• Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

Friday, October 3, 2008

The value of human life

I am participating in a course through the Harvard Alumni Association called "Justice: A Journey in Moral Reasoning," basically an introduction to moral and political philosophy, taught by Harvard professor Michael Sandel.

The first assigned reading was the well known British criminal trial of 1884, The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens. Dudley and Stephens, along with two others, were shipwrecked and found themselves on a small, open boat some thousand miles from the nearest land. When it becomes obvious that they would starve to death, Dudley and Stephens decide to kill the young cabin boy and eat his flesh and drink his blood. They reason that the cabin boy is very weak already and not likely to live and that he, alone among the four, has no family at home. They do, in fact, kill and eat the boy, and several days later are rescued. Tried for murder, their defense is that their action is justified given the circumstances. The question at hand is whether it is morally (or legally) defensible to take one life so that three can be saved? (Read the case here and decide for yourself.)

Consideration of this case is, of course, prelude to the examination of the form of consequentialism called utilitarianism, as described by Jeremy Bentham in Principles of Morals and Legislation. (You can learn more about Bentham in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Bentham, argues that the principle of utility (whatever promotes pleasure or prevents pain) should be the basis of morality and law. Bentham says, "A thing is said to promote the interest, or to be for the interest, of an individual, when it tends to add to the sum total of his pleasure: or, what comes to the same thing, to diminish the sum total of his pains" (1. v.) Bentham lists seven circumstances that serve to quantify the value of a pleasure or of a pain: its intensity, its duration, its certainty or uncertainty, its propinquity or remoteness, its fecundity, its purity, and its extend" (IV. iv.)One way to simplify Bentham's philosophy is to say that the moral thing to do is whatever will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Utilitarianism certainly has its pitfalls. It fails, at least as described by Bentham, to deal with such evils as genocide or racism, whereby one group of people, who happen to be in the minority, suffer so that another group, who are in the majority, can increase their happiness. However, despite its pitfalls, utilitarianism has its uses in our modern world. One such use, very popular with governments as well as businesses, is cost/benefit analysis. For instance, lets say that the EPA has to decide whether to clean up a toxic waste site that happens to exist in proximity to a populated area. Cost/benefit analysis requires the EPA to determine how much it will cost to clean up the site, but also to quantify the value of cleaning up the site. To do this latter task requires that estimates be made of how many lives are likely to be lost if nothing is done. If the site stays as is, how many people will die. On the other hand, if the site is cleaned up, how many lives will be saved. This is a benefit. But to determine the benefit, a monetary determination must be made as to the value of the lives saved. That, of course, is tricky business. Once the value is set, the cost/benefit analysis can be completed and a decision made as to what to do with the toxic waste site. The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people lies in which side of the ledger is more favorable - does the benefit exceed the cost?

My questions for you are these. How can we put a monetary value on human life? What seems to you a reasonable number (if any)? Does this form of cold, hard calculation seem morally repugnant, or necessary given the complexities of our world. Lest you think that this kind of cost/benefit analysis doesn't really happen, consider what Ford did in the 70s regarding the Pinto, or what Philip Morris did in the Czech Republic regarding the cost benefits of smoking cigarettes. In the real world, we make decisions frequently based on how many people are affected.

I believe that this has ramifications for the work of eradicating global poverty - but I'll save that for another post.

In the mean time, please feel free to respond to this post by clicking on the word "comments" below.
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