Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Value Proposition

There are a number of policy debates, from abortion to the death penalty to health care to safety regulation that typically turn on perceptions of the value of life. Which raises the somewhat obvious question of how the value of life, or any given life, is determined. The "simple" answer that seems to be in play, which is "A life is worth what people are willing to pay to preserve it," is unsatisfying for many people. And I would suspect that this is because many people tend to place a higher value on certain lives than they are able to fund from their own resources. This leads to many policy debates around life being really about how much other people should value certain lives.

Or, perhaps put differently, is the choice of how much life is "worth," either as an abstract idea, or in relation to a given person, a choice that is significant enough that the legal power of the state should be brought to bear on it?

In practice, lives are cheap. Many of the political debates that are waged in the name of "saving lives" are as much, if not more, about dealing with people's fears. Dangerous pursuits that people aren't particularly afraid of tend to be less lightly regulated than less hazardous things that frighten people. This is to be expected; for many people, perception is reality, and so thinking that they're safe and actually being safe are generally indistinguishable from one another.

This complication aside, understanding what people actually believe the value of life to be, when they need to act on that belief, is of importance because it informs how they're actually going to behave. It's generally easier to alter a behavior that one understands, as opposed to one that's a mystery. It may also force the discussion of what resources we actually have at our disposal, and how, as a society, we chose to deploy them. It's one thing to say that the value of a human life is immeasurable. It's another thing to then decide that measurable resources are going to be spent on it.

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