean? The chemicals in the human body? The ecomomic contribution of the person in question? The sentimental worth left for survivors to recall?

    There were undoubtedly people who mourned Hitler at his death, so in the emotional side, his demise was a grave loss (to some).

    Look, the loss of a life is important, but compare the death of a person unable to talk, walk, understand most of what is going on around him, needs constant care, is costly to maintain, has to be fed and washed, can’t take care of himself when sick, defecates at will, cries at odd times during the night and won’t remember any of this when older, versus you, Chelsea. The infant vs. the adult.

    If one had to go, I know who I’d choose.

  • chilton1

    -sometimes we choose a cheap pair of shoes over the life of a child

  • “before she died, one could argue that her life was not of much worth but now it is potentially worth millions”

    In that strictly mercenary way you could say the same about the artist Van Gogh except not “potentially” but for real he’s worth millions if not billions now though he was desparatly poor all of his living days. So many artists get that big spike in sales when they die – which isn’t nessicarily encouraging for people in the arts. The value of a living artist’s life I think has to be found in the vocation itself or at least in the way a hot cup of tea warms your hands on a chilly morning when you’re broke and your firewood is all gone.

  • Mark Wolfe said: “The fact is that children are not productive in society (quite the opposite, they are a drain on society in terms of resources and time). Moreover, it is unclear if a child will be productive in the future at all, or a liability.”

    This is why I said that my life became more valuable. If this chid is to become productive, the best chance is for her mother to raise her well. My loss at this time would mean the loss of my productivity plus the additional cost to society of raising my child and the loss of potential productivity that she is likely to have due to losing a parent.

    But also, my life became more valuable, because, to one person, I am the single most important person in her life. You could not give her enough money to make up for the loss of me.

    And, certainly, from bio/ecological standpoint, once I have raised her, my job is done. At that point, I go back to being valuable to society only for what other services I offer to the rest of the tribe.

    But this is all a cold-hearted economical sense of value. peggysue points out another perception of value. Imagine a world without artists, musicians, actors. And the ‘greats’ don’t spring up without the multitude of practitioners that give us warmth, laughter, insight and simply a respite from our own stresses that we don’t consider ‘great’. We may be willing to pay the CEO of Johnson & Johnson a lot more money than my local folksingers and artists, but I could live without shampoo long before I’d be willing to live without art and music.

  • chilton1

    Allison “…but I could live without shampoo long before I’d be willing to live without art and music.”

    Not a very convincing argument for the value of art in your life Allison.

    So, I will go one step further

    I could live without shampoo AND conditioner before I’d be willing to live without art.


  • chilton1

    Peggysue -your point about Van Gogh reminds me of another story – that of Henrietta Lacks.

    She died in 1951 of cervical cancer in John Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. From her tumour the first human cell line was derived. These cells are cultured in laboratories all over the world greatly contributing to current understanding of the mechanisms of cancer. She is thought to be the largest biomass to ever exist.

  • Laur

    I appreciate the philosophical responses. Money can’t buy you love, nor replace love. You can’t replace a parent for a young child either.

    My response is very concrete; my husband died and my son and I dealt with the compensation decision and process. What Kenneth Feinberg said then is still true:

    “There is not one family member I’ve met who wouldn’t gladly give back the check, or, in many cases, their own lives to have that loved one back. ‘Happy’ never enters into this equation.”

    A few days before the attacks, I felt death pass me over and fly toward my husband. We discussed it, but I was powerless to prevent anything. I would have given anything then, or now, to prevent it or have him back and would have exchanged places. That is what love means.

  • hug

    Sorry to interrupt, but to Allison and Peggysue, I just finished reading the very long “Morality: God-given or evolved” thread and I believe I saw your names. But, that thread is in “archives” now, and nobody has posted since mid-July. Can someone tell me if this means that the subject (“Morality….”) is dead or cancelled, or if that discussion is still active, or if the show is in the final planning stages? Thanks. Again, sorry for the interruption.

  • nother

    It’s unfortunate that we tend to only see the true value in something when it’s gone, this phenomenon must be battled constantly. Our instinct seems to be to spend more time lamenting what we don’t have than appreciating what we do have.

    So, another equation I see is:

    Time spent appreciating the good we have

    – Time spent lamenting the good we lack

    = Value of life

    Scoring high in this equation is intrinsic to a happy life. The people whose lives we place the most value on are positive people – people who smile a lot.

    In fact, there might be a direct correlation between % of time spent smiling and value of life.

  • nother

    Btw, the equation from my last post does correlate to the equation I wrote earlier in the thread, Love – Compromise = Value of life:

    Love of the good we have

    – Time compromised by lamenting the good we lack

    = Value of life

  • chilton1

    Life is not all roses though -is it?

    can we have love without hate?

    happiness without sadness?

    A friend’s father always drinks …

    “to Pleasure and Pain”

    why? – Because that is how he knows he is alive

    If I had the choice to live for 10 more minutes than I otherwise would, but in incredible pain….I believe I would

    Life is THAT precious

  • Sopper14

    Any equation to calculate the value of a life should include the cost of the life. When you die, if your total negative impact on the planet is more than what you gave back, then the way I see it, you (or your heirs) owe the world something. Ecologically, socially, artistically – did the poor dead bastard give more than he took? Interesting to look at one’s own life and try to fit things into the income/expenditure columns. Does a career in public service offset a public education? Maybe. Have I done enough conservation advocacy and hatibat restoration to offset my personal footprint? Sadly, no. Have I supported and expressed appreciation for some notable musicians in proportion to how much it their music means to me? Probably not. Guess I’ve got a lot more work to do.

  • Sopper14, I’ve had similar lines of thought in the past. I lament that my offerings do not offset my takings. More than that, I worry that most humans have this same imbalance and that we are really just a destructive force on this planet. Our sheer numbers are a problem. We cannot have this many people without a negative draw on the planet’s resources.

    But the alternative is to massively reduce and then redistribute our population. So, there is this conundrum that we all value life. Our life. Yet, we are destroying the potential for future life. So, we appreciate those who have gone more once they are gone (not competing with us for resources. We cling to the life we have regardless of the impact on others and the planet. And we don’t care if there is life in the future. So, do we value life? Life in the meta sense.

  • nother

    The net value of my mother and my stepfather’s life must become 0 in order for them to retain any value. We are in the process of putting everything in to my name so they do not lose everything.

    My stepfather is facing major health problems and they do not have health insurance. They own a very small business and a house. They simply cannot afford health insurance and they have gone without, much to my chagrin. I also do not have insurance but the risk is less. Last week he started seeing blood in his urine and things have not gone well. The initial tests have already cost a couple of thousand and the upcoming procedures would bankrupt them. We are scrambling to get everything in my name in order to save their future.

    My stepfather trusts me very much but it can’t be great for his dignity that he will have nothing in his name. My mother has been dealing with the health care system in this whole matter and as someone without insurance she has been treated harshly. To me, my mother is a queen, more class and empathy then most could ever imagine, and her dignity is taking constant hits from seemingly heartless health care workers who in reality are probably just beaten down by a broken system.

    I will know tomorrow if I get approved to buy their house and thus the value of their life; I will consequently know tomorrow if they will retain the value of their future. My stepfather has been stalling with further procedures hoping to get this financial stuff straightened out but how long can you keep losing blood. Like my mother told the urologist today when he said he will not go any further with out getting paid, “are you going to let him just bleed to death.� If we hear nothing from Mass Health tomorrow he just go to the emergency room and hope for the best.

    My mom made us a priceless dinner tonight with steaming hot buttered corn and baked potato garnished with a mother’s TLC. Him and I then watched the Red Sox and talked baseball. Normal activities that became invaluable to our family in the face of the unknown.

  • nother, I’m so sorry to hear of your family’s plight. as they seek for ways to get the health care system to give your father treatment, you might look for alternatives. I can ask my acupuncturist (he’s a Dean at the New England School of Acupuncture) if there is anything that could be done from the Eastern Medicine standpoint. I know we can find low to no-cost treatment in that realm. Email me. At a minimum it could reduce suffering.

  • nother

    Thank you Allison, I will email you.

  • joshua hendrickson

    The value of a life?

    If it is to be measured in monetary terms, never forget that in so doing we are using an imaginary concept to measure a concrete fact. Most of the concepts we use to measure anything are imaginary, agreed-upon concepts rather than anything permanent. As Einstein famously said, space is something that we measure with a ruler and time is something that we measure with a clock; and rulers and clocks are arbitrary systems. Nothing could be more arbitrary than money, and the sense of value that attends it. Perhaps humanity, in our origins and even in an individual sense, is arbitrary as well; the position is certainly arguable. But arbitrary or not, we are the concrete fact of our existence. Money, however, is not.

  • nother

    Once and a while I can write a long post, can’t I? If not just let me know. Flipping through Walden I realized that any conversation about the value of life must be set in the context of nature. Because, in the words of the cheesy band Kansas, we are all but “dust in the wind.�

    After thinking about this for a couple of days (btw – “I think therefore I amâ€? – Descartes which tells me that ultimately the value of our thoughts make of the value of our life) I have come to the idea that when we propose to judge the value of OTHERS, our starting block is one of self-interest. When we propose to judge our OWN value, our starting block is to use others as a mirror. These instincts arise from the base of our nature and to the degree that we push back from these base instincts, a value can be deduced. To the degree that we cultivate empathy to counteract our self-interest – we find value in others, and to the degree that we cultivate love and independent thought from within and shun our need to be envied – we find value in ourselves.

    Self interest vs. Empathy:

    Earlier this morning I spied a large ant scurrying across the rug in my apartment. I gingerly made my way over to the can of raid on the shelf, bent over in attack mode and sprayed a cloud of poison over that ant. I always assume it will be a quick death for the little varmints but my eyes lingered as the ant quivered and shook violently, fighting death for 7 or 8 seconds. I felt no empathy for the ant, just some strange distant feeling of curiosity. Deep down I wonder if my curiosity stemmed from my lack of empathy; that ant might have been a valuable member of its tribe but it was in my self-interest to kill it.

    I am not a vegetarian, far from it. I do not eat meat in moderation and I rarely contemplate the number of animals that have been slaughtered in order to feed my appetite. Why do I feel no empathy at the loss of life for those chickens and cows, because it’s in my self-interest not to.

    Life may not be a bunch of roses but to the life of a rose, life is a bunch of roses. I just think it’s a great metaphor of human nature’s inclination to self interest that we pluck that rose from the ground sentencing it to death, take it to the florist and pretty it up with the wax of a mortician, give it a life extending vile of water, sell it, present it as our trophy of beauty, accept it as a trophy of beauty, and a couple of days later – chuck it in the trash.

    Thoreau tells us, “What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop of mass of the body.� William Hazlitt tells us “The smallest pain in our little finger gives us more concern than the destruction of millions of our fellow beings.�

    Love from within vs. the need to be loved:

    The monetary value of our life is a scorecard and like the bumper sticker says, “he who dies with the most toys wins.� That’s why athletes will negotiate hard over that extra million they will never spend if it means it will give them the title of the highest paid pitcher in baseball. I’ll never forget a wealthy guy I worked with, nice guy, telling me at length about how frustrated and embarrassed he was that when he dropped his kids off at their friends house, the family had a bigger pool then he did.

    We yearn for those comments from people; “That’s a nice car you have, nice shoes, nice house, nice purse, your services are invaluable. Personally, If it’s others I use as a mirror to judge my own value, I believe my stock rose with that awkward heartfelt hug my step father game me the other day, or that beautiful compliment about my soul the regular at my bar gave me the other night. Those two things more than compensated for the loss in my value from comments about my crappy 97 dodge Neon that I’m currently driving.

    I’ve heard many accounts of poor people saying they didn’t know they were poor until they came across people from the outside and it was made clear to them that they were lacking. We WANT the poor to want what we have, we want them to envy us; it distracts us, for a moment at least, from our own envy of the class above us.

    Adam Smith writes in the Wealth of Nations about our need to be envied and keep up with the Jones: “Of such mighty importance does it appear to be, in the imagination of men, to stand in that situation which sets them most in the view of general sympathy and attention.� He asks us “Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of the court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition.�

    In his essay “Compensation� Emerson writes, “The radical tragedy of nature seems to be the distinction of More and Less. “ “It seems a great injustice. But see the facts nearly and these mountainous inequalities vanish. Love reduces them as the sun melts the iceberg in the sea. The heart and soul of all men being one, this bitterness of his and mine ceases. His is mine. I am my brother and my brother is me. If I feel over-shodowed and outdone by great neighbors, I can yet love; I can still receive; and he that loveth maketh his own the grandeur he loves.

    About life Thoreau writes: “It looks poorest when you are richest.� “The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode.� “Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.�

    I just heard about Jackie Robinson’s epitaph, he wrote it himself: ““A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.�

  • tbrucia

    Perhaps it is time to go back and reexamine Existentialism, which (among other things) stated that there is no INTRINSIC meaning to human life, but that in the act of CHOOSING we create meaning… Meaning exists within our heads, and we are the masters of that orb.

  • nother

    I was wondering this morning, if science came out with a drug that could guarantee to extend life by one year, what would we be willing to pay for it.

  • LninYo

    Some naive thoughts..

    What about the lives of insects and chicken and cows and stuff.. we destroy so many lives every day, so that we may live (and plants are living beings as well)

    life is life, it is precious to the one who happens to be alive. Would a chicken be as non-chalant about having a McNugget as we are. What about the life of that spider whom we sometimes crush under our thumb. It is the most catastrophic event in the life of that spider.

    there are two kinds of matter. Living, and non-living. Isn’t all life the same? shouldn’t we respect all life, and acknowledge it though we may use some of it to maintain our own life?

    Before we talk about the value of life, should we have a conversation about _value_ itself?

  • nother

    Well, the small house and what little assets my parents had are officially out of their name, the net monetary value of their life is now zero. I can’t tell you how relieved I am, now they will finally have some health care coverage; now they actually fit in the system somewhere. How many people are hovering in that lower middle class chasm of invisibility?

    How many lives does the IRS view as having zero net value?

    How many people are refugees in our own country?

    I’m sure a whole lot of people with darker skin are. My mom (who has the innate persuasive capabilities of a mother) had to push the bureaucracy of the health care system because of the urgency of my stepfather’s condition (which is improving btw – the bleeding has stopped) and we were rushed through to approved care. I asked my mother how she managed to get it rushed and she told me she felt she was given preference because she had no accent.

    Which had me thinking about the inherent monetary value of being a white American – esp. a male. When I popped out of my mom, my life was already worth some cash. If you were an investor investing in futures for humans, you would throw your money in the direction of my dribbling drool way before some random South American infant. I wouldn’t doubt it if Americans are born with an automatic minimum credit score.

    A few years ago I had a low paying job in Jamaica for about four months. What struck me most about my comfortably hazy time on that beach in Negril, was that even though I was making very little money and many of the locals knew that, I was still given preferential treatment. These people were living by 3rd world standards and even though they knew I had no money, they knew that I had the POTENTIAL to make money.

    I will forever remember an artist friend I met, a Jamaican named Michael. He would paint beautiful paintings during the day and sleep under a makeshift music stage on the beach at night. In the company of a bond fire, the ocean, and a tiki bar, I would listen intently to his witty insights about life, including the bumbling nature of the 1st world tourists, and I would also admire his ease and charm with the women around us. Alas, after many hours of Irie vibes we would notice the moonset on the horizon, and all to quickly the powerful sun would rise and shed light – illuminating the color of our skin and the reality of our destinies. At this, the captivating twenty-something, who out-classed me in every respect, would somberly say goodbye; and with a dignified resignation he would walk the few hundred yards away to his bed of sand underneath that rusty metal structure.

    My life gained value from my time amidst that poor/rich culture. My soul slowed down to the rhythm of those waves crashing and that Reggae beat bouncing. I left that island and those people with more love than when I arrived.

  • John Boylan asked for excerpts from the suggested reading. I remember Michael Specter’s profile of Peter Singer from 7 years ago, and I was glad for the link. The end of the piece stuck out at me:

    When Singer’s mother became too ill to live alone, Singer and

    his sister hired a team of home health-care aides to look after

    her. Singer’s mother has lost her ability to reason, to be a person,

    as he defines the term. So I asked him how a man who has written

    that we ought to do what is morally right without regard to proximity

    or family relationships could possibly spend tens of thousands

    of dollars a year on private care for his mother. He replied that

    it was “probably not the best use you could make of my money.

    That is true. But it does provide employment for a number of people

    who find something worthwhile in what they’re doing.”

    So when it comes to issues of life or death, I always think, what would Peter Singer do?

    I don’t mean to make fun here of an agonizing decision. Theories of philosophy are useful. They just don’t always apply in a hospice.

  • Paul K

    These lives might have been worth a bit more, simply because the well-connected defendants needed a financial bailout.

    In paying off the lawsuits, we subsidized a 7 gallon per mile mode of travel which is fundamentally unstable. Airplanes loaded with fuel will continue to hit something or other.

    Imagine, say, a transportation system of private vehicles, run entirely by solar energy. The system is inherently stable against terrorists. Would the government ever need to bail out the system? No! Therefore, the bailout is an airline bailout.

    Across the pond, Iran is bailing out Hezbollah. Loyal villagers are getting heavily compensated (by local standards) for the loss of their houses, and for the loss of their family members. (Yes, Hezbollah provoked the war.) Is this bailout different?

  • I’m not sure about bailouts, but the two situations don’t quite compare. Hezbollah is offering to replace homes – property with a known market value. In the 9/11 case, they are compensating surviving family members for the loss of life. This thread is about how to value that lost life.

  • I’m wondering how I should value the life of my cat versus humans with whom I have no connection, or even more specifically someone who hurts her?

  • chilton1

    I tend to think of domesticated animals as extentions of humanity –

    So your cat is you (although your cat might not agree)

  • OK, I think that works for me, maybe for my cat as well.

    Another question that I’ve been thinking about is they way we value elderly versus children at least when it comes to health care resources. Why do we devote so much resources to elderly, especially during the last stages of life, via programs like Medicare? Wouldn’t it make more sense to devote at least some of those resources towards universal health care for children? I guess this would be an interesting topic for another show…

  • chilton1

    the elderly have paid their taxes


  • I think it is interesting to note the differences in value, when one views it in terms of a personal value versus a public value.

    On a personel level, there is no limit to how much my 3 year old daughter is worth to me. I don’t even posess the skills to describe her worth.

    But when one thinks about a world with finite resources, in which it is possible to burn through millions of dollars in heath care costs, the problem is much more nuianced.

    In fact, judging from a public policy vantage, isn’t it unrealistic and in fact irresponsible _NOT_ to at least attempt to quantify these values of people?

  • jazzman

    IMO the value of a life is whatever that life can marshal to itself.

    If a widow can convince Feingold to give her more than someone else gets then she has marshaled a greater value by persuasion. Meting out compensation based on potential for earnings over a lifetime for a dead person is fallacious (insurance companies take note – what someone would have earned is meaningless because they are dead.)

    Potential is just that potential – until it is actualized, it is in the subjunctive (if it were then it would be but as it isn’t it ain’t) – everything has the potential to increase its value but unless the value is increased it is unchanged. In binary parlance it is Zero until it is One. Almost something is still nothing.

    I don’t believe in luck, accidents, or victims – innocent or otherwise. I believe everyone is responsible for everything that exists in their experience and by these lights everyone gets what they create and everything is truly fair, so for what it’s worth, a life is worth what it’s worth. Obviously we place relative values on those closest to ourselves but they are our personal values as oolitic notes (which are idea constructs buoyed by emotional weight, opinions and predilections) and the people of our affection while of incalculable emotional value are intrinsically worth very little.

  • jazzman

    I was shocked and dismayed by Peter Singer’s Utilitarian values (which is a form of Consequentialism – i.e., the morality of actions is decided by value judgments regarding the results of those actions – by whomever does the judging.)

    I was glad that Feingold and Rabbi Hirschfield briefly called him on it. This is another case of putative “good ends� justifying whatever means necessary to achieve them. History is full of examples of this type thinking. The atrocities committed throughout human history were all a result of some form Utilitarianism. Hitler, for example believed that the extirpation of “undesirable� types of human beings (Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, Homosexuals, physically impaired, etc.) was for the greatest good, the “desirable� (Aryan) types remaining would enjoy a much improved situation. Pol Pot believed that eliminating the educated and intellectual class (potential troublemakers in his view) would be for the good of his regime.

    How is “good� to be decided? Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s nuking was supposedly good for saving potentially thousands of Allied lives. I doubt that the civilian recipients of such a Utilitarian decision would agree. The supposed good of foisting democracy on Iraq is worth however many American and Iraqi lives as it takes and in the end come to naught (as Noam pointed out, a democratically elected Shi’a majority could (would likely) vote to ally with or become part of Iran or vote to become a Theocracy.)

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  • Mark Wolfe

    oolitic said:

    “On a personel level, there is no limit to how much my 3 year old daughter is worth to me. I don’t even posess the skills to describe her worth.”

    Good point, because to me she is worth nothing. If I were to find out that she had died, it wouldn’t cause me one second of concern. I would be much more affected by an injury to the stray dog that sleeps on my back steps every day.

    So one measure of “worth” is the biological connection between couples and their offspring.

    Everyone is someone’s child, but the rest of us don’t care.

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