Tracing the History of the Value of Human Life

Human Life

“Here’s something for you to report” said Zherkov. “See if I don’t get promoted to a sublieutenancy.”
“Inform the prince that I the bridge fired!” said the colonel triumphantly and gaily.
“And if he asks about the losses?”
“A trifle” said the colonel in his bass voice: “two hussars wounded, and one knocked out,” he added…”

This conversation is an excerpt from “War and Peace”, the beautifully handcrafted classic novel by Leo Tolstoy. The setting of this novel is in 1805, Russia.
More than two centuries back, the value of human life was very different from what it is now, or so we would like to believe. The world has witnessed a number of wars after the Napoleonic era and is sure to witness a number of wars in the future as well. The value of human life in periods of war is usually low. The loss of one life is termed as “a trifle” even today but what has changed is the strong impulse among nations to go to war because they know the grave consequences of it.

If we trace the history of the importance of human life in wars, we can see an increasing trend, till the end of the First World War. We don’t need statistics or data to test this because the evidence can be found even if one carefully reads literature written in those periods. While reading ‘War and Peace’ I can’t help but compare it to “Gone with the Wind” which is set with the American Civil War as the background. The enthusiasm of war was unchanged in the 50 years that set the two apart but the rationality of the soldiers and the rationality of war was questioned by characters like Rhett Butler. The evolution of society’s idea of war is evident. The First World War showcased the socio-economic deterioration that follows a deadly period of war. It gave rise to leaders like Hitler whose belief of the superiority of the Aryan race lead to the genocide of completely innocent people. The value of human life dropped in this period because the society was ‘purged’ of several sections within society because of the whims and fancies of a powerful dictator. The entire episode can be summed up by the following phrase from George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984,
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

After the Second World War, the value of human life saw an ascending trend once again. Even today, wars continue to take place in different parts of the world but each life lost is taken seriously. There is awareness about the condition of the people living in Syria and governments are being chivied into action. Even if action is not always taken, the fact that people are talking about it means that we are taking a step in the right direction. The loss of lives due to terrorist attacks has become a cause for concern worldwide and the leaders of the world are joining hands in combating terrorism. There are marches in the USA to tighten gun control laws. The loss of human life due to negligence is being taken very seriously as seen in Russia recently.

This socio-cultural advance is reflected by the advance in medicine and medical technology that has been improving with each passing day and age. Population of developed and developing countries are now experiencing high life expectancies at birth because of low mortality rates. Infant and child mortality rates are declining and so is the maternal mortality rate. The least developed countries are yet to receive the benefits of these technologies but constant work is being done to make them available to larger and larger masses of people at affordable prices.

Having discussed the history of the value of human life in qualitative terms, one would obviously inquire about the value of life measured in quantitative terms. How can it be measured?

In Economics, there are two approaches to measuring the value of human life – the Human Capital; and the Willingness to Pay. Although the Human Capital Approach is widely used, it has shortcomings. It measures human life by the market value of the output produced by the individual during his or her expected lifetime. It cannot account for labour market imperfections like gender or racial discrimination. It also fails to account for the non- market value that life generates for people. According to this approach, a chronically unemployed person has a value of life equal to zero. The Willingness to Pay Approach, on the other hand, is based on how much money people are willing to pay for a small reduction in the probability of dying. For example, if the people in a society chose to spend Rs. 100 per person per year on some device (say, seatbelts) that reduces the probability of a person dying by 1 in 10,000. In this case, the imputed value of an average person’s life equals 1 million.

Interestingly, to understand the value attributed to a human life, it is essential to understand both the subjective and the objective measures associated with it.

– Contributed by Vinny

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