The Value of a Human Life, even if it is not yours.



 To you and me, life is everything.  But what value should be used by members of our House of Representatives, Senators, and the President’s regulatory agencies?  And does the value go up for those with the most political access?  Or only for those who make the most ruckus?

In the time of pandemic, how does the government cost-effectively allocate its financial resources?  The government’s funds are not unlimited, and must, at some point, be supported by a thriving economy.  But why would you care, if you were the one dying?  If you could live longer by bankrupting a nation?  For one more day?  A year?  Or for a lifetime?  Would you want to do so?

I remember, in 1972, when the Nixon Administration first looked into such costs, trying to determine if the development of transportation regulations would cost too much to implement and be protective.  The Value of a Statistical Life was calculated then by that federal agency.  $885,000.  And that was not enough to require bars to prevent a car from sliding under the back of a truck, as had happened when Jayne Mansfield was struck.

The number has since risen and fallen, depending on the administration in office, the agency involved, and the risk to be avoided.  For example, the Value of a Statistical Life in 1996, when addressing cigarette risks, $3.5 million; in 2008, in regard to railroad tank car safety, $6.2 million; and in 2010, the government used a figure of $9.1 million, when examining the danger of coalmine dust to miners.

Multiply that number by the number of lives saved per year, and compare it to the cost of complying with a proposed regulation.  If it is more, consider it cost-effective.  But isn’t all life precious, and to be protected?

Are the increases in the calculation just representing inflation?  Or political persuasion?  Or the changing attitudes of our population?  In 1998, the government again revised the Value of a Statistical Life, resulting in the requirement to add the rear bar behind trucks, which may have prevented Jayne Mansfield’s death.

The Value of a Statistical Life is not the same as that which a jury might determine in a wrongful death case.  It is, instead, a calculation based upon how much the general public would pay to avoid a small risk of death.  It is based on academic inquiries within a population, as to how much an individual would pay to avoid such a thing, or how much they would want to be paid to take that risk.  Kind of like “hazard pay.”

Complicated to think of, I know, but reasonable when understood.  Government expenditures, which reflect how much society’s members would be willing to pay, individually, to avoid such a small risk of death.  This is a relatively new regulatory concept, and was developed in 1968.

Another way of looking at the statistical value of one’s life is to look at the strength of the economic output of the society that supports it.  Try dividing a nation’s Gross National Product (GNP) by its population.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested that nations could use such a formula on which to base their regulations, valuing a life at three times that average for the purposes of determining which regulations were reasonable to implement to protect the public.  Would regulatory action, based on such cost-effective considerations, be a reasonable basis to save one person’s life?  I guess it depends on whether you are that one person.

I don’t know.  Kind of impersonal.  What would you pay, if it were your money?  To stay in good health?  Especially if it were only for one year, and would deplete your savings.  Savings squirreled away for your children.

This is the public view, so to speak.  And it involves somewhat different calculations than that presented in litigation for a wrongful death.  Consider that action a private calculation, which, depending on case law, can involve a number of considerations, such as loss of income, support and contributions, the value of your children’s upbringing, joy in living, and pain and suffering.  Is the estate of the deceased seeking pecuniary damages, or to be made “whole?”  Hard to do when you’ve left this world.

Nor is this discussion based on the statistical value of life for life insurance purposes.  A different subject, altogether, and subject, somewhat, to a purchaser’s discretion.

Perhaps you are a religious person.  Or at least a spiritual one.  You probably believe in something.  What do the religious writings that you read say about the value of being alive?  [Or are you just listening to someone else speaking from a lectern?].

Here are some writings to consider.

The New Testament says, “Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”  (Matthew 10:31 KJV).  But remember the “thirty pieces of silver.”  (Matthew 26:15 KJV)

The Old Testament, “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.”  (Leviticus 24:17 KJV).

In the Mormon religion, it is said that, “The worth of souls is great.”  (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).

In Islam.  “Whosoever killeth a human being, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”  (Quran 5:32-33).

In the writing of the Buddhist scholar, Nichiren Daishonin, can be found a letter wherein he states that the worth of a single day in one’s lifetime exceeds every treasure.

So, what is your life worth?  Is it the same value you would place on the life of another?  Isn’t all life priceless?

And how would you have the government, in this time of pandemic, calculate the Value of a Statistical Life, for the purpose of your protection?



  1. I enjoyed reading this, Reggie! From the image showing all the different ancient religious traditions, I would be intrigued to learn more about how ancient cultures thought (or didn’t think) about these questions.

    All the best!


  2. I read and enjoy every word Dr. Van Stockum writes. He makes me think and I relay what I gleam from the posts to friends, which stirs conversations that I never would have thought.

  3. Interesting question and one that every person should entertain well before the answer is demanded of us. Most have seen friends or relatives go through painful procedures to gain a few more days or weeks and, as you say, at what cost imposed by a health care system that assesses costs in a seemingly arbitrary way AFTER the fact. Here’s my own question to those willing to think about death: what will you contribute during your additional days/weeks/months? Will you add anything or just be a consumer of health care while enriching pharmaceutical CEOs? Ever count the number of drug commercials? Think those companies are concerned about your welfare? Might want to look up Opioid Crisis/Perdue Pharma!

    Based on some of the “unpopular” data available about Covid and the treatments, we may have already opened Pandora’s Box and be on the cusp of some revelations regarding the extent of the avarice in health care.

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