Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Valuing Human Life

Economists and lawyers do this, because someone must. But it's not a fun task and assigning some number as compensation for the loss of a partner or a parent or a child doesn't mean that the monetary figures adequately measure the value of a human life. In the case of a court judgement the money is usually compensation for a lost livelihood and based on the income lost to a family, say, because a breadwinner died in some way that another party is blamed for.

But putting some numbers on the value of a death prevented is necessary. Think of this example: A country has a budget of x dollars for improving traffic safety. How is it best spent? If all of it is invested in making one single traffic junction safer then people will keep on dying, perhaps needlessly, elsewhere, and what this decision tells us is that the value of some human lives (of those using the now-safe roads) is greater than that of some other lives (those traveling on other roads).

Why am I talking about this boring and esoteric topic? Because of the case at Mount Hood where several people are trying to rescue two climbers. We know their names. We are rooting for them. The value of their lives appears infinitely high. Television pundits have a tear in their eyes when discussing the so far fruitless rescue efforts, and nobody thinks of the money that is being spent. This is because these are "known lives", lives with names and families and faces.

Now contrast this with a statistical human life: spending the same amount of money in preventing further mountaineering accidents would save x lives. X lives of some people we know nothing about. Now suppose that x exceeds two lives. We still might not be willing to spend the same amount on these statistical lives.

I think that this is called "the man in the rowboat" syndrome (or something similar): The fact that our willingness to spend money to prevent deaths is much greater when we have some knowledge of the person or persons saved. This knowledge makes the case real and the urgency greater. A similar thing happens with those who are dying in Iraq. As long as they are just numbers the deaths don't really hit us deeply. But once we are given names and other details (an old man, a child, a pregnant woman) we become more concerned.

Though all this may be natural, it can mean bad ways of spending our prevention dollars. But then it is linked to another silly thing we humans do: Not giving much credit to those who prevented catastrophes from happening while praising and adulating those who make a mess of the prevention but manage to control the catastrophe at the last minute.