The Value Of A Life

What Is the Value of a Human Life?

This article from NPR’s This I Believe asks quite simply, what is the value of a person’s life. The author of this article was faced with this question when giving out settlements for 9/11 victims and victims of the Virginia Tech shootings.

First off I don’t believe that a dollar amount can be assigned to a human life. Unless we can quantify a dollar amount for one’s soul or the love they show others I don’t see how money can be traded for life. It’s been tried unsuccessfully before, but if we could trade ourselves in for a few hundred thousand dollars how many would sacrifice themselves for their families? I’d imagine quite a few.

The question for me is how this applies to immigrants and the current immigrant debate. This is important because the language of money seems to trump the language of love and compassion in our country. Rather than insure our ‘accounts’ are full of something so free to give as compassion we would prefer to bicker about who has what and who’s taking from whom.

Anti-migrant groups believe they have the God given right to disallow others the liberties they themselves enjoy. Instead of defending other’s rights to move about this world freely or to simply have a joyful life they’d rather bicker about their rights to have a big yard, plentiful food and two cars. They defend their singular right rather than the rights of all. Of course this isn’t said outright – it’s hidden behind their vilification of migrants who ‘take’ the things that Americans ‘deserve’. This would be fine, but it is made at the expense of others. These ‘others’ are simply seen as invaders and ‘invaders’ do not deserve anything but the firm hand of the law. By anti-migrant definition the act of crossing a border or overstaying a visa makes your life valueless.

Truly the idea that lives do or don’t have a value is nothing new. From the trading and purchase of slaves to murder through war we’ve been deciding the value of humans since the beginning of this country. Sometimes we’re worth two dollars, sometimes we’re worth a million dollars and sometimes we’re worth nothing. The tens of thousands slaughtered in Iraq can attest to the value we’ve placed on them. Of course our country is not the only country guilty of assigning a big zero to the value of other’s lives. Often times a person is only worth the price of a bullet.

The desire help others should be as innate as the desire to breath; yet, sadly it’s the desire to have more than others that prevails. If we are all born from the same flesh then why can we feel no connection to others? Why is some life more precious and valuable than others? Simply by a person’s looks or color of their skin their intrinsic value can drop like the barometric pressure before impending rain.

I won’t ask that anyone give anything of value away except the one thing that we can give from an endless supply – and that’s love and compassion. If you hold this simple value for the lives of others then it will not be necessary to put a monetary value on their lives. You will understand that a life is worth more than the greatest piece of art – it’s worth more than the richest person can afford and it’s certainly worth our simple and compassionate consideration.

As Kenneth Weinberg concludes in his study:

I have resolved my personal conflict and have learned a valuable lesson at the same time. I believe that public compensation should avoid financial distinctions which only fuel the hurt and grief of the survivors. I believe all lives should be treated the same.

Here in the United States we are watched by the world over as an example for many things. Currently the loud anti-migrant voices are an embarrassment to those of us who want this country to be a caring place. We much value all life, both that of Americans and that of everyone around the world. This value should drive us to make the right decisions in making sure this world becomes a better place.


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