There is a common saying that human life is priceless. This is an attempt to objectively assess the validity of that statement. Normally, something is said to be priceless when it is rare. There are more than 6 billion people alive right now. Humans have been around for a while and will probably continue being around; for this reason, rarity is obviously not the reason. Another reason proffered is that human life cannot be created therefore it should not be ended. Well, humans take the lives of other animals without being able to create them. Accordingly, inability to create life is not a valid explanation. A third reason is cultural; where the major cultural beliefs preach the sanctity of human life. The response to this is that given the variety in human beliefs, it is not inconceivable that there is at least one culture where no such injunction exists. This means that inviolability of human life is not a universal belief. Besides, even in those cultures that have this belief, exceptions abound, especially where another human is a threat to the status quo or to the existence of that culture. Another reason might be that until recently, there was not a feasible way to determine a person’s life trajectory and potential use to society. Since there are some people whose existence is of great benefit to humanity, the logic is that every human life should be held as priceless in order to maximize the possibility of ensuring the emergence of such people. On the other hand, how would this argument handle the possibility that a scourge could emerge; someone whose existence is harmful to humanity? Additionally, the proportion of any population that excels in any society is very small and most discoveries are not the preserve of one person (Newton & Leibniz with calculus, Einstein & Poincare with relativity, multiple pioneers of flight etc).So if a discovery is what makes the person’s life valuable then the existence of alternatives reduces the uniqueness of his contribution. In any case, given the progress in actuarial science, genetics and understanding of human beings, it is now possible to predict certain characteristics of a population. Maybe as human knowledge increases, a method might be discovered of accurately determining a person’s fate.
Based on all the reasons above, I think the statement is just one of those meaningless nice sounding things that people mouth in order to conform to society’s mores. If it was not, there would be no budgetary limits on safety expenditure. If human life were priceless, then a society that actually believes so would spare no material expense to set up death preventing technology and practices nor would hospitals demand payment before treatment (although this might be a problem restricted to poor countries). But this is not the case because there are documented situations where public officials have refused to spend money on things as simple as street lights because of financial considerations. For these reasons, I think that there is no valid argument for believing that an average human life has an incalculable price. It therefore seems meet that at the least, a framework for doing so should be set up.
The basis for this paper will be a slight modification of the axiom proposed by the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli. He said “…the value of an item must not be based on its price, but on the utility that it yields.” The modification rearranges the statement thus - the price of a thing is based on the utility expected from it. A clarification must be made between price and value. Price is simply the monetary consideration for ownership and control of a thing while value is the benefit derived from that thing. This paper aims to establish a price and not value. The reason for this distinction is that value is subjective while price is objective. However, in any transaction, the buyer usually pays a sum that he thinks is less than the value he will get from the item. Additionally, value is assumed to mean only material benefit because material improvement can be objectively measured. For example, a child that is put to work on a farm is beneficial because at the least it can reduce the parents’ energy expenditure and its output can enable it to survive. On the other hand, the emotional gratification parents get from the existence of that child is not considered because it is not necessary for the continuation of anyone’s life.
The second clarification is on the type of price being calculated. In economics, a price can either be the minimum that a seller will accept to give up a thing or the maximum a buyer will give to gain a good. These are respectively called the willingness to accept (WTA) and willingness to pay (WTP) models. A person would be willing to “pay” all his wealth to stop his death but it would be hard to find a price that a person would “accept” to end his life. This difficulty can either be ignored or simplified by assuming that such a person can be found. It can also be solved by assuming that the price being paid is not for someone’s death but for the value generated by that person’s life.
To start with, a human life will be assumed to mean a human being regardless of any distinguishing characteristics like sex or age. Using this method, the base price of an average human being should be its production cost i.e. the cost of producing a baby. Because human technology cannot currently combine and animate matter, only the quantifiable components will be priced e.g. the amount of calcium in the body, the quantity of water, etc. If a person can be rendered down to the component materials, the price will be a combination of the market value of the component materials plus the cost of rendering plus whatever markup the market will accept. However, a human being is more valuable than the sum of its parts. Therefore, a more appropriate production cost would have to factor in animation. Despite the absence of human technology that can give life, there is an engine which can do so and the cost of maintaining that engine in working order can be calculated, it is simply a matter of determining the difference between a woman’s normal consumption and her consumption when pregnant. If normal consumption is less than pregnant consumption, then the difference will be taken as the production cost. Thus, either the cost of materials or the production cost can be taken as the base cost of a person. The reason for establishing this base cost is to provide a reasonable start to the process. It is like building a car. There is usually a basic model at a low price, the price increases as more features are added. In the same manner, if a minimum price is determined; distinguishing characteristics (education, beauty etc) will have their own prices thereby simplifying the process. For example, the cost of primary education can be determined, so also secondary and university education. These can be added to the basic cost to determine the expected utility of the person. Thus the basic model’s utility is probably just meat value. Assuming, humans were bred for food, the valued add-ons will include things that are currently desired in meat – tenderness (meaning it should not have been hardened by hard work or age), maybe flavors (based on diet or pedigree) and preferred cuts (like rump because there will be no bone there). Accordingly for pure food value, on a gram for gram basis, a human would probably be worth maybe a great ape because they are the closest genetic relatives of humans. It might also be similar to pork since there is an urban legend that pork is similar to human flesh.
Generally, however, humans are more valuable for their ability to manipulate matter, their output. There was a time when humans were traded. This practice, odious as it may seem now, was done on a reasonable basis – the expectation that purchase cost of the slave would be less than the monetary value of its output. All computations of the output are founded on expectations - things such as age, sex, health, intended use and past experience of the output of similar slaves previously owned. A slave is only useful if it meets the master’s objectives. The slave receives the staples of life and is made to work. Since slavery is not widespread anymore, this method will amend it a bit. People get jobs and receive money in exchange for their time. A person’s life is essentially the time spent alive. That time is largely spent looking for the means of survival; basically food and shelter. Thus, a proxy for a person’s price could be the expected earnings over its life. To maximize this amount, the person could be terminated when the cost of consumption exceeds the price of output. Alternatively, since life equals time, the person’s price at the moment of measurement could be all worldly possessions because those possessions represent money received in exchange for time. The main problem with the expected income approach is that it is not (yet) possible to accurately determine a person’s future income. Some people produce significantly more than they consume while others produce much less. This is because there are many random variables e.g. an earlier than expected death would throw all calculations off. On the other hand, a labor saving device or new invention could increase a person’s income. However, a solution to this could be the life insurance industry. This industry is perhaps the most sophisticated player in the business of valuing lives. Using statistical analysis on masses of data, it can make reasonably accurate estimates about an average person given information about sex, age and myriad environmental factors. This is only a partial solution, but since human knowledge usually increases, maybe a more accurate method will be invented eventually.
The method above does not account for people whose output is usually not material and has no discernible effect on the ability of people to survive i.e. entertainers. Musicians make a lot of money sometimes. So do footballers and painters and sculptors etc. It is easier to estimate the income of some of these e.g. sportsmen; because their income is directly correlated to their physical activity, an estimate of their active working life would provide a reasonable approximation. For people like musicians and writers, whose works outlive them and sometimes keep generating money, the financial concept of terminal value will be used. Terminal value is based on the concept of present value, where future cash flows are discounted to today’s value. In this scenario, the net earnings from sale of one copy of a book will be determined as well as the period that it is expected for the book to remain in print and in demand. Statistics will play a part again here. Obviously, not all books will have the production run of the bible. But using the bible as an extreme example, if a new edition were produced today, the income the publisher could expect would be net earnings times expected copies per annum times expected age of our solar system. This assumes that Christianity remains in practice and humans do not develop technologies that would enable them leave this solar system. If such technologies become extant, this formula can be modified so that the timeframe is extended to either the age of the galaxy or age of the universe. The formula can be applied to creators of all forms of art.
The frameworks above are rudimentary, however, it is probable that they can be refined and thus gain wide and useful application in the process. Humans are not traded now, but they once were and while I am not advocating it, they might be again. An objective method of determining a price would be useful to both buyer and seller. If the methods are sufficiently accurate, there could arise situations of asymmetric information where people could sell themselves if the going rate exceeds what they think they are worth. New industries could arise built around maximizing potential worth. People with the right sort of potentials could sell options on themselves; this could reduce parents’ financial outlay on rearing their children. Expenditure on people can be more intelligently targeted such that potential luminaries receive the most sustenance given their expected contribution. The intelligent targeting of expenditure is particularly relevant because the effect of an individual’s life varies from person to person. It seems patently stupid to say that a thief is just as priceless as a doctor because the one seeks advancement of the human condition while the other does not. Human progress is about providing better lives for more people, and the measure of that progress is primarily economic – how much stuff do people have? Financial progress is about increasing the effectiveness of capital/resource allocation. Any increase in understanding the rationale behind economic/financial decisions usually leads to an increase in people’s welfare. Thus, anything that seeks to obstruct such understanding should be rejected. Similarly, human knowledge should have no boundary placed upon it. Therefore even if it is just for these reasons, the sentiment of humans being beyond price should not be accepted without question. We should only uphold it if we question it and find sufficient reason to do so. It may seem callous to seek to reduce a human being to an input/output unit. But since there are so many people alive and the resources to support them are limited, a method for determining the optimal allocation of such resources actually is a sensible thing.