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5 ways of valuing a human being
Ever wondered how much you're worth?
- Most of us like to think the value of a life is priceless, but numerous institutions have put a price on human beings in the past.
- These estimates vary depending on the scope.
- From just $90 to nearly $10 million, how much is a human being worth?
How much are you worth? Maybe the first thing to come to mind is what's left over after you add up all of your assets and subtract all your debts, but most of us would balk at the idea that that's our actual value. What about the value of your perspicacity, your intelligence, your sense of humor?
How do you put a price on how important you are to the people who love you in your life, or what potential contributions you may make to society over the course of your life? Depending on your scope, calculating the value of a human life can come up with some wildly different estimates. Here are some of the prices that we've put on ourselves.
According to Immanuel Kant, you can't put a price on human dignity. Imagge source: Wikimedia Commons
This is almost certainly the default and preferred position of most human beings — that their life, and by extension all others, is so valuable that putting a price tag on it is not a useful concept.
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that "everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity." For Kant, humanity and human rationality had dignity. They are irreplaceable, and so cannot be valued in price.
Kant was best known for his moral philosophy, but philosophy often fails to persist when applied to the real world. Human dignity may not have a price, but various institutions have tried to price it anyways.
2. About $10 million
When determining policies, institutions can't make evidence-based judgements by assigning human life an infinite value. Instead, they use a concept called the "value of a statistical life." This is different than the value of an actual life, which may very well be priceless. The value of a statistical life is easiest to understand through an example.
Say 100,000 people have a disease that has a 1/100,000 chance of killing them in a year. Suppose that they were each willing to pay $100 for a medication that would protect them from this 1 in 100,000 chance. If they all bought the medication, then we would expect to see one fewer death in that group of 100,000 — a statistical life saved. In this circumstance, the value of a statistical life would be $10 million: $100 for the medication × 100,000 people = $10 million = 1 statistical life. In essence, the value of a statistical life is a way of putting a price on a single life by measuring how much people are willing to pay for small reductions in their risk of mortality.
Government agencies use this method to make policy decisions, and they come up with varying figures. One of the highest, however, is the figure the EPA has come up with: coincidentally, also just about $10 million. Specifically, the EPA uses $7.4 million in 2006 dollars and then adjusts for inflation, which works out to be $9.4 million in 2019; figures can vary for a given project or program.
Photograph of an enslaved family taken in 1862.
This number represents the average price of a slave when the South seceded from the Union adjusted to today's prices. At that time, a slave cost on average $800 (in 1860 dollars). However, the price could vary considerably: 25-year-old males were valued the most, but this could change depending on the slave's height, health, skills, vices, history of escape attempts, and so on.
If we simply adjusted that $800 price for inflation, we'd get about $25,000, but adjusting for inflation on these timescales isn't entirely accurate. Why? Because even economic historians use different measures and indexes depending on the context of the question. Consumer behavior was very different in the 1800, so the value of a dollar was commensurately different. That is, the value of a dollar may have inflated considerably, but the perceived value of a specific good or service even more so.
We know what $25,000 gets us today, but hardly any of those things were available or priced similarly in the 1800s. So, depending on the method used, the value of a slave in the 19th century can vary considerably — perhaps as high to what we modernly consider $150,000. One commonly cited figure, however, is that a slave cost $40,000 in today's dollars.
Tragically, slavery has persisted, and the practice has become even more heartless. Today, the global average cost of a slave is just $90, according to Kevin Bales of the University of Nottingham and the Free the Slaves NGO. There are a few possible explanations for this dramatic drop in price. First, the supply of slaves is greater than it ever has been before. It's far easier to acquire slaves than it was a couple of centuries ago. In addition, slaves in the early U.S. were treated as long-term investments; today, slave owners are more likely to abandon or kill injured or sick slaves rather than pay for medical treatment.
5. A little less than $1,000
Let's say you had an incredible machine that could instantly break up any molecules into their constituent elements, and, since you are an extremely morbid person with more curiosity than benevolence, you dump a human body into this device. Ninety-nine percent of the body is made up of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, so we'll see what these elements are worth.
Assuming you chucked a 70 kg (150 lb) human body into your machine, you would get 43 kg of oxygen, 16 kg of carbon, 7 kg of hydrogen, 1.8 kg of nitrogen, 1 kg of calcium, and 0.78 kg of phosphorus. Based off of this table, you could then sell these materials for about $989.20: $129 for the oxygen, $384 for the carbon, $35 for the hydrogen, $7.2 for the nitrogen, $200 for the calcium, and $234 for the phosphorus.
Of course, this is really just some back-of-the-napkin math. Prices vary depending on the market, and there's a whole bunch of other elements in your body that could contribute, like gold and potassium, that are in small quantities but could still be very valuable. The point of this exercise is, however, that the body by itself isn't worth very much.
- What is human dignity? A brief history. - Big Think ›
- What is human dignity? A brief history. - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.