What are you worth?

baby-dollar$7.22 million — that’s the value of the average, generic American, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Not too shabby, I say, except that the agency has just cut its previous estimate, which used to be about $800,000 higher.

Should I feel insulted?

Maybe not. The EPA is downright generous compared to those skinflints at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, who peg the value of a human life at only $5 million.

Apparently I’m worth more if I die from ingesting mercury in my oysters than if I fall from a defective ladder.

These are average values, of course. It goes without saying that the readers of this blog are priced way above average.

On the opposite end of the human worth spectrum, Ms. Blanchard, my high school chemistry teacher taught me that my body was only worth about 50 cents when reduced to its raw, chemical components. Probably more like $25 in today’s dollars, not including my gold crowns.

Religious thought gives us another way to evaluate human worth. Quoting from David Farenthold’s Washington Post article:

Daniel Zemel, rabbi at Temple Micah on Wisconsin Avenue NW, said Wednesday that the idea of a dollar value on life brings to mind the teaching that “you put one human life on the scale, and you put the rest of the world on the scale, the scale is balanced equally.”

This is the familiar perspective behind that phrase about “self-evident” truths in the Bill of Rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Judeo-Christian concept of human worth is that we are God’s crowning act of creation, made in His image and for His special purposes. If we are all created as equals and each of us balances the rest of the world, the value of a single human life is beyond calculation.

So, which is it? Are we priceless, or are we mere commodities, stamped with a price tag like everything else? Does the fact that there are nearly 6.7 billion of us on this planet create some sort of buy-two-get-one-free discount on human worth? Are humans exempt from the law of supply and demand?

Calculations like the EPA’s create the (erroneous) impression that life is a commodity, no different in kind from a Whopper with cheese or a Volkswagen Jetta or that 52″ plasma screen TV down at Circuit City.

Despite our lofty equality-talk, we westerners haven’t always practiced what we have preached about human worth. Before there were child labor laws, children were valued only for the number of hours they could endure in a factory. Before the American Civil War, slaves were valued for their endurance working in the hot sun, or their fertility and sexual hardiness.

Today, it would be fair to say that we westerners value Africans less than ourselves, judging by the way we ignore their demise at such staggering levels through famine, war and disease.

And, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out certain classes of human beings which have little or no value at all, e.g. a fetus who tests positive for Down Syndrome; a young woman in a persistent vegetative state; an elderly man whose children cannot cope with his Alzheimer’s; a murderer on death row; a homeless junkie living under a railway bridge.

Despite these troubles at the fringes, human worth is the causative principle that drove God in love to send His only Son Jesus to live as a human, and die on the cross.

Opposing this religious view is secular materialism, a philosophy that was born as an approach to science but now routinely claims to have insights about ethics, morality and the deepest questions of life — such as, human worth. Materialism rejects God-talk in favor of a testable, pragmatic utilitarianism. Human life is only deemed special when it creates some special benefit for all. We are not intrinsically valuable, but only have value when our lives provide some good for all of humanity.

And, significantly, this new, materialistic calculus tells us that if a human life creates a burden on society, it is worth little or nothing.

Which explains why some radical environmentalists have branded human beings as a world-wide virus, a plague that must be eradicated before it destroys all that is good and pure on the Earth. Presumably, some exceptions will be made for the very, very greenest of us. Members of PETA, Greenpeace and Earth First!, certainly.

Religious ethicists have long framed these debates by using the phrase human dignity, shorthand for affirming something unique and incalculably precious in human life.

Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and utilitarian ethicist is unhappy with the phrase “human dignity” and all that it represents, particularly the restrictions it places on the pursuit of human scientific experimentation.

Paul J Griffiths writes in The Very Autonomous Steven Pinker, August/September 2008 edition of First Things, that Pinker and his allies are talking up a new ethical yardstick they refer to as “human autonomy,” by which they suggest that the only genuine (and valuable) human life is one that can be lived in complete independence from any constraints — physical, mental or, apparently, moral. The autonomous life is one in which human physical and mental capabilities are at their fullest. Using autonomy as our yardstick for human worth permits us to dispose of those whose mental or physical capabilities are damaged or limited.

Princeton’s Peter Singer is another utilitarian ethicist and a well-known apologist for euthanasia, infanticide and the general devaluation of life at the fringes. Here is Singer in his own words on the value of life:

If [seriously disabled persons] have no experiences at all, and can never have any again, their lives have no intrinsic value. Their life’s journey has come to an end. They are biologically alive, but not biographically [meaning, incapable of autonomy]… The lives of those who are not in a coma and are conscious but not self-conscious have value if such beings experience more pleasure than pain, or have preferences that can be satisfied; but it is difficult to see the point of keeping such human beings alive if their life is, on the whole, miserable. — Practical Ethics, Peter Singer, 1993.

Singer is not alone in preferring to calculate human worth using an arbitrary yardstick like “quality of life,” or what he calls “biographical life” — autonomy of body and mind. Singer seems to think it is possible to subtract pain from pleasure to arrive at some sort of misery index, a scale along which we will be able to choose when a life is worth living, and when it is not.

Which means, ultimately, that these ethical questions about human worth are not merely of interest to theologians and philosophers. The question of human worth is both personal and political. It is a concept that both Barack Obama and John McCain ought to be able to speak about clearly, concisely and without double-talk.

Human worth has already been calculated by the EPA, the CPSC, the DOJ, the DOD, and hundreds of other taxpayer-supported alphabet agencies. It is being calculated almost daily by legislatures and courts, on both the state and federal levels.

How shall we price human life? What does it mean to talk about human dignity, and if autonomy is now the new measure of a life worth living, what will happen to human beings who exist at the margins? Is life really “miserable,” to use Singer’s word, if it must be lived with some degree of dependence on others?

In fact, are any of us truly autonomous? Do we create our own biographical narrative, or is most of that narrative penned by our genes, our family, our culture, and a host of other accidental circumstances, like the color of our skin, our sex, and the latitude our home rests on?

In this season of presidential politics, the most important questions are not about taxes or gasoline prices or the housing market, but about which candidate’s realpolitik will do more to strengthen human dignity and increase the value of human life. All other political considerations are trivial; no other political consideration is as crucial to each of us personally, and to this thing we call the human race.

Photo credit: Sam Hatch, Gold Coast, Australia — (Baby Maximus)

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  1. Pinker and Singer are frightening, especially considering the influence they have in elite circles. Theirs is the view that’s permeating our society, the one that has Living Wills saying, “just pull the plug if I’m incapacitated.” My guess is that, even though my directives say, “keep me plugged in,” they’d try to pull the plug anyway–for my own good, of course.

    With every statement of theirs that denies human dignity and devalues human life, their words curse God and His declaration that what He had created (mankind) was “very good.”

    Excellent post, Charlie.

  2. Life support & resuscitation is a man made system that serves to prolong a life that more often than not naturally will be over; whether it’s forced on or from an individual is a modern world problem. Giving people the ability to state their preferences in a contract is an honorable concept in contrast to asking law makers, hospitals or family members make the choice for the dying based on their own agenda or world view (dignity vs. value).

    A though provoking and well written piece – thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Hi Charlie –

    We need only to look at John 3:16 to determine our value. God love (valued) the world (us) so much that He sent His only begotten son, so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (Susan’s translation)



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