Money Money. | Photo Credit: Lucas Favre/Unsplash

Utility: Pegging a Dollar Value to Life?

Since the Enlightenment, the advent of humanistic idealism has chronically failed the world. Decrying the inherent idealistic hypocrisy of “morality”, polemicist Khai demonstrates how governments peg a dollar value on life and how obstinance is indeed, venerated and consequentially propitious.

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The Marketplace of Life, a Bargain or an Illusion?

From philosophers to novelists to politicians, each has socialised and informed us of infinite life’s value – that life is priceless. Nichiren, the 13th century Japanese philosopher and Buddhist priest who developed one branch of Mahayana Buddhism, was considered an enlightened individual by the standards of his time. Consider the far-reaching impact of his quote: 

“Life is the most precious of all treasures. Even one extra day of life is worth more than ten million Ryo of gold.”

Nichiren

This was obviously, to have it both ways. His radical engagement in hostile vitriolic that contributed to his ruination was charismatically yet notoriously influential. Nichiren, therefore, had personal reasons to refer his treatises on the precipitating problem of mortality in turbulent periods of invasion, an ordered execution, political harassment, and persecution. 

This sounds terrific – right up until you give it another thought. A widespread assumption that most in our society accept is of life’s immeasurable value. The fundamental theory of existentialism and a catalogue of conscious experiences ascribes that justification. Admittedly overfamiliar, the fine optimism of the “priceless” human condition is a plague, a deniable argument that contradicts the evidence. 

Alas, here is the intriguing problem – there is a monetary value to your life. Governments, international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and multinational corporations likewise refer to it as the Value of Statistical Life (VSL), which is the econometric concept at the estimated value of the local tradeoff rate between fatality risk and money. It takes a moment to appreciate impudence from an ethical and moral perspective, but every technical problem requires a technical solution.

The Legacy of Statistics

In 1744, two Presbyterian Scottish Ministers – Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace – conceived the first idea of life insurance, as a means to provide pensions for the widows and orphans of deceased clergymen. Outgrowing the irreducible fallacy that most, if not all clergymen would have relied upon, these two men of faith worked with Colin Maclaurin, a professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, and employed Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers, probability, and statistics through analysing the archive records of 1,238 births and 1,174 deaths of Breslau, Germany. Their conclusion predicted that on average every year in Scotland, 27 out of 930 priests would die. Eighteen would be survived by widows, five by orphans, and two would leave children under the age of 16 from previous marriages. This act by men-of-faith would have been regarded as a transgression of Job 14:5, where “You [God] have decided the length of our lives You [God] alone know how many months we will live, and we are not given a minute longer” (excerpt from New Living Translation), except that the forecast turned out meticulously accurate. The payment period computation of the pension proved detailed by 1765 – just US$1.35 (S$1.83) shy from their original prediction. Today, the Scottish Widows boasts over US$135 billion (S$183 billion) worth of assets as one of the largest pension and insurance companies globally.

Yet another employment of statistics, only this time commissioned adversely by cigarette maker Philip Morris in 2001 to incentivise the Czech government not to increase the excise tax on smoking, refers us to the Czech Republic’s Public Finance Balance of Smoking. In this report, in opposition to the fiscal tobacco control strategy, Philip Morris presented an economic analysis that concluded that both the microeconomic effects and macroeconomic effects of cigarette consumption are, in fact, positive on national finances. Indeed, while the known human carcinogen increases health care costs, the report demonstrated that the premature demise of smokers saves the Czech government between US$23.8 million and US$30.1 million (S$32.2 million and S$40.8 million) on extended health care, pensions, and housing for the elderly. The report concluded that there is a net public finance gain in the Czech Republic of US$147 million (S$199 million) if citizens smoke (and, anticipatingly, die from smoking).

Czech pubs before smoking ban. | Photo Credit: Patrick Rumlar

Utilitarianism, a Lexical Ambiguity

Promulgating the principle of utility to be the degree to how actions by governments and individuals should be determined, Jeremy Bentham arrived at the principle of maximising the greatest good for the greatest number. A paradigm case of consequentialism, utilitarianism however termed a “moral” idea, is questionable. Consider how the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) was petitioned to mandate automakers to install rear seat belt reminder systems in every car. The DOT estimated that the rule will save at least 44 lives every year but cost the auto industry up to US$325 million (S$440 million) annually. Taking into account the DOT’s inflation-adjusted VSL of US$6.4 million (S$8.67 million) per person, the regulation’s high-end cost estimate exceeded low-end benefits. Would jeopardising 44 lives to maximise utility and keep audits in check not realise Mill’s non-harm principle and tardily the tyrannical majority?

“There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence, and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism”

John Stuart Mill

Mankind’s Sovereign Masters: Pleasure and Pain, Life and Death

In the celebrated and revered Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 3 writes:

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” 

Unfortunately, through this and several other incremental steps, governments have found themselves inexorably committed to upholding a certain standard of what I would refer to as idealism. Capital punishment, or the death penalty, has struck many as barbarous, but the mock compassion is nauseating. The next-best alternative is what most would refer to as Life Without Parole, I prefer to refer to it as Death By Incarceration. Indeed, the derivative is ultimately still state-sanctioned and is still a death sentence all the same. The moralists would rush to provide miscalculated evidence citing that death cases are more expensive than life in prison. The Marshall Project notes in 2014:

“In the six states that have abolished capital punishment over the past decade, Republican and Democratic officials have also emphasized the cost of the death penalty as a major rationale. Even in states that retain the punishment, the cost has played a central role in the conversion narratives of conservative lawmakers, public officials, and others who question the death penalty as a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

Black Cap. | Photo Credit: Unknown, reprinted in Majoribanks, E, “The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall”, 1929, Victor Gollancz Ltd

What the humanists and non-profit organisations fail to realise, or provide evidence for, is that an inmate serving life in prison without parole instead of being sentenced to death will cost approximately US$159,523 (S$216,042) more in incarceration costs over the course of the inmate’s sentence. Furthermore, incontrovertible evidence does suggest the effective deterrence effect on crime.

“[S]omeone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Antagonistic Utopia

Amidst despair and disappointment, a good case has (as above) and can indeed be made for parsimony. Pegging a dollar number to human life is preconditional due to finite resources. Hazard pay-plans, labelling hazardous chemicals, and clinical research, are just a tiny percentage of what VSL factors – but contribute considerably to intragenerational and intergenerational altruism, less radical rational progress. States cannot afford to lock down indefinitely due to the fiscal burden on a government. The malleability of cost-benefit analysis suggests that while lockdowns save lives, they damage economies far greater which in turn disrupts livelihoods.

What is apt, therefore, is to consider the further introspection as applied to pandemics. In a recent study examining the remains of 36 bubonic plague victims from Ellwangen, scientists found that natural selection drove allele frequency alterations in genealogical development. According to Paul Norman, PhD, associate professor in the Division of Personalized Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the study found that evolutionary adaptive processes driven by the disease “suggests these markers might have evolved to resist the plague.” Herd immunity, as such, was a factor in the epidemiology recovery of the medieval plague, albeit an estimated 25 million recorded deaths.

A Permanent Revolution

Before it occurs to my readers that my cynicism is contemptuous and disdainful towards the religious, philosophical, and moral discourse humanist view of life, I undeniably admit that these can be forces for moral progress as I have posited before in my previous article. However, there have been many moments in each of our lives where our pervasive selfishness manifested. This mechanism of “survival of the fittest” in natural selection has explained how our species have survived and climbed the evolutionary ladder. To demonstrate this best, I call attention to a revealing moment in The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, where he notes:

“A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.”

Darwin, C. | Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty

Though it would be tempting to end this journey as a neat morality dream, the truth emerges as a distinct winner over bigot optimism. My main assault in this article is against the believers of idealism. I feel uncomfortably confronted by optimistic human stupidity. As one must ask with all moral arguments, transparency from costs to benefits must be salient and visible. Surely the necessary anthropomorphism provides a plangent echo of rationality to prevail.

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