What Is the Value of a Human Life?

People are getting older and older and demand better and better (medical) care. Also, advancements in technology and medical knowledge allow what once seemed to be incurable illnesses to be cured – or at least treated. These trends result in an ever increasing rise in the medical expenditures of countries. This begs the question: how far should we go in saving a patient’s life? What is the value of a human life? Should we be prepared to save someone at all costs? Or should we think about the financial consequences of our decisions? And if so, what is the (financial) limit?

There are several ways in which this question can be answered. One response would be that we should go as far as possible in trying to save a person’s life. That is, as far as possible given the boundaries set by our medical and technological knowledge. And although this might cost us (as a society) a lot of money, the money spent on saving a person’s life is nothing compared to the value gained by prolonging their stay on our planet; the emotional gain experienced by the person – and not to forget his family – is of an extraordinary value: a value that can impossibly be expressed in terms of money. Therefore any means available should be employed in order to let people experience (an extension of) life.

However, given that the value of a human life would be ‘impossible to express in terms of money’, why then should we come to the conclusion that – because of that – we should be prepared to save a person’s life at all costs? Wouldn’t that be a rather arbitrary decision? After all, given that (human) life is of a such value that it is inexpressible in terms of money, why then even bother to make the transition to talk about costs? If a human life would truly be invaluable, it would be just as nonsensical to talk about trying to save a person’s life at all cost as it would be to say that we shouldn’t be prepared to pay any money in order to do so, right? The value of life is after all of an entirely different dimension; irreducible to monetary terms in any sense – no matter whether this value is in millions or pennies.

Well, that seems a little radical, doesn’t it? Another option would be to say that we should go as far as could be considered economically reasonable. In welfare countries where civilians have to pay relatively high taxes, that for a huge part are gobbled by the nation’s medical expenses, it seems fair to not only think in the interests of the patient and his family but to also consider the economic prospects of the relevant patient. After all: would it be reasonable for society to pay a huge sum of money to save someone’s life, while the person being saved might be unable to ‘repay’ (in terms of making an economic contribution to society) the medical expenses in any sense? From a purely utilitarian viewpoint, this seems to be an unwise (and even a wrong) decision. Surely, it might be ‘fair’ to save the person’s life, in the sense that the person probably has paid taxes all his life (taxes that were used for paying the medical treatments of others). But that doesn’t change the fact that, at this point in time, it would be unprofitable/utility-degrading to pay for the patient’s treatment.

A solution to cover this seemingly unfair attitude – although it might sound counter-intuitive – would be to make people decide for themselves how much they are prepared to pay for saving a patient’s life. Subsequently, it would be this amount of money that the person would contribute (in the form of taxes) for covering the country’s medical expenses. However, the other side of this plan would be that, whenever the tax payer himself would have to be treated in hospital, this person’s treatment costs will be compared with the amount of money he contributed to society for covering its medical expenditures/saving a person’s life. Based upon this comparison will be decided whether or not the person should be treated. When the contribution-fee is decided upfront – before the person ‘officially’ enters society (let’s say at the age of 18) – no conflict of interests can occur, and everyone’s wishes are taken into account.

A totally different option would be to shove the full responsibility for covering one’s medical expenditures down to someone’s own wallet: to make people pay for their own medical costs. After all: who would mind a person spending thousands of dollars coming from his own pocket? No-one I suppose. Unless, of course, this person is you. Because what to do if you don’t have the money required to cover your medical expenses? It doesn’t seem fair to let you die just because you haven’t earned as much money as the richest ten percent of the population, right? However, even if you would be the person becoming sick and having to pay for your own medical costs, you might still consider this libertarian attitude towards ‘paying my own costs’ to be the true righteous manner to live your life.

It is in no way an easy question. It is about much more than medical costs/finance: it’s about values/ethics, which implies that there is likely to be no definite answer to this question.

But what do you think?

An Unequal Distribution of the World’s Wealth: Is It Fair?

50 percent of the world’s wealth is owned by 2 percent of the world’s (adult) population; the bottom half of the world’s population barely owns 1 percent of the global wealth; 10 percent of the population account for 82 percent of the world’s wealth; Africa owns 1 percent of the world’s wealth, while Europe and North America account for respectively 30 and 34 percent. These are figures, and figures don’t lie. So: what to infer from these figures, or more importantly: what should we infer from these figures? One thing is for sure: the world’s wealth is not fairly distributed, or at least not in an economical sense.

I am not going to make a plea for worldwide communism, in the sense that the world’s wealth should be distributed equally among all of its inhabitants. That would be unfair, right? To have people working to pay for other people’s laziness? No, that doesn’t seem to be the optimal option. It could work, of course, if everyone of us would be prepared to work his ass off in favor of a more prosperous world overall. But we don’t want a world that is more prosperous ‘overall’: we want our wallets to be filled with more prosperity; we want to make sure that we are fairly rewarded for our contribution to society (or the world for that matter). Because, as is the case with the worldwide pollution and exploitation of fossil fuels: you can play the nice guy but, in the end, the nice guy will get screwed by the more selfish – or more intelligent; depends on your perspective – people. The prisoner’s dilemma seems unsolvable in a world like ours that is crowded by insecure people; people that see each opportunity to cooperate as an opportunity to be screwed.

Nonetheless, I want to trigger your imagination with the following (unrealistic) idea: what if we could take the world’s total wealth as it currently is and divide it by the total number of people living on this earth, and give every individual this average amount of wealth to start their lives with. See it as a kickstarter: when you are thrown in this world of ours, you will be given some certainty; a buffer, so to say. You can decide for yourself what you want to do with your buffer; you can spend it on drugs, or you can use it to start your own business; you can decide to buy a car that you don’t actually need, or you can save your buffer money for buying a house later on. You can even bundle your wealth with the wealth of others in order to create bigger and collectively shared goods (like roads, schools etc.)! It’s totally up to you.

In our world this ‘starting amount’ of wealth would be 26.202 dollars. Note that this is wealth per capita and not income per capita. Income is nothing more than a temporary reflection of a country’s wealth; therefore a one time change in income will not make much of a difference; not without increasing the wealth (factories, technology etc.) that underlie it.

This ‘wealth sharing kick-start idea’ I’ve presented can be though of as a variation of John Rawls’ idea of the the veil of ignorance. This is a well-known philosophical thought-experiment, that goes (more or less) as follows: imagine that every person on this world wouldn’t have been born yet. All of us would be standing behind some kind of curtain separating us from the earth that we are about to enter. We don’t have any idea about what our own capabilities (where we’re good at) and the capabilities of others will turn out to be when we in fact enter the world. Also, we don’t know what our fate will be: we might become a plumber, but we might just as well become a CEO. All you know is that you have to make one decision now, and that decision is: when all of us will enter earth, what will be the ‘fair’ manner of distributing the income we will come to earn and the wealth we will accumulate? Are we prepared to pay for the medical care required for someone’s handicapped son (which, remember, could be you; you after all don’t have a clue about how you will turn out to be), or don’t we find that fair? And if we would find it fair, how much money would you be prepared to lay aside for these expenditures? Again the question is: what is fair?

Rawls’ message with this veil of ignorance is that, if everyone of us would imagine him or her standing their, behind the veil of ignorance, we might come to notice what a truly fair world might look like; irrespective of our own particular situation. Like any thought experiment, one can debate whether it would even be possible to think about ‘how the world should be’ without knowing anything about yourself or the world. Let’s however, for the sake of the argument, assume that we could. Now I ask you: what would you do? Would you commit to the wealth kickstarting plan, or would you gamble and hope you will become the next Bill Gates?

What do you think?

The Difference between Economic- and Real Demand

Both of my grandfathers were farmers and so are two of my uncles. The other family members are all in some way related to the agricultural business. That’s how I – in one of our annual family gatherings – winded up in a discussion with my farmer-uncle about the current state of the agricultural business in Europe. He told me that the farmers – including himself – had to pay wholesalers – which are the parties farmers should be selling their crops to – for them to come and pick up their crops. So: instead of getting paid for cultivating their crops – which seems to be a pretty fair deal – farmers actually have to pay money for them to get rid of their unions, potatoes etc. That’s how low the prices of many crops are these days. And do you know why these prices are so low? Because there is no demand. I repeat: there is no demand. So while there are – as we speak – people are starving in Africa, our farmers have to pay money to get rid of their crops because there would be no demand. This is how far we have gotten in this 21th century of our human civilization.

But let’s take a closer look at the situation: why is there what seems to be a structural oversupply of certain crops? When asking this question to my uncle, he explained to me that the farmers kept on producing this much unions – for example – because they were hoping for some disaster to occur in a country abroad – like a flood in Russia or a drought in Spain – which would make the supply of unions drop, the prices rise and the revenues of Dutch farmers increase. It seems that the act of speculating has crossed the boundaries of the banking sector into the agricultural industry.

However, knowing the farmers’ motives for continuing the supply of unions is not in itself sufficient for coming to understand why there is this oversupply in “the West” and this starvation in Africa. After all, one cannot blame the farmers for trying to make a living, right? So maybe we should put the blame on the Africans. They are after all the ones that are too poor to help our farmers out, right? That’s true, but that is also very twisted. But where to put the blame then? Why is this economic game being played so far away from what we – the human species as a whole – seem to need?

Maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with the economic paradigm. With the economy as being the domain of the profit-maximizing individual. The domain in which the market takes care of itself. The domain of the exchange of goods and services in order for the overall utility of society to increase. Maybe the economic paradigm has lost touch with reality and with why it was invented in the first place: to help us human beings live together peacefully. And since no money equals no goods, and since people are not willing to provide their goods for free, the poor are screwed, right?

But maybe there is a way for the market and ethics to converge. That is: maybe we should stop looking at money as being a universal instrument of valuation and start looking at the goods and services people worldwide have to offer. I can imagine that Africa – because of its climate – has the right conditions for growing agricultural products that are totally different from those being cultivated in the much colder regions of Europe. So why not focus ourselves upon producing and exchanging these goods? No money involved. Just trading the stuff each of the counties is capable of producing with stuff they are unable to produce. We should look for ways in which we – the countries of the world – might be able to complement each other. We have to – as a world – see which countries are – whether it is because of natural resources being present or because of beneficial geographical positioning – most capable of fulfilling a particular task and let each country focus upon performing that task. This is the only manner in which we can fully benefit from the differences that inevitably exist between countries, without ending up in an imbalanced economic situation like we are today. We have all got something to offer each other. That is what we have to realize.

Let’s make this more concrete. Let’s focus upon an example that shows the manner in which different countries could be able to use their regional advantages in creating value. Most of us do agree with the idea that fossil fuels are likely to be exhausted within a couple of decades, right? So that means that we have to switch to other energy sources. Sources like solar energy. And where is an extremely high amount of solar radiation waiting to be caught? A place in which unused space is abundant? Indeed: the African desert.

Think about it. Hereby we could make optimal use of the geographical differences between the world’s countries. In the West we could keep on having “old-school” food-producing farmers, while in Africa there would be an entire new group of “sun-farmers”. This development could turn the idea of what it means to be a farmer upside down. Both types of farmers are producing energy for us human beings. And each of them would focus its efforts on doing what it does best and exchanging these results with other countries.

Sounds good, right? The choice is yours: should we stick to the money-focused, profit-maximizing and individualistic approach currently being applied, or shall we start trying to obtain the most value from the differences that exist on the world and use these differences to create a fair and honest trading scheme.

What do you think?