May 08, 2020

Credit: Malte Mueller / Getty Images

Governors in some states have taken steps to begin reopening businesses in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Any easing of social distancing measures inevitably leads to uncomfortable conversations about the value of human life versus economic prosperity. Those types of conversations are nothing new, according to Howard Steven Friedman, a statistician and health economist at Columbia University. He says people have long calculated how much human lives are worth, including those working in the courts, the health care industry, and the government.

Three Takeaways:

  • In his book, “Ultimate Price: The Value We Place on Life,” Friedman explains how price tags on human lives can be biased for lots of different reasons. He says the public has the power to challenge decisions that may seem unfair. Take the EPA’s move to place less value on the lives of the elderly. The policy, dubbed the "senior death discount” by critics, was eventually dropped because of so many complaints.
  • The value of human lives is always changing and the amount depends on who is making the calculation and how. Kenneth Feinberg has been tasked with overseeing many different victim compensation funds, including those set-up after 9/11, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the Boston Marathon bombing, which all used different criteria for payments.
  • Publicity can impact how much a human’s life is valued, as was the case with the 1987 rescue of Baby Jessica McClure, which America watched live on CNN. Friedman says it was also evident when celebrities and sports stars were among the first to be given access to limited COVID-19 tests at the start of the pandemic.

More Reading:

morality, Howard Steven Friedman, ethics, philosophy, Life

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