How do we value a human’s life? Should we rate lives on their value to their community? That would mean a life-saving surgeon would have more value than someone living on the street. Or is it potential—which would make a baby more valuable than a 50-year-old? What about the value we place on those later in life versus those at the end?
Economists have put a monetary value on a human life for very practical reasons. Betsey Stevenson from the University of Michigan explains, “What would it even mean to think about people as having infinite value [in a monetary sense]? We’d spend all our resources on saving one person. People wouldn’t make that decision.”
The notional dollar value of a human life is $US10 million.
For instance, this was the figure used to decide whether the United States should shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic. “As an economist, I don’t say it’s worth it at any cost. That’s not true,” Stevenson said. “I mean we could die of something else—starvation. So, it’s not at any cost, but here, it’s worth giving up a lot. It’s worth shutting the economy down for three, four months because there were so many lives being lost.”
It’s also why safety features are mandatory in our vehicles, including seatbelts that beep if we don’t put them on and reversing cameras, particularly on SUVs. So, there is value in the process.
Economist Spencer Banzhaf notes, “In some of the early work, it was pointed out that we don’t put a dollar value on an individual life. The example was, if a girl falls down a well, we don’t say, ‘Sorry, it’s going to cost $10 million to go down there and get you, and you’re not worth $10 million, so good luck.’ We just don’t do that.” Banzhaf also noted different choices individuals make compared to those made by governments.
For parents, what value would you give your baby the first time you held them in your arms? Priceless is about right.
In his book Disposable People, Kevin Blades estimated that a few years ago, a human slave cost a mere average of $US90 worldwide. Allowing for inflation, it may be $US100 by now. According to the World Population Review, there are an estimated 46 million slaves on earth. Slavery is abhorrent on so many levels, but it’s a reminder of how undervalued some humans are—the equivalent of a useful tool that can be disposed of when it’s no longer useful. So we must ask ourselves, what is the value of a life? $100? $10 million? Priceless?
The abortion question
The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the United States to take away abortion as a constitutional right was of little surprise because the decision had been leaked several weeks earlier. It’s now up to the various states to decide whether to ban abortion or not—with half indicating that they will. Pew Research reports that 61 per cent of adults in the United States say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Surprisingly, one judge said that the constitutional right to contraceptives and gay marriage could also fall on the same basis. As I write from afar, I’m not here to be either a critic or a supporter of this decision. But the real test this decision has created is ensuring there’s care and support for the mother (occasionally a child herself) and the baby—particularly when they cannot care for themselves. That will demonstrate the value we place on a life.
The Plan 75 plan
At the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, reviewer Rachel Handler watched Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 and reports that when it had finished, “much of the audience (including me) was in tears and on their feet”. They’d been impacted by “the Japanese film-maker’s quietly devastating feature debut”.
The storyline is simple. In an alternate Japan, citizens aged 75 years and more are given the option and encouraged to be euthanised— for free.
The real Japan has a “super-aged” society with 28.7 per cent of its population 65 years of age or older, primarily women. The cause comes from Japan’s high life expectancy and low fertility rate, which is impacting so many that the population is expected to fall from 127 million (2015) to 88 million in 2065. According to Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott in their book, The 100-Year Life, a baby born in Japan today has a 50 per cent chance of living to 109 years.
When Hayakawa returned to Tokyo in 2008 after living in New York for 10 years, she saw her home country through fresh eyes. “I was surprised by how intolerant Japan had become. There was this new idea of ‘self-responsibility’ that was being talked about everywhere, and the implication seemed to be that the marginalised should find a way to fend for themselves.”
She became enraged after Tokyo’s 2016 Sagamihara stabbings when a young man killed 19 people at a care home for disabled people and said he was trying to “ease the burden” on their families. She asked, “If Japan were to accelerate down this path of intolerance, what would it look like?” Her conclusion was Plan 75. “On the face of it, the government’s Plan 75 is full of goodwill and friendliness and pragmatism. But in truth it is both very cruel and shameful.”
In Japan, a nation with a history of sacrifice, she fears it may become accepted in the future, particularly when there’s a common feeling that no one wants to be a burden. “What worries me a lot is that we’re in a social reality that would very much favour such a radical solution,” said Hayakawa. “It’s scary.”
And that raises the question: Does age take away the value of a life? And as you answer, don’t confuse value with usefulness or ability, or you will fall into the trap of condemning anyone with a disability or age as less than human.
The “why” question
Philosopher Jonny Thomson asks, “Why do we value human life?” He puts it this way, “We value human life in a way that assumes we possess a sacred something not found in beings like lambs, turkeys or mosquitoes.” But why is that?
His response is that much of the value we give to human life comes from religion. “Even if you or your country are not explicitly religious, the traditions, legal codes and values you hold stem, at least indirectly, from religion.”
He comes back to two kinds of value outside of religion:
Instrumental value: this is value for what something does. For instance, “We might claim that a human life can be measured by the good it gives the world . . . If so, is it not perfectly OK to harvest organs from vagrants and friendless scoundrels in order to keep dozens alive?”
Inherent value: this is valuing life because we always have. It assumes a “collective unconsciousness that assents and reaffirms the sanctity of life. By the stories we tell, good parenting and moral education, we teach each generation that human life is valuable beyond all else. We establish it as the sacred myth of our time—a myth we need to constantly maintain if we want it protected.”
For Christians, the answer to the why question comes not in the form of a myth but in the reality of Jesus. If He was, as the Bible claims, the Son of God, His presence on our planet changed everything. John 3:16 tells us, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (NLT).
God felt we were worth dying for! Each and every one of us—no exceptions. And not because there’s anything sacred within us, but because God, the ultimate Sacred One, thought we were worth it.
How Jesus treated others is a test and example for us. He valued the weak and strong, the rich and poor, the well and infirm. When few others saw individuals’ value, He did.
When we ask about the value of a life, the challenge for us is to see individuals as Jesus did.
Bruce Manners is an author, retired pastor and former editor of Signs of the Times based in Lilydale, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.