Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What is a human life worth?

In the Twilight Zone episode "Button, Button", a couple answers a knock at the door to find a stranger holding a small wooden box with a button on top. The stranger informs them that if they press the button, they will receive a large sum of money but someone they do not know will die. After agonizing for days over the box, the wife presses the button (over her husbands objection).

The next day, the stranger returns and gives them a briefcase full of cash, and informs them that the button will be reprogrammed and given to somebody they don't know. (queue ominous music)

While the story above is wholly implausible, it does beg the question of the value placed on human lives. From society's perspective, is there a dollar amount that makes the loss of some unspecified individuals life acceptable? This is a tough philosophical issue to resolve - especially for someone who believes that human life is special - that our creation in God's image places human life above the life of His other creatures. However, logically, there must be some dollar amount at which the loss of a random life is tolerable.

I bring this up in light of a recent push to ban all forms of cell phone communication while driving. As it turns out, hands free communication is no safer than holding the phone to one's ear. The National Safety Council attributes "636,000 crashes, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year" to cell phone use (hands free or not).

The problem is that in today's society, instant communication has become a necessity for doing business. Taking phones out of the hands of drivers would result in a large hit to our nations productivity - a negative at any time, but especially in the midst of recession. The common response is that we cannot place a value on human life.

This is certainly an understandable and completely human response - and it is good that we feel that way. However, if we actually believed that no expense was to high if it "saves lives", we would be required to:

1) Impose 10 MPH speed limits on our highways - or ban cars altogether - and planes too
2) Ban swimming pools, boating and 5 gallon buckets since between 3-4000 people drown yearly
3) Ban all forms of electricity (maybe the Amish are on to something)
4) Limit all buildings to single story

In short, we aren't able to list all the policies required if no expense was to great to "save lives" (sort of ties in with Joe's post last week). The rules would be endless and productivity would grind to a halt - but the lack of productivity would also cost human lives. Modern society has produced all sorts of things to save and extend life. State, National and World economies are complex things - no individual or group of individuals would be able to sort out all the causes and effects of a given policy. It would be impossible to calculate all the consequences of a given policy - or even track them once it has been passed since nobody can see every ripple - and those affected by those ripples don't see what started them.

One thing we do know from history - free society's tend to enjoy longer (and healthier) lives than unfree.


  1. My question is, "How is talking on a hands free phone any different that talking to a person riding in the car with you?" Maybe they'll make cars were each seat is a cone of silence so as to not distract the driver.

    How about the radio. I'm sure that there are plenty of accidents caused by people tuning their radios or listening intently or singing along or what have you.

  2. JDS,
    I think the theory is that people get so focused on their phone conversation, that they neglect to pay proper attention to their surroundings. When someone else is in the car with you, there are two people watching their surroundings while engaging in converstation. So while one (or both) may become absorbed in the conversation, there are two sets of eyes on the road.

    Your comments about the radio are well-founded. Additionally, people fuss with all the other car controls as well (temperature settings and the like) and have gotten into or caused accidents.

  3. In that case, I would say that the laws should specify that it is only o.k. to talk to passengers who are adults who are fully alert back-seat drivers. Heaven forbid that we allow ourselves to talk or drive with passengers who are sight-impaired or busy texting on their own cell phones or spaced out by the dotted lines in the road or children arguing in the back seat. . . .

  4. I think this gets back to the whole issue of common sense that I discussed in another post regarding legislation being put in place to keep stupid people from hurting themselves. If the conversation is "Honey, do you need me to pick up milk on the way home?" it may not be apt to cause accidents or take attention away from the road any more than fiddling with other knobs and dials will. If it is an emotionally charged conversation, or one that requires a large amount of one's attention and concentration, common sense would be to either pull over and finish the conversation, or postpone the conversation until the destination is reached.

    As an alternative to laws, this could be left up to the insurance companies. If an individual gets into an at fault accident and it is determined that cell phone usage was involved, then their rates should go up and they should be rated as a cell phone user while driving. They rate people for everything else, including youth, marital status, type of car, distance from work, etc. If someone is prone to using a cell phone while driving, they should be rated for that as well.

    I'm not sure exactly how that would be implemented. Additionally, this does not address the uninsured drivers either. And chances are, if you are uninsured, you may fall into the category of being one of the stupid people that the government feels the need to protect.

  5. Cell phone laws were really the catalyst to this post. The actual point was to address the notion that you cannot put a price on human life.

    While it is a huge positive that we recoil at the thought of placing dollar values on human life, in reality, we have to face the fact that there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to human life.

    We really do have to put a dollar value out there when considering policies - especially when we do not know what the impact of the policy will be when all is said and done.