Saturday, August 16, 2008

Is valuing life undervaluing it?

People often object to human life having a value placed on it, explicitly or implicitly. (I'm told there are good reasons, apparently to do with dignity, compassion, holism, souls and me being sick and inhuman, but I must admit they seem incoherent to me - if anyone would like to explain in writing I would be grateful). The pressing question then:

What alternatives are there to placing a finite value on human life?

One could not value human life at all. Ironically, this is what those who try to put a value on it, or assume it has one, are generally suspected of. Any value they give a life can be equated to the value of, say, a really vast number of rolls of toilet paper. Or heaps of SUVs full of McDonalds' hamburgers and books by Ann Coulter. Thus it's not enough; if you can put a value on human life you don't value human life.

The other alternative looks better: value human life infinitely. There's probably still conflict with your intuitive morality however. If any amount of human life is infinitely valuable, as long as someone is alive the universe can't get any better. Why preserve extra lives?

Infinitely valuable human lives should also be protected from anything that might shorten them for lesser aims, such as life. We barter slight risks constantly for the quality of our experience, among other things. Unless you'd like to argue that nachos and car trips are also of infinite value, so can be traded with smidgens of human life, what are you doing out of your protective bubble?

Another alternative is just to not think about it. Hold that lives have a high but finite value, but don't use this in naughty calculative attempts to maximise welfare! Maintain that it is abhorrent to do so. Uphold lots of arbitrary rules, like respecting people's dignity and beginning charity at home and having honour and being respectable and doing what your heart tells you. Interestingly, this effectively does make human life worthless; not even worth including in the calculation next to the whims of your personal emotions and the culture at hand.

The only way to value human life is to place value on human life.

For more on how to feel about this, see Philip Tetlock.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Processing people

Some of my friends think that a random process of deciding who should live or die is more important than the lives of those people, because lives should all be valued equally (and a process can ensure approximately random choice).

For example, this would mean it is better to make sure the life rafts are filled by a random selection of women and men and rich and poor and so on, even if that means that half of them drown while you flip the coin.

If lives should be valued equally, then why is a process of choosing between identically valuable things worth more than even one human life?

Also, even if you value this process more than another person's life, why shouldn't the person who's life is at stake's opinion on their relative value come into it? That is, if we are attempting to follow any ethical system other than egoism (of course your preference is of absolute importance if you are trying to be purely self interested). Try out the veil of ignorance!

For other readers, no this isn't a purely theoretical debate, I'm just not going to tell you what the context is.