Journal: News & Comment

Thursday, November 09, 2006
# 2:59:00 PM:

Does a human life have a dollar value?

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Mitch Ratcliffe doesn't like that oil company BP assigned a price to human lives in industrial accidents—$20 million USD and up, according to the Financial Times. Mitch calls it "immoral" to assign a price to a human life.

Perhaps, but we, or our representatives, at least unconsciously do it all the time. For example, perhaps a dangerous stretch of road in your community has killed 20 people in the past five years (it lacks guardrails, or has landslides, or is too twisty, whatever). If it would cost $2 million to fix and make safer, voters or councillors might approve the expenditure.

If it would cost $80 million, they might turn it down. In essence, we say then that the potential of 20 further lost lives is worth spending $100,000 per life, or $20,000 per life per year. But not $4 million per life, or $800,000 per life per year. People might argue that the money would be better spent elsewhere to save more lives. And they're probably right—because that money would save lives more efficiently, perhaps closer to that $100,000 per life mark, or less.

Yes, it's an imperfect analogy, but companies and governments and individuals make the calculus all the time. BP may have been callous in its assignment of price, but there's some honesty in it. And the amounts are substantial—our governments (and by extensions, we) aren't willing to spend even a few dollars per person to save the lives of people with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Maybe that shows the meaninglessness of a dollar value. But we continue to measure effort and commitment in dollars in our world, and "at any price" is almost always (except, perhaps, when occupying Iraq) a lie.


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