Moj novoobjavljeni članak u zborniku EALIZ. Naslov susreta bio je identičan naslovu teksta (zbog toga i nije jako pametan). Ja sam naslov shvatio doslovno! Evo teksta:
The title of the present seminar Der Wert des menschlichen Lebens im 21. Jahrhundert, and its description, implies a kind of investigation that until very recently might have been started only ironically: the title itself implies that the worth of a human life might differ according to historical time, according to the occasion, market, or even according to geographical and national identity. That assumption makes the question interesting, since our justified moral scruples towards questioning the contingency value of human lives hindered scholars and scientists to even try to answer such questions. Until recently. Or at least, such speculations were not called – scientific.
But before we venture into such an exploration, let me state in advance that all such speculations must, and will have some limits. While exploring such pseudo-economic reasoning about the contingency value of human life, my goal will be twofold: to describe various ways in which we can make such calculation, and then, to draw limitations of such a “research”. Let me state some conclusions at the outset: First, such reasoning will always remain somewhat speculative. Secondly, it will hit a very clear moral and legal wall. Not only in its consequences, but rather in its execution.
Let me tell you what I mean.
First, consider some apocryphal, viz. literary, and then some real price forming of life value – in the cases of murder and kidnapping.
In Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Dial M for Murder (1954), a nasty husband Tony Wendice hires an assassin to kill his wife, for the price of 1000 pounds. In a remake of the movie A Perfect Murder (1998), the same character intends to pays the assassin for the same job a million dollars.
In Ron Howard’s movie Ransom (1996), a group of criminals demands from a businessman 2 million in ransom money for a kidnapped son.
In a Taylor Hackford’s movie Proof of Life (2000), ransom negotiation is one of the primary topics. We first witness a celebration of success of the negotiator (insurance) company which convinced “Chechen national militia” to drop the 5 million ransom demand and settle for mere $700.000. We also hear that the private insurance company got 28 million dollar in ransom insurance from only three clients, and paid ransom in the amount of 26 million. In the mainline of the plot, a negotiation for a kidnapped engineer ransom of 5 million dollars fails. „We’re gonna shoot for $600,000. l’m hoping that’s where we land“, the main character says.
As with all similar artistic inventions, we cannot be sure whether the alleged sums for ransom or murder reflect anything in reality. So, let us consider similar real situations instead.
On July 2007, upon the news that six Bulgarian medics were accused and sentenced to death in Libya for infecting people with HIV, Bulgaria considered writing-off of the Libyan debt to Bulgaria, i. e. the amount of 57 million dollars. Negotiations ended up with an undisclosed amount and political concessions for Libyan officials.
On December 4, 2008, Somali pirates captured Ukrainian freight ship MV Faina, and asked for a ransom of 25 million dollars, to return the crew and the possessions, but settled for a 3 million. “A $3 million figure represents a relative bargain in comparison to the pirates’ opening bid of more than $25 million,” said the journalist from the Time magazine.
On September 25, 2008 a group of Islamic terrorists in Egypt kidnapped 19 tourists (11 Europeans) and demanded six million Euros from German government, which was paid later that month.
On April 29, 2009 Germany and Switzerland paid 8 million dollars ransom money to al-Qaeda’s North African branch, for releasing 4 hostages, including Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay.
Such real-life and invented stories abound. And we may draw two sets of conclusions from the examples. First, there is an obvious price of a human life. Second, this price of a human life can be calculated in each particular case. Third, the price depends on the circumstances, seriousness of the crime, seriousness of the criminals, and the expected value of the person taken hostage. In several cases, there was an obvious sign of the market mechanism (price negotiation) which determined the price outcome. The discount rate, or the inflation of the price attached to a human life can also be determined across the timeline. We can calculate the minimum and maximum price (in our case the “supply curve” ranges from 1000 pounds and 10 million dollar per life, while the “demand curve” – meaning: the willingness to pay for the asked price, shows a notable difference), and draw a proper supply and demand curve for the whole market of life and death.
Let it be noted that in all examples cited so far, the money was demanded or issued for well-of, or privileged people. What about the less privileged? Articles from daily black pages abound in murder cases exercised for no money at all. So, one extreme of our tentative supply curve, in our provisional economy of life and death, should start at zero. On the other extreme there is the following case:
On April 17, 2008 Helen Golay and her accomplice Olga Rutterschmidt, two elderly widows from Los Angeles killed two homeless people to get their life insurance worth 2 million dollars. „They first seduced the men and took out life insurance in their name. After a certain period of time they would kill the men, making it look like an accident, and collect the insurance money.” 
This story testifies to the fact that insurance companies have a value attached to life even of a homeless people, and it ranges close to the sums we cited in the ransom cases above. Of course, life premiums depend on the variability of life insurance contracts, the length of paying premiums etc. but it is still a mathematical function quite openly expressed in calculating tables of insurance companies. But if the “apocryphal” value of life is approx. $1 million in insurance money in US, how about the insurance value of life in other geographical regions?
In Croatia, for instance, life insurance premiums range from 10-30.000 Euros in the case of death and accidental death, for 10 years’ contracts or more. In India, similar tables show a value of 30.000-100.000 rupies for accidental deaths depending on the contract.
So, here, we have a third supply and demand curve for a value of human life, calculated on the everyday basis of capital risks.
Are there other measures of life value in economic literature? An interesting example is provided by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their book Freakonomics (2005). In the fourth chapter (“Where have all the criminals gone?”) they claim there is a significant correlation between the number of abortions and the lesser number of crimes, and this leads them to focus on the value of a fetus, and of a newborn or an adult life.
For a person who is either resolutely pro-life or resolutely pro-choice, this is a simple calculation. The first, believing that life begins at conception, would likely consider the value of a newborn versus the value of a fetus to be 1:1. The second person, believing that a woman’s right to an abortion trumps any other factor, would likely argue that no number of fetuses can equal even one newborn. But let’s consider a third person. (If you identify strongly with either person number one or person number two, the following exercise might strike you as offensive, and you may want to skip this paragraph and the next.) This third person does not believe that a fetus is the 1:1 equivalent of a newborn, yet neither does he believe that a fetus has no relative value. Let’s say that he is forced, for the sake of argument, to affix a relative value, and he decides that 1 newborn is worth 100 fetuses. There are roughly 1.5 million abortions in the United States every year. For a person who believes that 1 newborn is worth 100 fetuses, those 1.5 million abortions would translate—dividing 1.5 million by 100—into the equivalent of a loss of 15,000 human lives. Fifteen thousand lives: that happens to be about the same number of people who die in homicides in the United States every year. And it is far more than the number of homicides eliminated each year due to legalized abortion. So even for someone who considers a fetus to be worth only one one-hundredth of a human being, the trade-off between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist’s reckoning, terribly inefficient. (Levitt-Dubner, 2005:143-144)
Levitt’s calculation which attaches values to fetuses and newborn children depends, of course, on the chosen hypothesis, and there is nothing intrinsic in such an attached value. Instead of the conclusion, here, an attached value of life is a presupposition, a modeled hypothesis invented for the purpose of a selective proof of a hypothesis.
Consider the following examples:
In Salman Rushdie’s book East, West (1994), a character undergoes a vasectomy in a mobile lorry in order to get a transistor worth (in today’s prices) of 5 Euro.
In a movie Vera Drake (2004), an ordinary woman, a self-appointed abortionist, gets paid for her services by receiving food for her family, and by a very meager amount of other goods.
In a Romanian movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), two students try to arrange an illegal abortion. After collecting 3000 Romanian lei, by finding out that the fetus is at least 4 months old, a self-appointed abortionist expects both women to have sex with him in exchange for extra costs.
Apart of a number of ways we can translate our intuitions of value of life into real economic terms – i.e. numbers, or currencies, there is an already huge amount of investigations into the value of an existing market of human body parts. Somewhat unintentionally, they also provide a huge database for calculation of the value of human life in general. For instance, according to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, founding director of Organs Watch, an academic research project that deals with organ transplants at the University of California, Berkeley, “a conservative estimate would put the number of trafficked kidneys at 15,000 each year… The seller generally earns between $2,000 to $6,000 for a kidney.”
In his book Human Body Shop. The Engineering and Marketing of Life (1993), Andrew Kimbrell, a policy director of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, presented a number of features of modern societies which pinpoint his conclusion that we have almost ended up our commodification of human bodies.
“Brave New World was greeted as a metaphor, a compelling parody… (but) today… engineering principles and mass production techniques are… invading once sacred texts of life… The question, How could we? has been replaced with the questions How soon? and, At what cost? Now we are enclosing and commodifying the human body itself, the last ecological invasion left to the market forces of modernity.” (Rifkin, intro to Kimbrell, 1993:vii-viii)
Kimbrell analyzes a list of ways market has entered into the “sacred texts of life”: selling tissues, organ trafficking, harvesting and selling stem cells, embryonic cells, reproductive cells, IVF business, “renting wombs”, designing genes, patenting life, cloning, and quite a number of other commodifying techniques. He presents the overview and the extent to which such mechanisms have already produced huge markets. For instance, we find out that the price of surrogate motherhood (in 1993) costs between $30 and 40.000 (out of which a prospective surrogate mother receives only one third), or a fraction, mostly 1/10 of the sum, in case of complications or a stillborn infant. (Kimbrell, 1993:100-1). We find out that an illegal kidney in India costs approximately $2000 (in 1993).
The costs of life-saving and non-life-saving body parts may be estimated today by various tables of insurance companies, or leave of absence paid for various injuries. For instance, Levitt and Dubner (2005:142-3) provide a Connecticut compensation list (somewhat fairer list – in money terms) of such injuries:
LOST OR DAMAGED BODY PART / COMPENSATED WEEKS OF PAY
| Finger (first) 36Finger (third) 29
Finger (fourth) 17
Thumb (master hand) 63
Thumb (other hand) 54
Hand (master) 168
Hand (other) 155
Arm (master) 208
Arm (other) 194
Toe (great) 28
Toe (any other) 9
All this may add-up to the overall estimation of life worth, but we have a strong intuition that such calculations should not amount to any general conclusion of the value of life.
A further calculation of a life’s worth has been done in biology, i.e. in a branch of it – called sociobiology. One of the basic claims of sociobiology is that the amount of altruism/selfishness is proportional to the amount of common genes between a donator and a recipient of an altruistic act. “I am willing to sacrifice myself for two brothers, or eight cousins”, was a famous quip by J. B. S. Haldane (and recorded by Maynard-Smith). This is namely, precisely the rate of common genes in these individuals. A famous theory was developed from this quip, a still very influential theory, the so called kin selection theory, first proposed by William Hamilton in 1964, and popularized by Richard Dawkins in his book Selfish Gene (1974).
The huge impact of this theory stems from the fact that it purports to predict a variety of animal and human behavior, from sex ratios and anysogamy, to parental investment, parental manipulation, generation clash, jealousy, and a lot more. It is in our interest to help reproducing the genes in other organisms that also reside in us. And the interest is the bigger, the more genes we share with the other organisms (beings). Many studies have confirmed the theory, but for a number of people it is still dubious whether it describes human behavior. Be that as it may, it definitely posits another way to calculate a life’s worth. The Hamiltonian rule C<BK (costs should be less or equal to benefit times coefficient of relatedness) provides a method of calculation for instance in war, or in the case of suicide bombers. But the striking thing about it is that the organism (in this case human) calculates it “automatically”, i. e. without a conscience.
A somewhat similar calculation is done by means of the s.c. game theory, which is just another way to model selfish gene theory, or various other interest interactions. Several such games (a “prisoner’s dilemma” being the most notorious) provide us with a model which can tell us when to engage in dangerous or altruistic interactions. Stipulating from this fact, we can assume (just as the economists do), that there is no constant of human attitude towards other beings (no constant human “worth”) but rather that human value (and “worth”) depends on various other intrinsic or environmental considerations.
5. Conclusion: A bit of history and its morale
So far we have focused on several ways of life’s value calculation. The title of this seminar has pushed us into such a track of thought, by stressing the difference between life’s worth in the past, and the life’s worth in the XXI century, as if such a difference existed. As the previous examples have shown, there are many ways to calculate the value of life. But such calculations can be performed only by abandoning moral grounds which stresses the dignity of man, which seems to be, or should be eternal. Moral philosophy based on Kantian deontological ethics may prevent us from doing so, and there are strong reasons not to posit quantifiable differences between different lives of our fellow human beings.
Why should we really be weary of such calculations? Let me cite yet another and the final example of similar calculations, a rather well known one, from the recent history of our countries. In the middle of the last century, a doctrine called Nazism ruled over a number of European and non-European countries. It was based on the notion that the value of life is not the same for all beings. Some lives were declared not to be worth living. The idea was to prove that there is a big difference between the value of different beings and their lives. One of the most telling (and gruesome) examples of such “proofs” was the calculation of costs of “sustaining” lives for various patients or invalids. How much could a state save in terms of money and other human costs if such unworthy-of-living would not carry on living? Such train of thought was the beginning of various Nazi programs of eugenics, euthanasia, and in the end – extermination of unfit.
Steven Pinker recently compared the rates and forms of violence used in the past and ones used today and reached the safe conclusion: “we have been getting kinder and gentler”.  And it fills us with some kind of self-pride.
So, the overall conclusion from the examples given may be that the value of human life has improved in the last decades, at least in civilized countries, and in comparison with ancient and recent past we live far better lives. Precisely this gives us an opportunity to artificially invent some “measures” of human lives’ value, which we may then safely burn after reading. Because the value and dignity of man cannot be quantified without breaking basic moral constraints of civilized people.
 Levitt, S., S. Dubner. 2005. Freakonomics, William Morrow, New York.
 Hamilton W.D. 1996. Narrow Roads of Gene Land vol. 1: Evolution of Social Behaviour Oxford University Press,Oxford
 Axelrod, Robert. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, NY.; Axelrod, R., Hamilton, W. D. 1981. The evolution of cooperation. Science 211: 1390-1396.
 George Annas, Michael Grodin. Nazi doctors and the Nuremberg Code: Human Rights in Human Experimentation; Robert Lifton. The Nazi Doctors; Proctor, Robert. 1988. Racial Hygiene. Medicine Under Nazies, Harvard UP. Cambridge Mass. Proctor cites a number of mathematical tasks children were supposed to „solve“ during Nazi era using the calculations about state savings it got rid of the unfit.
 Pinker, S. (2007). “A history of violence.” The Edge. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html