How much is a human life worth? What price should society be willing to pay to save a single human life?
Theologian Miroslav Volf and philosopher John Hare (Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School) discuss Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fundamental question behind reopening the economy from COVID-19 lockdown, “How much is a human life worth?”
- Why should we go to such great lengths, sacrificing so much, to save a single human life?
- What about humans gives us dignity?
- How should we approach the dilemmas posed by incommensurable values, where there’s no agreed upon standard for comparison?
- How can we better frame the question of the value of human life by observing the life of Jesus?
“My conviction is that human life doesn't have a price. And I take this from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who distinguishes between the dignity human life has, and price. And dignity is, he says, incommensurable worth."
"Jesus came to be with us: Emmanuel. And that's what we have lost. We can't be with each other. … I think what we've learned through this is: A good human life is one that has physical contiguity with other humans."
"I was for some years working on the staff of Congress, and public policy decisions often came down to this question of comparing goods. I think a Christian has something to say about this, and it is, Miroslav, part of your work, that you've been thinking about what a good human life is like. One of the ways to look at that is to look at what the life ofJesus was like. And that gives us a sense of what's important, what matters. It doesn't answer all the questions, but it does give us a map, as it were, of how we should think about what is more important and what is less."
- Gov. Andrew Cuomo(NY) May 5 Press Briefing “What is the Worth of a Human Life?” https://abc7ny.com/politics/cuomo-on-reopening-how-much-is-a-human-life-worth/6153317/
- "Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Grant Us Peace”), a movement from Johan Sebastian Bach’s Mass in BMinor, performed by the Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffrsc3wdBt4
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
John Hare: Jesus came to be with us and that's what we haven't lost. We can't be with each other. And I think what we've learnt through this one thing is that a good human life is one that has physical contiguity with other humans.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. Hello friends, I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Just last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a briefing about reopening, framed the New York State response by appealing to the deeper question in a debate that has now unsurprisingly divided the country along political lines again.
Andrew Cuomo (recording): Decisions we make on reopening are really profound decisions. And the fundamental question, which were not articulated, is: how much do we think a human life is worth? There's a cost of staying closed, no doubt—economic costs, personal costs. There's also a cost of reopening quickly. The faster we reopened the lower the economic costs, but the higher the human costs because the more lives lost. That my friends is the decision we are really making.
Evan Rosa: And then a few minutes later in his remarks, he gives his own impression.
Andrew Cuomo (recording): To me, I say, cost of human life—a human life is priceless. Period.
Evan Rosa: Now if you are interested in the specifics, we'll post a link to our show notes for his full comments. But naturally for us on a podcast about seeking a life worthy of our humanity, our ears perked up. So Miroslav reached out to his friend and philosopher, John Hare, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, and author of several books, including God and Morality: A Philosophical History, Why Bother Being Good?, The Moral Gap, and more recently, God's Command. As you can tell, he's written extensively on ethics and morality. Here, Miroslav and John speak directly to the framing of this question of the worth of a human life in terms of price or cost. They consider why we should go to such great lengths, sacrificing so much to save a single human being. They ask what about humans gives us dignity. The dilemmas posed by incommensurable values, where there's no agreed upon standard for comparison, and how to better frame the question of the value of human life by observing the life of Jesus. Oh, and when there's an opportunity to connect the conversation to Johann Sebastian Bach, why not to do so?
Thanks for listening.
Miroslav Volf: John, thank you for taking time for this conversation. Our topic is how much is a human life worth. Now this is the question that Governor Andrew Cuomo posed in the course of one of his briefings. He presides over New York State, as you know, a state in the US that has more COVID cases than any other. A different way to put the same question would be to say, "What price should society pay to save sick people from dying?"
Now as we know, people who are most susceptible to COVID-19 are elderly people. So the question is even more pointed, "How much is elderly human life worth?" Life that is close to its natural end; life that no longer contributes economically very much at least, or artistically, or scientifically to the good of society, at least from the perspective of many people. Now as this country and other countries around the globe are thinking about or engaged in easing the lockdown so as to revive the economies, that is the question—the worth of human life, price put on human life—that we need to answer.
On the extreme of one side are those who carry slogans, like "sacrifice the weak," or maybe those who perhaps less extremely, insist that there are more important things than living. And on the other side of the debate are those who don't want to spare any costs. And obviously this is a really complicated question to answer it properly. We probably need to consult disciplines like economics, public health, medicine, and many others. But I think you would agree with me that at its core, this is a moral question. You are a moral philosopher. So, this is why you're here. How much is a human life worth? To what lengths should we go? What costs should we be willing to take or spend to preserve every life? Do we have enough money to pay for all the lives that need rescuing? Or is this perhaps a wrong kind of question?
John Hare: I think it's a wrong question, wrongly posed because it asks how much is a human life worth. And then it talks about price. And my conviction is that human life doesn't have a price. And I take this from the philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, who distinguishes between dignity human life has and price. And dignity is, he says, "incommensurable worth." So if you would take a ballpoint pen, you could put a price on it. It would be worth a certain amount of money. But human life, you can't put a price on it. That's why we don't have slavery. You can't put a price on human life. It's beyond price. And this question, if it's posed in terms of price, it fails to see this fundamental distinction between price and dignity.
Miroslav Volf: Now, in our public sensibilities, cultural sensibilities, we also sense that there are things that money should not be able to procure for us. Whole books have been written about this. But what's the difference between this kind of incommensurable worth of human life and many other things that so we shouldn't be paying for? For instance, love. We shouldn't be paying for love. So is there a difference between these different kinds of things that money should not be able to buy?
John Hare: So I think all of these things that have intrinsic value, like love, or sanctity in marriage, or beauty, they are all of them part of human life. They are part of what makes human life sacred. That's what gives human life dignity. And when we talk about the dignity of human life, we're not talking only about physical life or physical health. We're talking about the whole constellation of values that make humans human. And many of those things have intrinsic value. But their value is not independent of what it is to be human because they constitute what it is to be human.
Miroslav Volf: And so how would you put why human life has this dignity, to use Kant's term? What gives it that dignity?
John Hare: That's a very good question. For Christians, the answer is we're made in the image of God. And if we ask now, "What is that image?" There have been many answers. Some people would say it's capacities that we have, like the capacity for reason. I don't like that because I think that leaves some human beings out. And the same is true if we answer it's functions that we have like stewardship or the stewardship of creation. And I think that leaves some human beings out.
And I don't think we should say simply that we have value because God loves us because I think when God looked at the creation and he saw the human beings that he'd made, he saw that they were good. We have to have an account of that goodness. And what I want to say is this goodness derives from God's goodness because what we're called towards, our destination, is a union with God, a union of love with God. And I think that's a unique love, a unique love to each one of us. Each one of us loves God in a unique way, and we're called to that. And it's that call and that destination that gives us our dignity.
Miroslav Volf: But so, in the Christian account of creation, God pronounces many things, indeed everything that is created as good. So the particular good that confers dignity that human beings have is something very specific. Is that connected with possibility of the response of human beings to God or what gives them that particular dignity, inviolability?
John Hare: Notice in Genesis, after everything else he'd created, he saw that it was good, but when he added human beings, You saw that it was very good. And I do think that there is something particularly human about our response, this union of wills that we have with God. We enter into the love that is between the persons of the Trinity. I don't know whether there are other species that can do that. I don't think we know enough to answer that question, but it does seem to be something particularly human.
Miroslav Volf: But does that take you back to the certain kind of proper functioning or certain kinds of capacities that's specific to human beings?
John Hare: Well, it is a capacity, a freedom, but it's not a capacity that is linked only to this life. So I can't look at a special needs person, perhaps, and say that person doesn't have the capacity for this special relation with God. And the same is true with old people. I'm an old person.
Miroslav Volf: Most of us are getting there.
John Hare: I don't think that my value has diminished in terms of my relationship with God that I'm called towards.
Miroslav Volf: Right. And that calling towards is what roots the dignity more than anything else if I understand you correctly. But you mentioned also that it's not limited to the physical life, right? That's the aspect of human life as a whole. But what risks should we take when it comes to our physical life? Obviously when we're talking about COVID primarily, we're talking about physical life that's being here protected. So can you say something about the relationship between our physicality and other goods that attend to this physicality that give our lives dignity?
John Hare: Yes. So I think physical life is a necessary condition for many of these other goods. And the same is true with our physical health, a necessary condition, but not the whole story. And sometimes it's worth risking physical life and physical health for the sake of these other goods. So I want to give you one concrete example of this. There are many other examples, but this one will focus our discussion. The example is singing Bach.
Miroslav Volf: I love Bach. You have me there already. He's my favorite composer.
John Hare: I, for many years of my life, sang the B Minor Mass every year.
Miroslav Volf: Oh, my goodness. That's such a beautiful piece of music. It's incredible.
John Hare: I know the bass part by heart.
Singing is particularly dangerous in terms of COVID because when you sing, there are these little droplets that you project. And some people have said, "Well, we should stop; we should stop singing in choirs." But this choir that I'm thinking of, if they're going to sing the B Minor Mass in May of next year, 2021, they have to start practicing now. Can they justify the risk? Suppose they can space themselves as they rehearse and they're 10 feet apart and they can still see the conductor. There is an increase in the risk, but my conviction is as long as they can keep that safeguard in place, they should go ahead because singing Bach is one of the things that makes us human.
Miroslav Volf: Some of us aren't quite as human as you are, John! We don't sing it. We listen to it.
John Hare: It's not necessary. It's a very great good. The old theologians would have called it "a perfection."
Miroslav Volf: So that's the kind of risk that we as individuals undertake—maybe public health has to say something about this as well and regulate it. But primarily, it concerns the kind of individual that takes risk. And I think in terms of risk-taking or sacrificing goods, including one's life, as a personal decision that has been fundamental, not just to Christian faith, but to live more generally. We all can decide at what point we can sacrifice life to some greater good and maybe we should think more carefully about what these things, what these conditions are.
But nonetheless, that's something that we do, and that we can do, and indeed, we price very highly when somebody does. And supreme example for us as Christians: Christ self-sacrifice. He gave his life, even though it was taken from him by other, it was his to decide. But we're facing here not just personal aspect of this, but public aspect of this. And for me, I have a close friend who was also in my wedding who contracted COVID and who spent close to 25 days in intensive care unit.
John Hare: Yes.
Miroslav Volf: And he has come out of this, but I think according to some estimations, one day in ICU costs about $30,000. Now to what lengths, in this way, should we go in order to save that life? Was that right? I'm delighted that my friend is well, but a lot of people put pressure on this and obviously utilitarians are well-known for reflecting on those questions. Do you think that's the kind of public side of things also that we need to tend to and how would you go about doing so?
John Hare: So I'm not a utilitarian all the way down. My father was a great utilitarian. At the end of his life, he conceded that there was a large part of a morality that he had not been able to capture with his theory. And it was the domain of what he called ideals. So I want to put a caution in here about the notion of balancing because often we speak as though we were balancing the value of the human life against the $30,000. But balancing is a metaphor where you have commensurable units. You've got to balance two pans with weights going up and down and they're commensurable with each other. And what I said at the beginning of this was that dignity is incommensurable worth. So, I don't want to say that a human life is worth $30,000.
Actually, I don't think it's worth $10 million either. But it is true that we have to rank goods, as a matter of public policy. We have to compare them. I was for some years working on the staff of Congress and public policy decisions often came down to this question of comparing goods. I think a Christian has something to say about this and it's—Miroslav, a part of your work that you'd been thinking about—what a good human life is like. And one of the ways to look at that is to look at what the life of Jesus was like. And that gives us a sense of what's important, what matters. It doesn't answer all the questions, but it does give us a map as it were of how we should think about what is more important than what is less.
Miroslav Volf: Anything more concrete that you could say on that question, in the case of my friend, $1 million that was spent? Because that's what people are pressing on. We get to the even incommensurability. We get the idea that this is not a simple balance. I'm not paying for this life. Let's put it in those terms. This is not the cost of this life, but I have to make a decision. How much money should I spend, as you talked about as well in your work for the Congress? How much money we should spend in order to resolve this crisis, whatever that crisis might be, including this one? And then suddenly utilitarians start gaining a upper hand.
John Hare: Yes. So I think we should spend the million dollars to save your friend's life.
Miroslav Volf: I'm really relieved, but tell me why.
John Hare: It is because this physical life is a necessary condition for all the other human goods. Not, perhaps, all of them because I don't think our relationship to God requires the continuation of our physical life here on earth. But nonetheless, from very many of the human goods, the physical life is a necessary condition. And it's not just for your friend because we should think universally; we should think that this is every human life that we have in front of us. So it's right to give human life the priority over most other goods because it's a necessary condition for most of those other goods.
I don't want to say that's unlimited. So at some point, if you're, let's say, trying to save somebody who's trapped underground and the chances of getting that person out alive decreased day by day and the expenses mountain. At some point, you have to say, "That's enough; we can't go on any further." So I don't want to say it's unlimited, but I do think it's worth a million.
Miroslav Volf: And presumably this would be a prudential decision that cannot be made in advance. In concrete situations, we have to make it. This takes us back to the point that you made earlier in our conversation, and that was that a Christian way of approaching many of these issues is to look at what we describe as incarnation of the good life with regard to Jesus Christ. He's the Kingdom of God, the fulfillment of God's designs for humanity concretely in-person, but under conditions of sin. And so in some ways, that takes us both this systemic reflection because we were thinking about the Kingdom and not just about the individual lives, but also personal dimension takes us back to the life of a life of Christ. What can we learn in the situation of COVID pandemic about what is good life when we observe the life of Christ?
John Hare: There are many things, but I want to start with one: Jesus came to be with us—Emmanuel. And that's what we have lost. We can't be with each other. The body that Jesus gives us in the Eucharist and we can't take Eucharist. And I think what we've learned through this one thing is that a good human life is one that has physical contiguity with other humans, the body that he gave to us.
Miroslav Volf: And, in his own life and ministry, the importance of touch and being with people and even being physically in touch with them. How about the issue with which we started our conversation and that's the question of what's the worst of human life. What did we learn, in the way in which you reframe this question, about the dignity of human life from that one life of Jesus Christ?
John Hare: So, each year human life is worth his death. He died for us, for each one of us. So we learn what value he placed on our lives by his willingness to die.
Miroslav Volf: May we prove ourselves to be worthy followers of Jesus Christ. John, thank you for this interview.
John Hare: Thank you.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured philosopher, John Hare, in conversation with theologian, Miroslav Volf. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. Additional editing and production assistance by Karen Franzen.
We also played a segment of Dona Nobis Pacem, a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor, performed by the Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaki Suzuki. Check out the show notes for a link to the full piece. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We release a new episode every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app, so you'd never miss an episode.
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