The Philosopher's Eye

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The Price of Life and Peter Singer

What is a life worth? It is difficult to understand what this question even asks. Does it ask; What kind of thing, or what amount of a certain kind of thing, could satisfactorily replace a human life? This does not clarify the original question so much as point out what it is that makes it initially so hard to grasp. That is, it is implicit in the question that it is possible that a life can be ‘worth’ something at all which, taken in the sense of a given life being replaceable by something of commensurate value, appears to be a mistaken assumption. Or is the second question just misleadingly worded? If we were to ask instead what kind of thing a life is worth giving up for, then the possible contexts in which one might be inclined to agree that the loss of a life can be justified by the certain good that it may bring about begin to come to mind.

A concern that soon follows is to determine with respect to whom we ask the original question. Furthermore, this last consideration itself admits two equally valid interpretations; that is, a.) whose life are we determining the worth of, and b.) by whom is the worth of a given life being determined. Both are crucially relevant. In the case of a.), we would like to say, and in the abstract we often do, that a life is a life no matter whose life it is. Yet the question of what the worth of a politician’s life put next to the question of a soldier’s life is likely to polarise opinions in one direction or the other. Or, if it is maintained that social or occupational position is irrelevant, then the life of a family member versus the life of a neighbour or the life of a stranger may make a difference (even if, for the very stubborn, only a psychological difference, but in the end this can be just as efficacious as any real distinction if a decision as to the worth of each is to be made). In the case of b.), it need only be mentioned that the worth of one’s life to oneself is, for better or worse, a different matter to the worth of one’s life to another or the worth of another’s life to oneself.

Finally we get around to Peter Singer, who has recently (implicitly or explicitly) asked and answered some of these questions in a piece for the Guardian. Firstly, it is must be said that it is always pleasing to see the media utilising the minds of professional philosophers to give perspectives on current affairs, which Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is in particular no stranger to doing. In his latest piece, Singer performs some revealing calculations as regards to the ‘price’ of human life, in order to help describe the implied difference in the worth of certain lives as determined by the actions and policies of UK and US governments. His method is to compare how much these governments are willing to pay out to their own citizens, for example in terms of life-sustaining health care, to how much is paid out in compensation to the families of civilian fatalities during foreign military operations:

So if we take the bottom end of this range [£20,000], Nice [the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence] recommends that the NHS pay up to four times as much to extend the life of a British citizen by just one year, as the MoD is prepared to pay in compensation for killing a child or young person [£5,000]. That young person could – even allowing for Afghanistan’s dismal life expectancy – expect to live another 40 reasonably good-quality years [the unit measure which Nice use in assessing NHS expenditure on a given person]. That suggests an answer to the question with which I started: it takes about 4 x 40, or 160 Afghan lives, to be worth the same as one British life.

As the comments on the articles indicate, reactions to this calculation and Singer’s interpretation of its significance are bound to be diverse. However, it may be said that remuneration with regard to loss of life, in any circumstance, can at best provide an answer to only a very specific interpretation of our opening question. For, if compensation were ever offered with the intention of paying away the lost life itself, this would run into the kinds of complications outlined above, regarding what kind of thing can ever be said to be commensurate with a life. And if there is such a thing it is certainly not money. Instead, then, we answer the philosophically less interesting (but more easily calculable) kinds of question such as how much must be paid out to cover the lost of earnings that a household can expect in the event of losing a family member.

And yet, crucially, in these circumstances money is attempted to be used as if it were commensurate to a life (perhaps because it is difficult to say what else can be offered), which is especially evident in cases such as the deaths of children, where compensation with respect to loss of earnings is not even possible. Singer’s point may still be relevant to the question of the worth of a life, then, if we take the remunerative figure to be the best (or commonest) symbol we have of the worth attributed to a given life which has been lost, as opposed to implausibly being constitutive of the worth itself. What exactly the ‘worth’ of a life could consist in in commensurate terms, then, remains as a mystery once again.

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Volume 4, Issue 2, March 2009, Pages: 329–347, Douglas W. Portmore

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About David Woods

David is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton. His main research interest is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil, optimism and pessimism, and post-Marxian critical philosophy.

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