Compare opinions of world leading experts and influencers.

Can you put a price on life?

It is frequently claimed that you can't put a price on life. However, this view is somewhat contradicted by our real-world institutions, such as healthcare, insurance, and justice, which often do precisely that. Is putting a price tag on a person justified?

Implications to Other Questions

Is abortion morally acceptable?
Can you put a price on life?

Experts and Influencers

Suggest Expert Quote (click to expand, no login required)
Experts In Economics

Glenn Blomquist    Economics Professor
Estimates from risk compensating wage differences, consumption activity which affects risk, and hypothetical markets yield values of life in a range from $1 million to $9 million. ... Value of life typically refers to an amount of money an individual is willing to trade for a small change in his or her own probability of survival. This definition is typical because this situation is typically what individuals face in life and what decision makers face in public policy.
01 Feb 2000    Source

Doug Casey    Economist, Investor, Author
We hear a lot of public agonizing from Washington and the chattering classes about the "infinite" value of a "priceless" human life. ... What is a human life worth to you? Let's take the emaciated Ethiopian... A dollar a month? ...$10? ...$100? ...$1,000? Almost certainly not. So that child's life actually has a real dollar value to the person who's going to write the check. Forget the generalities about infinite value. That only washes if you're spending other people's money...
28 Mar 2002    Source

Experts In Philosophy

Peter Singer    Philosophy Professor
[The] approach to setting a value on a human life is at least closer to what we really believe — and to what we should believe — than dramatic pronouncements about the infinite value of every human life... Though such feel-good claims may have some symbolic value in particular circumstances, to take them seriously and apply them — for instance, by leaving it to chance whether we save one life or a billion — would be deeply unethical.
15 Jul 2009    Source

Ezekiel Emanuel    Bioethicist, White House Health Policy Advisor
Patients were to receive whatever services they needed, regardless of its cost. Reasoning based on cost has been strenuously resisted; it violated the Hippocratic Oath, was associated with rationing, and derided as putting a price on life. ... Indeed, many physicians were willing to lie to get patients what they needed from insurance companies that were trying to hold down costs. ... There is no consensus about what substantive principles should be used to establish priorities for allocations.
27 Aug 2009    Source

Experts In Politics

Michele Bachmann    US Politician, Republican
Emanuel wants doctors to look beyond the needs of their patient and consider social justice, such as whether the money would be better spent on someone else. This is a horrific notion to our Nation's doctors, but it is a horrific notion to each American because doctors believe, as Americans believe, that social justice is given out one patient at a time.
27 Jul 2009    Source

Sarah Palin    Former Governor of Alaska (Republican)
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil. Health care by definition involves life and death decisions. Human rights and human dignity must be at the center of any health care discussion. ... [It's] Orwellian thinking...
08 Aug 2009    Source

Experts In Health

Andrew Von Eschenbach    Former Head of Food & Drug Administration
Nancy Desmond    CEO of the Center for Health Transformation
If cost-benefit becomes a primary objective in government-run health care, then government would be in the business of putting a market value on human life, no different than a property appraiser values a home. We know Americans do not want this type of rationing, which would deprive our citizens of life-saving screenings just because they might not be worth the cost on the front end. You can't put a price on human life.
24 Nov 2009    Source


Add Your TakeOnIt (click to expand, no login required)
0 Points      the27th      09 May 2010      Stance on Question: Agree
Yes. We put a price on life whenever we accept some probability of risk in exchange for money.

1 Point      Adam Atlas      20 Apr 2010      Stance on Question: Agree
Let's be clear about what this means: if you claim that life is infinitely valuable, then you claim that you would spend an infinite amount of money to save even one life. You also claim that a million lives are no more valuable than one (it's all the same infinity) and therefore that if it does come down to spending money to save lives, and you have the choice between saving a million lives or saving one for the same amount of money, then there is no basis for preferring one over the other (as Peter Singer points out).

Suppose an insane and insanely wealthy scientist kidnaps you and presents you with a conundrum. A hostage is tied to a chair, duct tape over their mouth, suspended over a tank of sharks. The scientist's hunchbacked assistant wheels out several large crates. He open one to reveal bricks of gold. "I've placed one billion dollars' worth of gold in these crates," the scientist says. "You have two choices. You can take this gold and never hear from me again, in which case my hostage will be killed. Or you can request that the hostage be released unharmed, in which case I will keep the gold. What is your choice?"

What is your choice?

I'm sure some people would rather let the hostage live, but many who are fond of saying "You can't put a price on human life" (pundits, politicians, preachers, and people who believe them) would change their tune if it actually came down to a stark choice like this. I'd also bet that many people who would claim (and even believe) that they'd turn down the money would not be quite as good at resisting if those crates were actually right there in front of them (even less so if the hostage were in a different room, unseen).

Yes, I'd take it. Even if I were forced to watch the hostage being killed — even if I were forced to personally kill the hostage — I hope that I would have the moral strength to do it. I would let one person die, take the billion dollars, and use it to save as many people as I possibly could.

0 Points      Belisarius      13 Aug 2010      General Comment
"and use it to save as many people as I possibly could."

Haha, sure you would, chief. You couldn't even save one life in favour of profit, what makes you think anyone would believe that now that all that money's in your unscrupulous hands you'd suddenly share it with the rest of the world, let alone to SAVE people after you've set this precedent? Especially since you went through the effort to kill someone to obtain it.

0 Points      Benja      13 Aug 2010      General Comment
"Haha, sure you would, chief."
You think this issue is a laughing matter? If so, please at least be funny. Being sarcastic towards someone who is being sincere makes you, in this instance, an a-hole. I'd far prefer to entrust my life in his hands to yours. You've shown nothing but irrationality and prejudice. If you're thinking of replying to this with a rational argument please do. If you intend to reply with more rhetoric, don't bother, because you'll get moderated. This website is about fostering civil debate. Not about insulting people. Least of all those who genuinely are trying to state what they believe is the right thing to do, even if it's unpopular.

1 Point      Benja      20 Apr 2010      General Comment
How much money would an insanely wealthy scientist need to donate to the charity of your choice in order for you to sacrifice your own life?

0 Points      Adam Atlas      20 Apr 2010      General Comment
A good question, and one that I hope I never have to answer. I'll think about it, though I'd need to figure out what charities have the highest expected utilities, my own time's expected utility (probably varying significantly over the years), how long I expect to live, etc. Some of those factors are pretty big unknowns for me, so I don't know if I could give a meaningful answer.

1 Point      Adam Atlas      20 Apr 2010      General Comment
After rereading my comments, I was worried I might have been hypocritical — was I saying I'd bravely sacrifice someone else's life but avoiding saying the same about my own? It sounded like it, in retrospect. I feel a bit evil. But there are two relevant differences that I noticed: In the situation I posed, I'd have to assume (in the absence of any usable evidence) that the hostage was fairly average (i.e. not likely to be responsible for >$1 billion of utility if they live), and afterwards I'd have as much time as I'd need to figure out how to maximize the utility of the $1 billion, distributing it over time as charities become more and less effective. (I'd expect that most charities would have no idea what to do if they got a donation of a billion dollars all at once.)

If I had actually figured out in advance what charities had the highest expected utility, and assuming hypothetically that the money would otherwise not be used for philanthropy, then $1 billion would probably be well enough to get me to sacrifice my own life.

0 Points      Benja      21 Apr 2010      General Comment
OK, let's say you're not the hostage. You find out however, that the hostage is an insanely wealthy scrooge — in fact — that's where the evil scientist will get the money from. You also find out the scrooge earned that money from insider trading (or pick whatever income source you want to maximize the ethical / legal conundrum).