by Giles Fraser
Friday, 8
May 2020

How much is a human life worth?

Winston Churchill with female workers at Georgetown’s filing works near Glasgow in 1918. Credit: History Hit

Reactions to Russell Lynch’s column in the Telegraph were as angry as they were predictable. “The cost of saving lives in this lockdown is too high” was the headline, under which the Telegraph’s economics editor proceeded to offer a cost-benefit analysis on the saving of human life.

Apparently, the Treasury works on the view that a human life is worth £2 million. This is the so-called VPF — the value of a prevented fatality. Mr Lynch argued that this was too high. And he brought in Mervyn King, former government of the Bank of England, to bolster his argument. King said:

The younger generations have suffered in the last 20 years. Why on earth is our future being put at stake in order to help prolong life expectancy of older people, whose life expectancy will not be very high in any event?
- Mervyn King

My own reaction to reading Lynch’s column was coloured by my just having finished watching the latest Fauda series on Netflix. This popular drama follows the work of Israeli special forces as they struggle to free a young girl kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists and taken to Gaza. And without giving too much away, suffice to say that the price of trying to get her back is particularly high, both in terms of human life and indeed, in terms of recourses.

My wife was in the Israeli army, and tells me that this philosophy is not just for TV drama. The whole “no one gets left behind” approach is deep in the marrow — bring people back, no matter what the cost. Now I am sure that the Russell Lynch’s of this world would say that this cannot be true. That there is always a price that is too high to pay. Would a thousand dead Israelis be a price worth paying to return one kidnap victim? Ten thousand?

Let’s call this the Churchill argument, though Churchill didn’t actually say it. As the famous story goes, Churchill asks a woman if she will sleep with him for £5 million. She looks up, interested, prepared to discuss terms. Then he asks if she will sleep with him for £5. “Who do you think I am?” she replies, disgusted. Churchill replies: “We have established what you are — we are simply haggling about the price.” Does the ‘leave no one behind’ philosophy also fall victim to the Churchill argument? That however indignant we are at the question, there is always a price — even when it comes to human life.

It is interesting how much we use the phrase “leave no one behind”. The Department of International Development used the phrase as the title of a major report they published last year, calling it “our promise”. On the Today programme this morning the WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge, used the phrase in respect to our attitude to the pandemic.

Personally, I want to live in a world where people believe in “leave no one behind”, even if it’s not how we ultimately behave. Indeed, something about the very act of quantifiability — that is the exactly what economists do — is deeply disturbing when it comes to human life. But, of course, recourses need to be managed and triaged.

Perhaps it is the Judeo-Christian inheritance that makes so many of us baulk at Russell Lynch’s column. If human beings are made in the image and likeness of God then they are of infinite value — no matter how old, infirm, useful or otherwise. The whole language of QALY’s and of some instrumental economic value to human life — indeed the whole language of utilitarianism itself — sucks away at something that has been the basis for our moral dealings with each other for centuries. And without it we are all at the mercy of the bean counters.


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