The value of human life

      9 Comments on The value of human life

Today, Hypothica-style topic submission!

Most people agree that Human Life has a value, and should be preserved and protected. Human life seems to have some kind of value, according to pretty much everyone, but people disagree very much about the nature, origin and importance of this value. Lots of people, for example, give a far higher value to their own life as opposed to other people’s lives, and lots of people barely even seem to care about the lives of strangers. Some people think that all life has value, as opposed to only humans, but I feel like this makes no sense, since those same people are usually not doing any particular effort to protect insects, bacteria, grass, etc. Since we can’t even do anything remotely close to protecting all bacteria, we ignore it. If all life truly had unmeasurable value, this would make us all monsters. If it’s just animals, then how can we explain how horrified people get at the idea of killing and eating certain species (dogs, cats, horses), while eating cow and chicken all the time? If it truly is only humans, then where did this value come from? As mentionned in another topic, would other intelligent life be as valuable? are people in a coma as valuable as strong and healthy young people?

Aside from religion, which usually agrees on value for human life, at least if you’re a believer like them, how can we explain this value without having a serious superiority complex?

My own answer is the featured comment

  • If something is valued it is being passively acted upon. That is, by definition anything with value has some actor actively “valuing” it. So to ask what the value of human life is, you must first state who is doing the valuing.

    Everyone could value human life differently, so when asking, what’s the value, you must clarified, who’s opinion matters the most? The government’s? Mine? That of alien race? God’s?

    Let’s look at it another way. If I ask what the value of a particular gold coin is, you’re answer will be dependent on what evaluating authority you use. Is it the value the US Treasury places on that amount of gold? Is it the value a given collector places on it? Is it the value the free market places on it? (highest e-bay bidder?) Or perhaps it’s sentimental and there is a value a family member may place on it.

    None is objectively correct. Yet are all objectively correct (assuming you answer each accurately). The value is what a given evaluator is willing to pay for it. You can’t ask only half the question.

    I believe that human life has an absolute intrinsic value. But that really only means that I believe in God, and that I’m answering with the presumption that His evaluation is the one worth considering. If one believes in Christianity, one answer is “The value of each life is equally enough that God would give His life for it”.

    But that wouldn’t preclude the following answer from being equally true: “The value is 100 Space Dollars, the going price for humans on the Intergalactic Slave Trade”.

    Each statement of value would be be equally objectively true with respect to their accuracy (Existence of God and existence of the IST)

    • Kaito Kid

      This made a lot of sense, and I agree 100%. Glad to see you back man, so what happened to Hypothica?

      • A combination of work increasing by 200%, a total frustration with politics, and some personal stuff, left me burnt out and I just blacked out of social media altogether. Wasn’t even checking email. I’m trying to crawl back into the discussion and the interwebs

        • Glad to hear that it wasn’t anything worse, Iprayiam, we were genuinely worried that the proverbial “run over by a bus” type scenario might have happened. Glad to hear that you’re still around, even if busy, stressed and frustrated:-)

    • Kingfisher12

      Very good points, and I think it’s a flaw in our language that we talk about life in terms of ‘value’ at all.

      What I think might be considered is the preciousness of human life. When figuring how closely we protect something important to us, we often consider how difficult it would be to replace that thing.

      To an individual or their loved ones, a human life is irreplaceable, obviously, because the reasons they are important are exclusive and unique to that person. But to a ruthless general in battle, the preciousness of a soldier’s life is the cost of training a new soldier. And the life of an enemy soldier has a negative value, because killing him means one less thing to worry about.

      We tend to evaluate things in terms of money, which serves as a measuring stick we conventionally agree on. My life insurance policy may replace the material and financial parts that would be lost if I died, but it won’t replace the real reasons my family appreciates me. The parts of a human life that can be measured equate to roughly their expected productivity in terms of things that can be bought and sold with money. The things that a human is that cannot be bought and sold with money are immeasurable, because they are entirely unique and precious.

      There are things many consider comparably precious to human life (love, honor, duty, glory, justice), but the important point is that none of these things can be bought or sold with money either.

      Counting the immeasurable cost of life in dollars is like trying to measure the mass of the earth in seconds. It’s the wrong metric.

    • Umm, surely the premise of the question was “value placed on human life collectively by people”, i.e. human-on-human values?

  • I looked at this conversation topic a couple of days ago, but couldn’t work out what to say on it:-) I agree with you both (KK and KF) that the value we place on human life (and animal life in general) is pretty relative, and not terribly rational actually. It’s certainly very difficult to come up with any “moral calculus algorithm” that might enable (say) a computer to reason about such things, although I think some Moral Philosophers who like thinking about examples like the train track thing may have tried to explore the practical limits of the Utilitarian abstract principle.

    In practice, I speculate that each of us has a “individuals we know” value model in our heads,which determines the relative values of those individuals we know (whether human or not), and I’d guess that it’s primarily influenced to our emotional attachments (to family members, friends and – definitely – pets). To give an example, I’d definitely be much more upset about the death of a pet cat that I know closely than some friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend who I barely know. Let’s be honest about that!

    Then we perhaps have some less personal, more abstract models – or frankly half-baked ideas – about individuals and groups that we don’t know specifically, perhaps hierarchically nested (small groups nested in bigger groups, eg “my family”, “my friends”, “my town”, “my country”, “westerners”, “everyone”), or perhaps far more nuanced (“fans of that band I like”, “walkers”, “people who think like me”, “refugees”, “immigrants”). But all of that abstract calculus can be overridden – say, by a tragic photo of a drowned baby washed up on a Greek beach, when we’ve successfully ignored 800 drowned men, women and – yes – children in the same area the week before.

    Is that logical? no, not at all! Can I explain what triggers that? No, but I suspect a psychologist could.

    It gets even weirder (as KK mentioned) when it comes to our attitudes about animals. Obviously there are animals we’ve evolved alongside (or at least known for millennia), and have learned to co-opt into our service – dogs, cats, horses being the obvious ones. Then there are animals we’ve known equally long which we regard as food animals – pigs, chickens, cows, rabbits etc. Then there are cultural differences – as KK said, some cultures eat dogs, others (like us) are more squeamish about that.

  • Kingfisher12

    Value is a relative concept: “This is preferable to that”. It is also subjective and fluid in most things. It’s helpful to think about why we value some things above other things.

    At the basic sense, we value things because we enjoy them. They fill basic needs and wants, and we find meaning in them.
    At a secondary level, we value things because they are an intermediate step to the things we enjoy. We value money because we can buy things with it.
    And at a third level, we value things because they give us power. The idea of power is that we can influence things around us to increase the total value of the things we possess.

    Human life is valued on all these levels. Most of us enjoy being alive, being alive allows us to get other things we enjoy, and being alive is a necessary condition for the idea of power. A single human life is most valuable to the individual themselves and the people who love them. But what value do we put on the life of a stranger?

    I think the answer to that is best answered by a famous meditation, and I’m paraphrasing from memory: ‘no man is an island, entire in itself. Each is a part of the continent. If a clod is washed to sea, Europe is the less for it. So the loss of each man’s life diminishes my own… Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”.

    Whether we seriously consider this or not, this is the way we behave. The value we put on a stranger’s life is, in effect, the value we put on our own, because if circumstances were reversed, you would want a stranger to value your life as much as you value it. The value we put on human life is measured by the things we are willing to risk death for; or more to the point, the things we are willing to risk the lives of others for.

  • Kaito Kid

    I feel like value is a completely relative idea. If it was anywhere close to absolute, there would never be any trades. When you trade something, that’s because you value the other person’s possession more than yours, and they value yours more than theirs. I feel like this is the same thing as any other value, being an object, a service, time, or life. It’s completely relative to the person and circumstances. This is exactly why you usually value your own life and your family and friend’s lives a lot more than random stranger lives. The same goes for pets, and it actually explains why you eat a pig but hug a dog (this sentence looks horrible, both ethically and linguistically). Since some species are widely used as pets, our subconscious gives them a higher average value. This is also why some countries have no trouble eating cats and dogs, but we do. According to this logic, I think that we just happen to have many more precious humans in our lives than any other object or living beings, and they also happen to be a lot harder to replace since we know them very well and they are pretty complex. Those factors make human life very valuable to humans. As long as we’re the only specie discussing it, I guess this means human life is pretty valuable.