On applying a dollar value to life

I was reading an article a few weeks ago -- probably a few months ago at this point -- explaining to the layperson how it might be possible to compare the economic damage due to stay-at-home orders against the loss of life that could occur if people continue their daily routines.

Pretty quickly the discussion comes to the fact that this disease disproportionally impacts the elderly and infirm, which then gets us thinking about how to value individual lives as opposed lifetime lived or lifetime to live. The implication here is that, when we apply a value to a human life, we should consider what it is we value.

Some argue that we should value, essentially, the experience of life. That is, we should value life for the time left to live it. This is pretty clearly reasonable at the extremes, where most of us would feel more sad about a child dying than an 89 year old, terminally-ill, cancer patient. But aside from that extreme example, it doesn't quite sit right. In fact, when the US government proposed a similar method of calculating cost-benefit analyses, they got such vigorous pushback from many, including the AARP, that they promised to never even consider it again.

That said, not thinking too hard about it, the logic seemed sound to me. But it felt wrong. And it took me a little time to understand why.

What we value is not the number of seconds a person has left in their life, or even what their life could be used for. We value the person's life because that person values it. They don't want to lose their life and we respect that.

Put another way, it's a question of property rights. You own your life an no one should be able to take it from you. It's no one's business that you might die tomorrow. Your life is solely yours to live now.

I'm trading in silly stereotypes here -- I apologize and please understand that this is a rhetorial device to make a point more clearly -- but this property rights approach should make more sense to the engineer/libertarian/do-the-math crowd that might initially approach the valuation of life in terms of a function of time left to live.


You'll only receive email when Andy Oliver publishes a new post

More fromĀ Andy Oliver