Balkinization  

Friday, August 22, 2014

Is life "priceless"?

Sandy Levinson


In a recent article in the Washington Post about whether the U.S. should pay ransom, in the context of the savage killing of James Foley, Adam Taylor writes, "It wasn't about figures. $100 million is a lot of money, but a life is priceless."  I must say that my first thought when I read this was that the central lesson of my first-year torts course at Stanford almost 45 years ago--which I consider the best course I've ever had, on any subject, anywhere (taught by Marc Franklin)--brought home the point that this statement is simply and utterly wrong.  The legal system prices human lives all the time; that is, among other things, what insurance policies are about, and, of course, the essence of tort law is to monetize the costs of what from a social perspective are completely foreseeable accidents.  We know, when we decide to build skyscrapers or major bridges, etc., that people are going to die.  Ditto, incidentally, with regard to raising speed limits on automobiles or continuing to allow the sale of alcohol in bars, etc., etc.  To be sure, we don't know exactly who is going to die, and that makes all the difference, just as Barack Obama doesn't know exactly whom he is sentencing to death when deploying troops or allowing the use of drones that will generate "collateral damage."  For many, that non-specificity makes all the difference.  Once we are presented with the picture of Mr. Foley, whose life could have been saved by the payment of a ransom, he becomes the "child in the well," where society spends an excess of funds to rescue the tot instead of spending the same money more wisely to save many more "statistical lives' unattached to particular faces.  And, of course, the difference between Mr. Foley and the child in the well is that we don't believe that rescuing the child will in fact create incentives for further children to fall down wells, whereas payment of ransom to thugs in fact does generate extremely bad incentives.  There is absolutely no excuse for what was done to Mr. Foley, but perhaps we have to treat war journalilsts the way we treat soldiers:  i.e., they voluntarily enlisted in a very dangerous occupation, for a mixture of reasons, including patriotism and devotion to the public weal, but part of the deal is that their lives will be on the line, to be protected only at "acceptable" cost.

Even if it is true that most of us consider our own lives "priceless," no society has ever operated on that basis, and none ever will.  

Comments:

Yes, it's a nice sentiment, but in real life, some value is placed, including when judging things where a life might be at risk.

Simple tasks like driving result in some loss of life. If life was "priceless," I wonder why we allow such things to go on.
 

If you pay ransoms, you get more kidnappings. Thus paying ransoms does not save lives at any ratio of cost per life saved. It costs lives.

So the question of how much a life is worth doesn't arise.
 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

I agree Brett. Over the course of the last couple of years ISIS has required increasingly large sums to be provided as ransom. Give the terrorist a dollar now and you'll be paying a lot more later.
 

More to the point, you'll be paying for future attacks. Every ransom actually increases their capacity to do damage.

Our best investment would be energy independence. The billions we pour into the Middle East to buy oil are subsidizing this madness. Without the oil revenue it stands a chance of burning out.
 

Brett's pretty syllogism only works if it is feasible to ban all ransoms. (Society and the kidnapped victims have to stick out the deaths and mutilations until the kidnappers learn you mean it.) In fact you cannot stop ransoms as private deals with families and employers. Thought experiment: the kidnapper of your child demands a ransom of $100 or else. Who would not pay?
 

Your analysis doesn't go far enough. In the USSA placing value on a human life is entirely messed up and irrational.

Once you're dead, whether in a Twin Towers disaster or a beheading, what your life was worth, according to the gummint, depends on how much you might have earned in the future, how much you've complicated your life with wives and children, and so on. This policy is, above all, insulting to the single and childfree.

And when a soldier is killed, what the gummint pays depends on how many dependents he had. This is as dumb a policy as ransoming hostages, since it encourages soldiers to marry and breed upon entering service, which only increases the costs to society if he should be killed.
 

Alas, inequality continues after death.
 

James, paying terrorists ransom pays for future kidnappings regardless of what your policy regarding paying ransoms is.
 

Just for the record, setting a value on life is not at all what insurance policies are about.
 

not sure what toad means
 

I meant that the value of a life insurance policy doe snot set a value on life in the way that Professor Levinson seems to suggest.

My decision to buy, say, a $1 million policy does not mean I value my life at $1 million. It means that, given my ability to pay the premiums, and my estimate of my dependents' needs should I die during the policy term, and the other resources they would have available, etc., I chose to buy a $1 million policy.
 

It's not an exact translation, sure, but insurance very well in some sense puts value on body parts and lives in various respects. There are, e.g., standard rates for such and such period of years, amounts you might earn etc.

Each person's life is not simply priceless and not able to translated into money. It's not the same thing, to be clear, but the same thing is true in regard to damages (though can be a subject of insurance too).
 

Joe,

My claim was limited to saying insurance was not a measure. I did not mean to suggest that it was not necessary, even sensible, to place value on life in many contexts.

Even in the cases where policies put specific values on loss of limb and the like, those values may be affected by the premium the insured is willing to pay.

In any case, it seemed to me that Prof. Levinson was saying that life insurance policies give us a sense of the value of life. But that is just not true. Two individuals whose age, health, life expectancies, and earning prospects are identical may sensibly choose much different sized policies.
 

NYT's website has an interesting video on US vs. European handling of kidnapping as well the differences among the latter (apparently Al Qaeda is a safer bet, relatively speaking).

I get what you are saying, t., I believe, but even in respect to a person choosing to get a certain amount, they are putting a certain value on life. And, as I noted, there are also some general insurance principles that apply, sort of "going rates," that matches Levinson's reference to at least some degree.
 

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