The Value of a Human Life


Nassau Weekly Article (4/24/86)

By Randy Schoenberg

What is the value of one human life in 1986? In civil court, ruining a lie can be worth up to $10 million—depending on how good the life’s lawyer is. In criminal court, it can be worth 10 years to life imprisonment. And for taking an extraordinary good life in a particularly bad way, only another life will suffice as payment. Out of court, the case is not so clear.

Muammar Qaddafi pays $12,000 to the family of a suicide hit-man.

Today, many political groups are trying to put a price on life. The tendency is to price a life differently for each political issue. For example, anti-abortionists, usually conservative in nature—Ronald Reagan is typical—proclaim that “every human life is of equal worth and is worthy of protection and loving care….” (From Abortion in America, Gary Bergel.) Yet, many of these same people consider some lives less equal than others. They support the death penalty. They favor “preemptive strikes of self-defense” against homes of terrorists. They like to build bombs that can kill millions of people.

Liberals are no better. They say that an unborn life is not worthy of protection, and favor abortion as a necessary evil. Ending some human lives is preferable to social turmoil and loss of freedom, they say. Yet most oppose military actions with heavy tolls in human life, even if the cause is “freedom” or “the good of society.”

I must say that I, too, am caught in this ideological dilemma. It is not one which I can solve today, but one which I am in the process of investigating. There are many side-effects of the confusion which has ensued from the ideological inconsistencies of our politicians.

The most noticeable, although I doubt anybody has noticed it yet, is that we have to elect a president who is insane. The leader of our country must be willing to say that if the United States is attacked by a nuclear power, he will order the launch of our nuclear weapons, and thereby end life on this planet. Americans have so convinced themselves of the high value of their lives, that they cannot imagine a world without them. As a matter of fact, they would rather everybody die, than have life go on after their death. Behavior like this is in any less dramatic a situation would be immediately characterized as insane. What would you say of a man, who, having contracted AIDS from the guy downstairs, decides to blow up the apartment building? It’s a more severe case of the poor loser, who ruins the game just because he was the first to lose.

The “insane leader syndrome” is tied in with an extreme jingoism. Loss of American lives, or better yet, justice (revenge?) for American lives taken, mandates that we drop bombs on aggressors—no matter how many are killed as a result. The attack on Libya killed 37 people plus two American pilots; that makes 39. The “terrorist” response has taken four, and almost 400 more. If Colonel Qaddafi were an American, he would be tried in a court of law and, if convicted, imprisoned or given the death penalty. Because he lives in Libya, we bomb his house and kill his children. Furthermore, we expect our European allies to take the counterattacks with a smile. As long as fewer American lives are lost, we say, the attack is a success.

Most people make a distinction between “innocent” and “guilty” lives. Conservatives say unborn fetuses are “innocent” and therefore should not be killed; convicted murderers and terrorists are “guilty” and so deserve death. I do not dismiss these decision-making criteria. I do question whether they are consistent. The Libyans and Nicaraguans are “guilty” because they have killed “innocent” people. We retaliate by killing, or helping to kill, more “innocent” people. In the eyes of America, Qaddafi and Ortega are guilty. In the eyes of Libya and Nicaragua, Reagan is guilty. Who decides?

Driving laws reflect the value that society puts on human life. Speed limits use to be 75 mph on many American highways. Lowering them to 55 has saved some number of lives, and there’s every reason to believe that lowering them further would save even more lives. But very few people would like to see the speed limits lowered. They are making a choice, opting for speed and convenience over the preservation of some human lives. Are we waging a war against terrorists because they inhibit our ability to speed conveniently to Europe and back?

There are consistent positions, but few people hold them. Anyone who openly proclaims that human life should be subservient to the good of society would be immediately labeled as fascist. Anyone who announces a hatred of all violence, even in self-defense, would be a pacifist or a conscientious objector. I think the Pope comes closest to the latter extreme, although his followers are often less exemplary. Perhaps he has learned from the mass murders and wars, committed in the name of religion. But, then again, if I had a billion followers (many poor and starving), lived in a huge palace, and governed over one of the largest fortunes in the world, I would be all for peace and stability, too.

It’s hard to put a price on a human life. Sometimes I think that some people must be sacrificed in the name of freedom or society. However, I also think that killing is the most heinous crime a person, or society, can commit. All that I know for sure is that I don’t want to be killed, and I don’t want to risk my own life for freedom or society; I am more comfortable with other people fighting and killing for me. Most people probably feel the same way.

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