Friday, February 18, 2011

Life or Deficit

Yesterday, the Times ran a front-page piece datelined Washington. It began, “As the players here remake the nation’s vast regulatory system, they have been grappling with a subject that is more the province of poets and philosophers than bureaucrats: what is the value of human life?” (“As U.S. Agencies Put More Value on a Life, Businesses Fret,” NYT, 2/16/11). The EPA says $9.1 million according to the Times, a bump of $2.3 from the Bush years. $7.9 says the FDA, a whopping $2.9 increase from 2008. The Transportation Department logs in with a mere $6M. But there are fine points: “…the E.P.A. said it might set the value of preventing cancer deaths 50 percent higher than other deaths since cancer kills slowly…and Homeland Security suggested that the value of preventing deaths from terrorism might be 100 percent higher than other deaths.” In spite of the statistical underpinnings, much of this does seem to have philosophical import. For instance, according to the Times, the previous administration “rejected a plan in 2005 to make car companies double the roof strength of new vehicles.” In a gesture that a utilitarian like Peter Singer of Princeton might have something to say about, the administration concluded that the added expense of reinforcing the roofs “would exceed the value of lives saved by almost $800 million.” One problem here is that we are facing a projected deficit against which any value we might try to ascribe to life simply pales. You may be worth $7.9M, but what’s that in comparison to $1,400,000,000,000, the approximate projected shortfall of the economy in 2011? Another problem is that statistics are not very helpful when it comes to evaluating individual lives. Some people are just worth more than others. Are we to follow the E.P.A. and uniformly value every nasty gossip at $9.1M? Is every snitcher, backbiter and, yes, philanderer going to earn the F.D.A’s new $7.9M valuation? America prides itself on being a meritocracy. If we are going to put a new value on human life, let’s do it on a case-by-case basis. 

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't the "merit" of "life" lie in the fact that each person has one? It's similar to Universal Human Rights. They apply to people on the merit of being human.


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