Why considering a monetary value of life is not only acceptable, but morally necessary
Typically, the first time we consider someone placing a monetary value on protecting a life, the risk of death, or other similar circumstances, we cringe. The mere mention of life in the context of money seems cruel and far too calculating. Rightly, we have learned that an absolute monetary value cannot be placed on the worth of a person whether young or old, experienced or inexperienced, whatever race they are or religion they hold. This article is not going to challenge any of those ethics. Life is a priceless phenomenon and every person’s experience is something to be held at the pinnacle of our value system.
But, now let’s consider how we evaluate risk in our lives. We all understand that living entails a risk of dying. Whether from disease or injuries, people die everyday in the areas where we live. We deem it an acceptable risk to commute to our jobs, whether by walking, or cycling, or taking public transportation, or driving, even though every time there is a chance that we might suffer serious injuries or death. We deem it an acceptable risk to socialize even though it carries the risk of disease. We deem it an acceptable risk to live in geographical areas and homes that may survive most but not all natural disasters that are possible.
And, we do not perpetually worry (well, some do) about all of these risks. We spend our resources to improve our health and safety and reduce our risk, but only to a point. Eventually, we decide that some nice meal, or household item, or luxury is more valuable to us than the marginal decrease in our risk of death, injury, or disease. When we make that decision, we have, inadvertently or not, placed a monetary value on our own lives.
As an example, let’s consider that I have the option of two modes of transportation. Option one costs me $1,000 per year. Option two costs me $1,200 per year. My risk of serious injury of death in the course of one year from option one is 1 in 800,000, while my risk from option two is 1 in 1,000,000. If I select option one, I have decided that the value of my life in terms of this particular risk is not more than $800,000,000.
The resultant value comes from determining the marginal societal cost of preventing one additional death in that situation. That does not mean we consider that we or anyone else can be bought for that price. It is only a statistical quantity that provides us with the means to evaluate different risk reduction or life saving alternatives. And, in fact, it applies not to ourselves or one particular group of people. The calculated value of life applies to the risk in question and the available options considered to mitigate it.
Anytime we make a decision whether for ourselves or in a position of responsibility over others to mitigate a particular risk with a specific strategy (or we decide that none is required), we have placed a value on life. Of course, the economic principle of opportunity cost indicates that anytime we devote resources to a particular purpose we have incurred a cost of opportunity regarding other options we might have chosen. In risk mitigation, there are always several options including doing something versus doing nothing. And more broadly, depending on our responsibility, we may also be deciding between options for mitigating entirely different types of risks with the same resource budget. In this situation, whether we wrestled with the ethical dilemma or not, we may have chosen to value one life over another or one group of lives over another group.
Values and Ethics
Calculating the value of life for each of our options in monetary terms can give us a valuable piece of information that may permit us to make the most ethical decision. In deciding between one option with a value of life of $100,000 and another with a value of life of $1,000,000, we would most likely decide to select the first option, which would allow us to protect 10 times as many lives with our limited resources. Considering options equal in value of life would be more difficult ethically if different groups of people were involved. And, even then, we may justly decide at times that some lives are rightly valued higher such as considering the risk of death to young children versus the risk of death from a disease related to old age.
The value of life is only a tool to be wielded how we desire. Only, we should use it, be informed, and not avoid acknowledging the choice we are making. To ignore it may mean that we inadvertently make decisions inconsistent with our values. To employ it means that we can make proactive, ethical choices without succumbing to the fads or fears of the day. And, as we improve the heath and safety of everyone through our choices the value of life increases, which is surely a sign of progress.