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Value and Human Life

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Learning From the Coronavirus

Published: Mar 2020

The Covid-19 outbreak has caused us to face a challenging ethical decision: Should we indefinitely curtail much of our economic activity in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease? Or is it better to maintain our economy while doing our best to mitigate suffering and a potential loss of life?

Much of the world has now spoken clearly on this point. Other than a few cases of brief hesitation, most public and private institutions have chosen to put everything on the line to fight the threat.

Unlike previous viral outbreaks, this coronavirus has been publicized in a way that makes it pretty easy to take this position. Of course, we care more about people than we do about money!

And yet, we make so many decisions each year in the exact opposite direction? Why?

For example, why has there been so much resistance to putting seat belts in school buses? If we could save even one life, wouldn’t it be worth the cost?

Why do we put up with over 35,000 people dying every year in car crashes? Wouldn’t we be safer if we just stayed home instead of driving around all the time?

By some reports, as many as 250,000 Americans die every year in medical accidents. Maybe the most important social distancing you should observe is the space between you and your doctor!

Surprisingly, not only can we place a value on human life, but it turns out that value itself is defined by the very essence of human life.

To better understand, consider these facts:

  • Life is full of risk—even fatal consequences;
  • Life also offers many opportunities;
  • We face a constant process of weighing potential benefits against their associated risks.

Yes, we do place a value on lives, whether we recognize it or not. And that value and those opportunities arise from the work we do in order to enjoy our lives more fully.

So are we wrong to choose freedom or economic prosperity over safety and security? The answer comes by understanding the nature of value itself.

Henry David Thoreau noted that the value of a thing can be measured by the amount of your life you are willing to exchange for it. Imagine dividing your lifetime up into tiny slices of time. When you work to create a better life, that is what you are trading—not dollars.

What we call “the economy” is just the large-scale result of individuals attempting to improve their lives—both in terms of quality and quantity. Without life, there is nothing to value. The value of a product or commodity can be measured by the capacity it holds to improve our lives.

So instead of thinking in terms of money, consider measuring value in units of human life—individual heartbeats, if you will. Once we understand this revolutionary, yet self-evident concept, we are suddenly empowered to make difficult decisions in a much more healthy and confident way.

Back to the original question: “Can we place a value on human life?” We can now more clearly see, the question makes no sense. The value of human life is inherent—not something we place there. Life is the very meaning of value itself.

Perhaps a better question is: “Are you willing to trade X units of life for Y units?” Of course, we would always prefer trading up where possible. We would like Y to be greater than X.

A more important question is: “What about trading bits of Bob’s life for the benefit of Joe?” This is where we begin to make many of our mistakes in modern social policy.

Is it ethical to force Susan’s restaurant into bankruptcy so we can help Grandpa live 5 years longer? It sure seems like it.

But what if it takes Susan and her 50 displaced employees 10 years of combined work to dig out of the financial hole we created for them? Now we see, we are just trading pieces of their lives for a piece of Grandpa’s life. It isn’t a question of money versus life. Rather, it is one life versus another!

How do we solve that ethical dilemma?

“Have the government pay for it,” you say? Now, instead of spreading the burden across 50 people, we spread it across 300 Million. You can print money, but you can’t print value. So the result is the same—trading bits of one person’s life for those of another.

It turns out playing God can be a tricky business. How do you justly pick the winners and the losers? You can’t eliminate risk for everyone at once. Someone will be left paying the bill, and in the capital of human life.

Perhaps the best ethical yardstick is the one James Madison proposed: a nation organized upon the principle of liberty. In other words, will we force each other into a response dictated by the State? Or can we rely on individuals, exercising their agency in an organized but voluntary civil society to work together to address each new challenge?

Covid-19 has already posed a great challenge to our nation and indeed, the world. Hopefully, the lessons we learn will turn us toward faith and freedom—not fear and tyranny.