This is a real question that comes up fairly often. The philosophical position that life is priceless has little practical value.
- Product liability: If someone dies because of a defect in a product, how much should the manufacturer pay? There’s no consistent answer, it depends on the judge and jury, leading to “venue shopping” — the moving of lawsuits to the jurisdiction that will give the most favorable result.
- Divorce: What value does each spouse bring to a marriage? One way to view this is to look at what each person does, and place a value on those activities. Another legal doctrine popular in the US is to assume that marriage partners have equal social and economic status. The latter justifies equal division of assets.
- Insurance: How much insurance should you carry on a non-working spouse? I researched and wrote a whitepaper for an insurers some years ago arguing that it would cost approximately $250,000 to pay someone to do the work performed by a stay-at-home mother with young children. Spouses tend to be quite under-insured.
- Healthcare: How much are we willing to spend to prolong life? Should this depend on the age and health condition of the patient? Bluntly, is the life of an 80-year-old worth less than that of a 20-year-old? Suppose the senior is vibrant and active, and the 20-something has Parkinson’s? How do you make these choices? Insurance companies are making these choices today by determining what medical procedures they will approve for each patient.
In a 2008 article, researchers placed a $129,000 value on an additional year of life. That means that any treatment costing less to extend life by a year could be justified, and any treatment costing more that would guarantee only one year of additional life would not.(5)
Now we are faced with the choice between the economy and life. Putting people back into “normal life” before we have a workable vaccine will kill some. Not doing so will keep some people out of work. Median personal income in the US in 2018 was $33,706. If the $129,000 figure is still accurate, we would need to put 4 people back to work for each death to make a full reopening of the economy worthwhile.
Isn’t it weird to be thinking like that?
So, what is a life worth?