The Value of Life

“We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.” 

 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

East Mill in Belper, Derbyshire
East Mill in Belper, Derbyshire

We say that life is priceless, yet over the years, we have devised ways in which to calculate the economic value of a human life.  Consider the human capital approach which takes the present value of a person’s net earning discounted over his/her lifetime.  Or take the “willingness to pay approach” which determines the value of life based on a person’s willingness to pay for small reductions in the probability of dying. For example, accepting costs such as installing a smoke detector, using a seat belt, or paying for vitamins. Then there is the actuarial calculations used by the insurance company to compute risks and premiums.   Priceless becomes a number, depending on the variables of education, age, gender, and location just to name a few.

How we value life is fundamental to how we participate within our local, indeed global community.  It is the foundation for decisions on who will share the resources – food, water, shelter, and medicine.  These are the ingredients for living well.  Socrates once said, “No life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.”  But is it possible for all to have that opportunity?

These were my thoughts as I began the journey back to the Industrial Revolution, the point in history that experienced unprecedented exponential and sustained economic growth. The living standards of “ordinary folk” were boosted, disease and epidemics were reduced and the percentage of children living past infancy climbed appreciably.  It signalled a time of new technologies, new inventions and new possibilities.

The Industrial Revolution has transitioned into our age of information, which some have nicknamed the Digital Revolution or the knowledge economy.  Progress continues, yet the dialogue on how we place value on life continues.

“There can be no equality or opportunity if men and women and children be not shielded in their lives from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control or singly cope with.”

Woodrow Wilson