What Value Do You Put on a Life?

COVID-19 lays bare the value put on human life.

Posted May 30, 2020

What value do you put on life?

Most likely, when considering your own or your loved ones you will say something like, “I can’t put a dollar amount on it. Life is priceless.”

But that’s not what society says about how much a life is valued. Businesses, juries, insurance companies, hospitals, and governments measure human life in monetary terms, although they often don’t put it this way because a human life shouldn’t be reducible to dollars and cents.

But putting a dollar value on a human life is inevitable and in certain instances we have no objections.

We understand the value placed on an individual when we look at how much someone is paid for the work they do. Wages and benefits reflect the value that an employer puts on an employee’s contribution to its profits and losses. In some workplaces, how much a person is valued is also calculated by how much the employer invests in safety equipment and gear.

And governments decide the value of individual lives by how much it spends on public health and investing in an infrastructure that provides a safe environment. For example, only recently has the Long Island Rail Road begun to eliminate grade crossings in a systemic way because the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided that too many people died at such crossings. Building underpasses and bridges is expensive and until recently, the loss of several years a life wasn’t worth the investment in reconfiguring the crossings.

Such calculations largely remain hidden under normal circumstances, but we aren’t living in normal times. The COVID-19 has revealed that those who cannot afford to stop working, who lived in crowded quarters and who don’t have adequate health care coverage are most vulnerable. The poor have gotten sick and died disproportionately because society hadn’t valued them very much under normal circumstances.

The pandemic has laid bare the difference between saving lives and saving the economy.  It has also highlighted how for many people their identity is bound-up in their work. For some, work is necessary to put bread on the table and a roof over their heads. But for others, work is a value in and of itself, something which provides a sense of meaning. Work is their identity. And when that identity is assaulted because work is taken away, the pain is great.

When Ford reconfigured the fuel tank on Pintos, at the cost of $11 a car, it wasn’t because they were now concerned about those who had died when their cars burst into flames when hit from behind. The company knew about the gas tank problem, but an internal study of the company concluded: “It would not be worth the cost of making an $11 improvement per car in order to save 180 people from burning to death and another 180 from suffering serious burns each year.” (The Ethical Executive, Hoyk and Hersey) A $125 million award in a lawsuit brought by someone severely burnt in such a crash changed Ford’s mind about fixing the problem.

But it didn’t change the mind of Department of Transportation, which at the same time rejected a regulation that would have required bars under the rears of trucks to prevent cars from sliding under them in a collision because, the regulators decided, the cost would have exceeded the cost of the lives saved. “The bars became required when the Department of Transportation’s value of a life reached $2.5 million.”

Trade-offs must be made and in a monetary economy this often entails a cost-benefit analysis. Problems are infinite but money isn’t. This leads to every modern economy needing to make compromises and considerations about the redistribution of the wealth. Where the balance is found reflects the underlying ethical values of the society.   

Still, it is essential to consider a person’s life as priceless. This is what we mean when we talk about human dignity and worth. No price tag can be put on dignity because it isn’t conferred by others but on oneself by oneself. Worth isn’t bestowed by either society or the individual. It is part of what it means to be human, the necessary understanding of how people treat one another not as objects—tools—but as subjects—ends in and themselves.

So while someone may suffer terrible losses and setbacks or may find themselves on the short end of the material goods society has to offer, that person's worth hasn’t been touched.

Our most fundamental identity isn’t in any of the multiple roles we play but in being human. We can keep or squander our dignity but our worth as a person can never be given or taken away.