Why so green and lonely? Everything's going to be alright, just you wait and see.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The Practical Value of Human Life

InnumeracyJust finished reading a great little book that I got for Christmas called Innumeracy. It's not a new book (1989) but it's full of scenarios and games where our intuitions often mislead us, and especially the innumerate. Some of the examples I've heard of before, but most were eye opening or at least fun to figure out for yourself before continuing to read; for all I know, this could be the book that popularised some of the puzzles I recognised.

Someday I'll go back and pull out some of the more entertaining examples but right now I keep thinking about the way the book ended, since it touches on something that troubles most of us from time to time, but we all come to terms with it for practical reasons (like wanting to have a life -- nothing wrong with that, right? right?):
[An example of the economic value of human life:] when the recent decisions by a number of states to raise the speed limit on certain highways to 65 m.p.h. and not to impose stiffer penalties on drunk driving were challenged by safety groups, they were defended with the patently false assertion that there would be no increase in accident rates, instead of a frank acknowledgment of economic and political factors witch outweighed the likely extra deaths. Dozens of other incidents, many involving the environment and toxic wastes (money vs. lives), could be cited.

They make a mockery of the usual sentiments about the pricelessness of every human life. Human lives are priceless in many ways, but in order to reach reasonable compromises, we must, in effect, place a finite economic value on them. Too often when we do this, however, we make a lot of pious noises to mask just how low that value really is. I'd prefer less false iuety and a considerably higher economic value placed on human lives. Ideally, this value should be infinite, but when it can't be, let's hold the saccharine sentiments. If we're not keenly aware of the choices we're making, we're not likely to work for better ones.
I think the more obvious example of such practical constraints is in medical systems (public or private) -- the cost vs. lives trade-offs in medicine are clear and will never go away.

Anyway, not that this is a new question, but, if someone makes a conscious decision in favour of personal freedom but that may lead to deaths (allowing everyone to drive, for example, when it's inherently more dangerous than public transit), then at what point are they 'morally' responsible for that decision? Meh, I guess it doesn't matter. Just seems arbitrary though, and so the whole idea that God knows the thresholds sounds silly and/or unfair. "A life is a life." Hmm, okay.


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