The value of a human life

Some time ago a conference was held in Copenhagen about certain aspects of international development cooperation. A professor from the English city of Nottingham suggested that the economic value of an average American could be set at six million dollars. Anyone doing very dangerous work in the United States, the professor told his audience, usually asks for an extra $60,000 for every percent he is more likely to have a fatal accident. So, if a one percent chance of dying equals $60,000, then one hundred percent equals six million. On the other hand, he said, one could say that the economic value of someone in a developing country is around $22,000, because that is what such a person on average earns over the course of his life. I don’t know how the amounts would turn out if such a conference were repeated today.

Major construction projects pay a lot of attention to security safeguards, but they usually assume that human lives could be lost. How many fatalities is acceptable in a large project? When the government is considering spending money on traffic facilities that can improve safety, one cannot escape the question of how much this will cost, and whether that outweighs the number of human lives that are likely to be saved. And how will the investment in the research and development of a new drug relate to the number of patients that will benefit? Will a new drug bring in so much revenue that it is worth the investment? Can we expect health insurers to pay for very expensive cancer drugs if it is not yet known how effective these drugs are, and whether they extend a patient’s life or improve the quality of life for a patient?

This inevitably raises the question of whether one person’s life has more value than that of another. Does possessing a certain skill or our social status increase our economic value? Is a cabinet minister worth more than a cleaner? Why does a football club sometimes pay several millions (or even more) in transfer money for a player, and why does a top manager in a bank receive a huge cash bonus and options worth millions? And why, on the other hand, must an ‘ordinary’ employee, when he/she leaves that same bank after forty years, be content with an extra month’s salary?

In this time of Corona-crisis, the question of the value of a human life has taken on some extra dimensions. If there is not enough capacity in the health care system, should senior citizens be sent to the back of the queue, because their lives are almost over anyway? And how many Covid-19 deaths do we accept to get the economy going again?

The numbers of Covid-deaths are, of course, for most of us rather vague notions and they become more and more vague as the numbers continue to rise. If an airplane crashes with 200 people on board, it’s a disaster that we can somehow wrap our minds around. We see on TV the debris of the plane and the desperate people at the airport, hoping for the message that there are survivors and that their loved ones might be among them. But if there are between 80 and 100 Covid-deaths a day in the Netherlands in the past week, we are told (and believe) that things are going in the right direction, and we get hope that the pandemic will be over soon. Yet, we are talking about several plane loads of people in a week. And the American government seems willing to accept that there will be more than 100,000 deaths, as long as the factories can start running again and the economy recovers quickly. It raises the question: What is a human life worth to us?

Not to mention the question of what a human life in other parts of the world is worth to us. In the South, the crisis is likely yet to erupt in all its intensity. Are human lives in Africa and South America worth as much to us as the lives of Europeans and Americans? Add to that the millions of men and women, and especially children, who die each year from hunger or non-Corona-related diseases. Apparently, they are worth so little to us, that we hardly think about them anymore.

What value do I place on the lives of others? It is difficult to answer that question honestly. Of course, when it concerns the life of our partner or our child or grandchild, or that of a good friend, such a life has a higher value for us than the life of a homeless alcoholic in Amsterdam. This is understandable and justifiable, as long as we realize that we are talking about emotional value. Of course, it makes a difference whether we are talking about loved ones or anonymous people who are strangers to us. But from a Christian perspective it is not justifiable that we make a distinction with regard to a person’s intrinsic value. For that is the perspective from which God looks at his creatures. Every human being is equally dear to him, and every human being has the same value for him. Politicians (christians or non-chrsitians) should use that perspective as the basis for how they view the value of human life in this Corona-period: Every human being is invaluable, and so the maximum must be done to save human lives, even if it means the Dow Jones and the Dutch AEX will be diving into the red for a while longer.