Does a human life have a value? Is saving a human life worth any cost to society, or is it better to let people die in situations where saving them is simply too expensive? If so, aren't we letting people die for economic reasons? Aren't we putting profits before people? Let's explore the issue without the hysteria.

Most people would say that human life is a precious thing, and that taking it away from someone by force is a bad thing. Most would also say that an (non-human) animal's life is less valuable, and most (if they are pushed to consider it) would say that the value of a life is based on the intelligence of that creature. Intelligent creatures (like a dog, chimp or dolphin) are more valuable unintelligent creatures (like flies, cockroaches or earth-worms).

This is gives us a clue about the the nature of humanity which makes it valuable - a human's intelligence, but it also raises uncomfortable questions. Are the lives of more intelligent humans worth more than non-intelligent humans? Is the life of a severely brain damaged human with apparently less intelligence than an ape less valuable than that ape?

In fact it has more to do with empathy than with intelligence. People empathize with other people, they empathize with dogs (because they make good pets), with dolphins (because they always seem to be smiling), and with apes (because they are physically so much like us), but generally do not empathize highly with insects or worms.

Interestingly this echos of much racist behavior in the past. The notion that 'they don't feel pain like us' was used to justify all manner of actions which would now be considered atrocities. A more politically correct education teaches that we should empathize with all races equally, and many people are careful to ensure that their stated aims reflect this.

But what of the value of the life of a human being? What of its affect on safety. Consider a thought experiment:

There is a new device called a Widget which can be fitted to all cars, and is likely to save lives. Exactly which lives it saves is hard to say, but based on accident statistics and our best calculations it will save about 10 lives per year. The device costs $X to fit to any car (new or used) should we make this compulsory on all 10,000,000 cars in this country?

The trick here is to decide on a value of X which gives us a point of indifference - the amount where any value below the amount would give an answer of yes (make it compulsory) and which any value above that would give no (it's too expensive we can't afford it).

Clearly if X is $50,000 the answer is no. If however X is ten cents, the answer is probably yes. The indifference point is probably between these.

Some of us like to believe that we place a human life above mere money, and that there is no value of a human life, but one thousand dollars per car is affordable (for the vast majority of us, but most of us would consider this too much to pay).

Suppose we decide that the point of indifference is one dollar. This sets the value of a human life at one million dollars.

Now that we have verified that there is a value which we (as a community) place on a human life, lets try to determine what it is.

Another hypothetical -

A small of people have a fatal disease which is undetectable until it strikes, which happens at age 19. A private company finds a full cure for the disease, but it is extremely expensive - far more than most people earn in a lifetime. A (non profit) insurance company offers insurance on the following terms:

What percentage of your salary are you willing to pay for this insurance? Suppose the percentage of people who get the disease is 10%, how much are you willing to pay?

Most people would be willing to pay approximately what they earn - that is, to remove a 10% chance of death, they will pay about 10% of their salary. Some will be willing to pay more, some less, but the median would be about there.

This suggests that

The value of a human life is approximately what someone earns in a lifetime.

There is another thought experiment which asks question "how much would you be willing to extend your life by X years", which typically yields a similar result.

Once someone accepts that there is a value on a human life, that it is acceptable to let some people die if the cost of saving them is too great, and that human lives are not the only measure of society's utility, then they are a long way to being able to solve the problems of the world rationally and without resorting to hysterical slogans.