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On martyrdom - the value of a human life (part 3)

January 11, 2016

A human life is worth about 10 million dollars. That is the market rate for an American life. In other parts of the world - say, sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is widespread, the value of a human life is less - only about $3000. I know this, because I could save such a life for that sum, yet I have not yet done so.

You may object, and say that "human beings are priceless!" A distinction needs to be made here: a human SOUL is priceless. The soul is the image of the invisible God - the divine spark which God breathed into us, the essence of our being which makes us who we are - that is indeed priceless. And we cannot buy it or sell it, nor create it or destroy it, nor does it really even belong to us. No physical thing - not even the entire physical universe - can ever exchange for it. But a human BIOLOGICAL life? That property of our bodies that depends on flesh and blood and oxygen and electrons? That physical trait has a finite physical value, one that we can put a number to.

We know this is true because we do it all the time. Human biological lives (or more often, some fractional portion of one life) go up on the market all the time and are constantly bought and sold. I already mentioned the case of spending money on saving a life. If you've ever withheld a donation from a life-saving charity, you've put an upper bound on the dollar value of that life. A human life came up for sale for some dollar value, and you decided, "meh, too expensive. Not worth it". In some cases, the life that people choose to not save is even their own - as when an expensive medical treatment could extend a patient's life for a little bit, but the patient chooses to do something else with the money instead.

Another example is when we sell time out of our biological lives for money. Some people only get the minimum wage for an hour of their life. Others may get $30, $60, or maybe much more for their hour. Regardless of the actual value, the fact is that you have exchanged an hour out of your lifespan for some amount of money, often doing work that's not particularly meaningful. Some people are workaholics who work themselves to death - exchanging their entire life for a sum of money.

Yet another example is people taking on dangerous but high-paying jobs, or receiving hazard pay for risky work. Such transactions are, at most basic level, some amount of money for some fraction of a life. This would not be possible if a human biological life was of infinite worth.

One more example: the Golden Gate Bridge is of some finite economic worth. It's a physical object, it collects some amount of money in tolls, and it contributes so many dollars to the San Francisco Bay Area's economy. That's why it was built in the first place. It's an iconic landmark: people, in general, like the bridge and are glad that it exists. Yet it was paid for, in part, with the lives of 11 workers who died while they worked on its construction. And it is maintained, in part, by accepting the deaths of more than 1600 people who have committed suicide by jumping off of it. In building and keeping this bridge, we have decided that the convenience it provides us - which can be measured as some number of dollars generated in the economy - outweighs its cost in human lives. We exchanged the lives of those people for those dollars.

You might ask, "Do you actually believe all that? So, if someone offered you 10 million dollars to die, would you actually go through with it?" Well, I don't know. That seems like it might only be a "fair trade", one that I might not be interested in right now - just as you might not be interested in selling your car for its fair market value right now. But if someone made an overwhelming offer - say, 10 billion dollars - what about then? What would you or I do in such circumstances? Surely we must be compelled to act if the offer is that good? To help answer this question, let's convert those 10 billion dollars to lives of sub-Saharan Africans threatened by malaria. At $3000 per life saved, $10 billion is equivalent to about 3 million lives saved. At these scales the calculation is probably highly inaccurate, but you get the idea: would you sacrifice your life to save millions of others?

We can go on with the examples. The point here is not to judge whether this is good or evil, or what the correct value of a human life should be. Certainly, these are very important questions that fully deserve their own discussion, but that is not the point of this specific blog post right now. For now, the point here is to simply acknowledge a simple fact, one that is true regardless of how we feel about it: human biological lives are of finite material worth.

We would be wise to take this into account in relevant future discussions.


You may next want to read:
On martyrdom (Part 4) (Next post of this series)
On martyrdom - a parable (Part 2) (Previous post of this series)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
Another post, from the table of contents

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