by Giles Fraser
Friday, 8
May 2020
Response
10:15

How much is a human life worth?

A Telegraph columnist has tried to put a figure on it
by Giles Fraser
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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thadfulmer
thadfulmer
2 years ago

It’s obvious that a price is put on human life. We accept a range of car accident deaths per year. If not, we’d have no cars on the road. We accept deaths from shooting, stabbing, bludgeoning… Of not, we’d have no guns, knives, baseball bats. We except deaths caused by obesity. If not, we’d teach people proper nutrition. We accept deaths. Why is the time any different?

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
2 years ago

Ridiculous assumptions build ridiculous models and those imposed models produce ridiculous outcomes.

Hypocrite and Doomsday Neo-Marxist CULT leader Neil Ferguson built his model to save everyone, No one can die being the underlying assumption.

Dr Johan Giesecke from Sweden knew people die as his base and built his model pragmatically. How many and who will die?

Two very different outcomes. Contraction this year for Sweden -4.2% and next year growth +3.5%. UK contraction this year for -14.1% and next year growth +3.5%.

In the last recession suicide went up by 6.5%. But in the recession 40% of small business did not go bankrupt which is the projection for most retail now. ITV research suggest 60,000 extra cancer deaths due to access restrictions to diagnosis and treatment. And the list goes on and on.

This overreaction is going to have a very human death number as well. The advice should have gone to the public. And let the public manage themselves. Not “Big Brother”.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago

How about valuing each life not in money but in closed restaurants, dark theatres and destroyed livelihoods? How many people should lose their jobs and businesses, just so one little old lady can survive another two months?

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago

who , the queen ?

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
2 years ago

‘One little old lady’??????

Michael Baldwin
Michael Baldwin
2 years ago

The question and the reaction resulting from it depend on one’s beliefs about what are life and death anyway.

It’s sort of ironic that in one sense atheists consider life more “sacred” in situations like this than a lot of so called religious people.

Meaning, the Christian view appears to be that upon death we go either to heaven or hell – nobody really believes they are going there, no matter what they’ve done, they just think only other people (like Hitler one presumes) suffer that fate – and possibly purgatory.

So in theory it appears to me Christians should even be welcoming early death, unless they think they’ve led a very wicked life and so may be in fear of going to “the other place.”

I’m sorry to report that the fact so many are clearly worried about it therefore appears to be because they are not actually that convinced their own belief of “salvation upon death” or “life after death” even is true.

Realistically I don’t think any of us can know that unless we believe we have had some personal experience that suggests to us it is true, such as the apparently many people who have “near death experiences”, and claim they are no longer afraid of death as a result.

However, in the Eastern – i.e. Hindu or Buddhist or similar – view, which includes reincarnation, one might assume that the concern over death may not be as great.

As the belief is that the soul exists beyond the death of the body and via reincarnation takes another body – and indeed a fresh, new, healthy one, generally speaking.

So again, it would appear that death is not such a tragedy in the Eastern religious viewpoint as it seems to be to an atheist, given the atheist presumably thinks there is “no coming back.”

Atheists like Richard Dawkins for example, will probably be some of the biggest supporters of the lockdown I would guess.

I just checked, and am unsurprised – he’s basically bashing anybody in America who is protesting about the lockdown, demanding their freedom.
Just as he protests against the religiously inclined who demand their freedom from the eternal death sentence he and his kind have placed upon them, and prefer the doctrine of eternal life, promised by Jesus and most other major religious/spiritual figures.

He’s also protesting about all the allegedly “fake news”; no doubt meaning the kind of free speech based on the view of numerous top ranking scientists themselves, that says covid-19 is not anywhere near as dangerous as is officially claimed, or therefore justifies this global mass imprisonment.

Here – verbatim – is a wonderful tweet he has made, in which he cannot apparently see his own self-contradictory statement, a typical example of how scientists are rarely as rational as they claim, even feted and world famous ones like him.

From May 5 this year (2020 AD – no not CE/Common Era as Orwellian academia has now forced on us, to get rid of Christianity):

“Research in Applied Memetics. False news spreads 6 times faster than true. Obviously not BECAUSE it’s false. Does some other quality make it both spreadable & false? I think it might be “thermodynamic”: many ways of being false & only 1 way of being true”

https://twitter.com/richard

So then as the predominant view currently is that covid-19 is a deadly virus and most of the global public (so we are told), at least in the Western world supports the lockdown, due to that belief, Mr Dawkins’ tweet suggests as this is the view that has spread most widely, it must be false!

May I be allowed to “Laugh Out Loud”?

In fact, I am not at all joking, in that, as only a very small percentage of the human population – really on the 1 in millions or less scale – has created the world before us – all the great scientists, artists, philosophers, inventors, writers, and spiritual figures like Jesus himself – unless something is a clearly demonstrable truth, like Newton’s apple falling to the ground, which suggests some invisible force such as gravity, the real truth is that the public mostly doesn’t know the truth about anything that really matters.

Our collective problem is we don’t collectively seem agreed on what the purpose is of life, or whether there is anything beyond it.

This leaves us all in a war between one another, largely between groups who on a national and global scale identify either as secular atheist, or as some kind of religious believing group.

Clearly, regardless of what creed they follow, the religious believing groups are going to have a very different perspective on “how much a human life is worth” than the atheist ones.

And of course, the secondary question, is “whose life?”

As it appears this question too is very much subject to the amendment of the champagne socialist view that “all lives are equal, but some lives are more equal than others.”

So it appears to me that all the so called socialists are complaining about, is that the capitalists are simply being more honest about it than they are.

For the capitalist view is of course as per the economic case under attack here, that lives are not remotely equal, life is about the Darwinian “survival of the fittest.”

So those who get to the top of the capitalist system are the fittest, and are able to breed most easily with the most prized and genetically superior (at least in looks, if not intelligence) mates, and live in the most luxury and security and with the best healthcare, as they can afford all of the above.

The Churchill story from their point of view is not an insult, but a way of life – people and power and healthcare and all else that one desires in life are available to the highest bidder.

The slave auctions of Roman times are still here in thin disguise, as the most attractive of women statistically speaking flock to marry the wealthiest men in exchange for living in their mansions and palatial residences and being “honoured” to be the instrument of perpetuating their dynasty.

The would-be famous WAGS are ready to “scratch one another’s eyes out” in order to “bag” a prized (meaning extremely wealthy) male, like a Premiership footballer.

It’s interesting to note also how the Champagne socialists like Richard Dawkins, and the unashamed capitalists are more or less equal in their admiration for Darwin, though pretend they are from utterly different worlds.

Respect is given generally in modern Western society mainly based on how much money somebody has or is believed to have.

And that’s not only by the money-seeking WAGS and “gold diggers” of this world, it’s equally the case if you want good service in a restaurant or even when you go to the dentist or NHS and you want “VIP treatment.”

Note how that phrase “VIP”, Very Important Person, so accepted that airports (and other places) have exclusive “VIP lounges”, tells us how society now categorises everybody into two distinct classes – very important persons, and clearly not very important persons – in particular, the old, poor and unwanted, who are the main victims of this lockdown that is pretending to save them.

Consider the 600,000 who die in the UK every year of all causes, obviously almost all old people, in the now approaching 2 months of this lockdown (it will be at least 2 months before its much over) 100,000 of whom will have died imprisoned, and alone, and frightened, not able to see their friends and relatives, unable even to easily access the basic necessities of life.

One might presume that the authorities have put a price on their lives which is less than zero – I cannot see how (unless they are wealthy) the state can see them as anything other than a burden, especially if they are only on the state pension, and almost certainly costing far more in drugs and NHS costs “than they are worth” financially speaking.

But those unfortunates aside, when we live in a world in which most of us, with few exceptions, are willing to be bought and sold for a price, even if that is as an employee (which many are in a position to avoid, but choose not to, for various reasons, including greed, and hunger for material pleasures) can we really blame economists and the authorities in general for putting one on us?

If we want that situation to change, we have to vote politicians into power who genuinely believe in “people before profit”, and not “champagne socialists” either of the Richard Dawkins or Professor Ferguson variety, who flout their own lockdowns, and are not subject to the restrictions that they impose on others.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
2 years ago

oh dear what is this about ?

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago

Not sure if it was Churchill who said that. Wasn’t it George Bernard Shaw?

Roger Jones
Roger Jones
2 years ago

I favour open quantification.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
2 years ago

Yes, the valuing of Human life in cost terms, does tug against the heart strings and to square that circle is emotionally difficult.
I, particularly remember, when visiting my father who was dying in hospital, he asked me to take him home, I did not have the money to look after him at home, so I said I would take him home when he was better.
I knew, and perhaps he did, that this meant no.

I think, in Christian terms, this probably mean “Rendering unto Caesar etc”, something I am afraid we all have to do. We also have to recognise that God, has set us up on Earth in an environment where death is inevitable.

How do you square that circle?

Steve Craddock
Steve Craddock
2 years ago

Is a pandemic such as this one so terrifying to many because it reminds us of our mortality. A topic we so throughly avoided in the developed west that the mere thought can induce anxiety and panic. If we unpack what we mean when we say every life is precious, are we really saying this in its truest abstract or is there a sliding scale that we recognise as being at work but we are afraid to admit to.
Once we as a society and as individuals are mature enough to recognise this tension, then will we see that the real answer can only be: give us all the facts and the models and guidance and then let us decide for ourselves. Sure it is ok to implement some common sense rules for businesses to follow under the auspices of public health such as table spacing and occupancy levels, temp checks etc. But the ongoing house arrest and general curtailment of business is a price too high once the initial wave or spread is over.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

It would be interesting to know how mnay of these old, sick people would have chosen to remove themselves from the equation if they had the choice for Voluntary Assisted Dying – available to everyone over 80. We do value lives, look at the abortion issue, where most of us have decided that sometimes hard decisions have to be made and one life valued over another.

kydd.boyle
kydd.boyle
2 years ago

I find your position naive and difficult to reconcile with the world we live in. As a young person I’m personally seduced by the logic of the Mervyn King argument. It seems practical for the real world. I get the impression of Christian-Judao morale supremacy from your position. It sounds well and good but takes no consideration to the real harm economic damage will do to working class people.

Your viewpoint also does not consider how we as a society leave people behind all the time. How for instance do we explain our societal deference to world poverty, the way we treat the climate; or indeed the Gaza Strip from a humanitarian point of view.

Perhaps our different views are due to subjective ethics. However I believe the this crisis is a problem to be solved with pragmatism not moral authority.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
2 years ago

Economics being about scarcity and resource allocation, I wonder if looking at this through the lens of time as opposed to money might free people from the negativity attendant upon framing it as money vs lives. The time we have is limited in quantity, and not renewable. Time spent under ‘lockdown’, as with a literal prisoner, is lost, because much of what you can do with it is lost, forever. We don’t call time with loved ones etc. precious moments for nothing. The trade-off, if we’re going to be binary about it, rather than being one of money vs lives, would be of quality of time (of the living) vs quantity of time (lost by the prematurely dead).

Luke Lea
Luke Lea
2 years ago

May I suggest a general criterion that might be applied to this question, at least as a first approximation: the amount of resources spent to save a life should leave the rest of society no worse off than if the death had not occured. I would also suggest that the answer has something to do with the capital/population ratio of the particular society concerned, upon which its general standard of living depends. The advantage of this approach is that it could be applied not only to the saving of a single life but to any number of lives, whereas criteria that fail to meet this criteria (by spending either too little or too much) clearly do not.

An important caveat is that the capital in the capital/population ratio much include the value of the human capital of the people whose lives are to be saved, which is not easily measured, even though the amount of money invested in their education is perhaps the place to begin. The number of productive years remaining during which that human capital is likely to be put to good use should also be considered.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
2 years ago

I am wondering why all of these responses are from men
and why they seem so disconnected!