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?

Banning Cars from City Centres: Utopia, Here We Come

London, New York and Amsterdam: what is the difference between these three cities? Yes, only in the latter you are allowed to smoke pod legally. But that’s not what I mean; I am talking about the use of bikes in the city traffic. Why is that? Well, surely, Amsterdam is (way) smaller than cities like London or New York. And surely, the “infrastructure” – in the sense of the small alleys prevalent in Amsterdam – is more suitable to bikes than cars or any other vehicle. So residents in Amsterdam are more or less forced to travel by bike (if they want to get somewhere on time). But is “the infrastructure” really the main obstacle for cities like London and New York to make the shift to “big time bike riding”? I doubt it.

Let’s focus on London: in 2011 there were 2.5 million cars in London, which is about 9% of the cars in Great Britain. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in London, but let me tell you: a city like that isn’t made for cars: congestion and pollution are two big time (negative consequences) of our compulsive “traveling by car through city centres” behavior. Besides that, in 2009 3227 bikers were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads; not necessarily an alluring prospect for those considering to travel by bike. From 2002 to 2005, an average of 1.1 Dutch bikers was killed per 100 million kilometers cycled. In the United Kingdom and the United States these numbers were respectively 3.6 and 5.8. That’s what you get when roads are filled by big-ass vehicles and only a few of those “annoying, arrogant little bikers”.

But let’s think about it: why would we even allow cars to drive in major cities like London or New York – or Amsterdam for that matter, although I can assure you that there is hardly any driver stupid enough to travel through Amsterdam by car. Imagine what a city like London could look like if all cars were banned from town, if you were only allowed into – the centre – of the city by bike or public transport. What would happen if we’d do that? Probably not as many bikers would be killed in traffic, since it’s very hard for bikers to kill each other in collisions.

“But”, you might say, “what about the old people? You can’t expect them to travel by bike, can you?” True, you can’t. That’s why we can decide to let old people – 65+, or younger if you have got certain handicaps – to travel by bus or metro for free. Just pay some extra tax money to make sure this Utopia becomes a reality. If you would implement these two things – the (1) prohibition of cars travelling through the city centre and (2) using the “space on the roads” to implement bike-friendly, and public transport friendly, structures, I believe you have created yourself a beautiful little solution to deal with the huge amounts of traffic required in a town like London (or New York).

Surely, people will resist this idea: “We’ve always done it this way; travelling by car. Why would you change that?” Well, we’ve indeed always travelled by car, but “in those times” traffic wasn’t so damn crowded; in those times there weren’t so damn many cars driving through our beloved city centres. So it’s time for a change, isn’t it?

But what do you think?

What is the Value of Beauty?

Beauty is ‘a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.’ Okay: now we know the definition of ‘beauty’; but what exactly is beauty? Let’s zoom in on the human part of beauty: why are some persons more beautiful than others? Why do men become ‘happy’ when they see Kate Upton, but not as much when they see Queen Beatrix (the former queen of The Netherlands)?

Studies have shown that when we recognize someone’s face as beautiful we are actually making a judgement about the health and vitality of that individual. We interpret facial symmetry (the similarity of the left and right half of a face) and a smooth skin to mean that a person has good genes and is – or has been – free from diseases. But what exactly we find beautiful differs per sex. For example: women attach less value to the looks of their partner than men do. But that begs the question: why do men attach so much value to the looks of a woman? And aren’t we men – by chasing the pretty girls – nothing more than simple puppets of our evolutionary determined instincts?

If you think about it, beauty is – next to its evolutionary function – a totally useless characteristic. The only way in which a woman’s beauty can be of value is in the seduction of ‘primitive’ – or at least superficial – men. Well, that’s not completely true; beauty is not totally irrelevant. For example: if a man sees a woman – of if a women sees a man – that is very fat, it might be a good idea to stay away from this person. You don’t want to waste your food – or your fertility – on that one, do you? And being so fat might not be very healthy. And we don’t want an ill partner, do we? But now we are back again at beauty’s evolutionary value

Beauty might be the single most overrated characteristic a person can have – next to cynicism, which is the most easy characteristic to have. Beauty is either present or it is not: you’ve either got it, or you don’t. Just like you can be tall or short, black or white, handicapped or ‘okay’, you can be beautiful or less beautiful (ugly). But even though it is fully determined by nature, we men still go crazy when we see a beautiful woman. A woman’s beauty alone can be sufficient reason for men to chase her. A phrase often heard is: ‘She’s stupid? So what? She’s beautiful, right?’ But the real question is: who in this example is really the stupid one? The one being chased, or the one chasing? If you value someone for her looks, aren’t you just better of taking a picture and hanging it above your bed? Not only will a picture last longer, but the beauty depicted on the picture will last longer too: beauty, after all, has the tendency to stay only until gravity shows it face. Intelligence, wisdom en experience, on the other hand, come with age.

So: what to do? Should we listen to our primal instincts and perceive beauty as it is dictated to us by nature? Or shall we take control of whoever we find beautiful? Are our bodies leading the way; the happy feelings we get when we see someone beautiful? Or do we listen to our minds telling us that an asymmetrical face doesn’t imply Down syndrome? The ever recurring philosophical dichotomy returns: the battle between the body and mind, between determinism and control.

Who do you think is going to win?