How Much Do You Cost?

» April 11th, 2014

An interesting piece in today’s Times’ business page, written by a Princeton economist, explores an idea that we rarely consider and may not want to: the fact that we routinely place monetary value on human life. The conventional default position is to get all righteous and say something like “all human life is sacred”; that all life is valuable in terms of intrinsic rather than monetary worth; that no dollar amount can represent it. But, as Uwe E. Reinhardt reminds us, commercial culture operates according to a less humane calculus.

Take insurance. He writes, “those who preside over private and public health insurance funds, Congress included, at some point have to ask themselves at what price they can afford to buy additional life years for people insured with those collectively financed funds, which are, after all, finite.”

And it’s not just in the realm of insurance that we seek to monetize human life. Every time we purchase a consumer good that has the potential to harm us we place ourselves on the right side of an equation calculated by strangers interested in hedging the cost of production at the expense of our welfare.

Tellingly, Reinhardt explains how the Ford Motor Company, in choosing to not move its Pinto’s gas tank to a safer spot at a cost of $11 per car, did so according to the economic rationale that every human life lost to the dangerously placed gas tank would be worth about $200,000. That’s not only a small fraction of what the CEO of Ford took in every year, but it places every Pinto driver who survived the experience in the infuriating position of having earned the company 200K for gambling with their lives (with pennies).

We might recoil at the fact that “some unknown person within Ford could blithely assume on behalf of all Pinto buyers that the value of avoiding a horrible death or injury from a burning Pinto was as low as the company had assumed,” but if you purchase or even use something as ubiquitous as a motor vehicle—or have a life insurance policy— you are participating in a system that decidedly does not see your life as sacred as your mother does.

It’s interesting to explore the implications of these unpleasant economic realities for animals. I’m perfectly comfortable arguing against the unnecessary consumption of animals on the grounds that it’s an easy way to avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering and, as a result, it’s a good idea not to eat them. To a very large extent, my gut reaction of disgust over what’s required to raise and kill and animals for food that could easily be replaced with plants undergirds my animal advocacy. That’s the simple part of it.

But when it comes to grappling with the more philosophical reasons for why this position is the epitome of truth and justice, matters become thornier. It would be lovely to say that all animals have intrinsic worth—worth that trumps any effort to place a monetary value on their lives—and leave it at that. It’s so lovely in fact that I have, on innumerable occasions, said it. But is it an idea that we can honestly live by where it all matters: in the ebb and flow of daily life?

Supporters of improved animal welfare believe we cannot. The Humane Society, the Slow Food Movement, the ASPCA, Joel Salatin and his zany acolytes—all of thee groups measure animal compassion by the dollar. Pressuring the producers of animal products to adopt more extensive and humane methods of production (and the two always go hand in hand), these influential organizations and individuals, consciously or not, reduce the lives of animals—as well as their treatment—to an economic calculus every bit as hard bitten as that used by the Ford Motor Company to keep the tank in explosive territory.

Now, I would love to consider myself above this kind of calculating logic. But, for one, I reluctantly support efforts to improve the lives of animals that will indeed become food. In doing so (as a means to make animal lives better as we push for an end to their consumption altogether), I also reluctantly support a reality that measures their happiness, and eventually their flesh, by the dollar and the pound. I’m not using a scale, but somebody is.

Even if I assumed a more extreme abolitionist position (which I once did), and fundamentally opposed any system of owning and commodifying animals, I’d still face a rash of challenges to my belief that animals cannot be reduced to an economic value. First, there would be the conundrum I’d confront of treating animals’ lives as having intrinsic, non-monetized worth while denying that same treatment to humans (as I have no inclination to drop out of commercial life).

Second, and more controversially, as the guardian/companion of several rescue animals I cannot say in good faith that I’d treat their medical problems with the same view of life’s worth as I would my children’s. At some point, I’d end up placing an economic value on my companion animal’s life. I would not, for example, liquidate all my assets to pay for medical treatment that would save the lives of Willie, George, Claus, Boy Cat, or Fluffy. I would, without a second thought, do that for the human members of my immediate family. By virtue of that admission, I do not believe that all animal life has intrinsic worth.

I feel a bit emotionally naked writing that last line, but there is, perhaps, no price to be placed  on honesty.



20 Responses to How Much Do You Cost?

  1. John T. Maher says:

    Any discussion of intrinsic worth (inherent value) involves all the usual suspects in analytic philosophy (maybe not Hare’s Utiltiarianism so much) and can not easily be summarized in the comment box herein. Most such discussions revolve around differing levels of cognitive ethology, sentience, abstract thought, social order, and Agamben’s concept of bare life v. sacred life. For me the discussion is pointless and should be extended to this: why should humans be assumed to have an intrinsic worth? Whether you agree or not, the world treats the majority of humans as worthless. Climate change and the end of the modern lifestyle is about to extend this in practice. to those of you who can see the sublime in mere humanity, I envy you.

    • James says:

      You write, “why should humans be assumed to have an intrinsic worth? Whether you agree or not, the world treats the majority of humans as worthless.”

      Doesn’t your second sentence suggest an answer to the first?

      I’m put in the mind of all of those crazies who protest family planning clinics. They go on and on about the intrinsic life of a fetus—a fetus, for chrissakes—but often refuse to grant such intrinsic worth to the majority of humans and non-humans that inhabit their world.

      They may have matters backwards, but they do show the extent humans will go to protect the idea of intrinsic worth when there is a belief in it, however misguided.

      Do those who protest zoos or vivisectionists not have the same idea in mind, albeit more accurately applied?

  2. Bob says:

    You should have a look at Chapters 5 and 6 of Lori Gruen’s Animalkind. She has some helpful things to say there about this problem.

  3. Anim says:

    Humans do not have intrinsic worth-not according to nature and not according to humans, whatever the platitudes we spout to the contrary. The main issue in animal rights is the myth of human moral supremacy. Not sentience, not speciesism. Argue with someone about animal rights and it always comes back to the same thing–the assumption whether declared or implied, that humans have superior moral worth. Often people try to use emergency hypothetical situations to show that human life matters more-but when these scenarios are proposed-they always leave something out. What if the emergency scenario was choosing a family member over a stranger? Or one family member over another? Or what if it was choosing someone speaking your language over someone who did not? Race, gender, religion, appearance, age… If you choose the familiar, does it mean that the loser deserves to be systemically exploited? Ditto for the situation with nonhuman animals. And remember-not everybody has cozy relations with their family. Not only would some sacrifice their life savings for a companion animal, some have even left all their money to companion animals over human relatives! Some value money more than their own lives. Some dont value money at all. That’s the way humans are. Whenever someone tells me humans have superior moral worth as some kind of instinct of axiomatic truth I just ask them-do you lock your door at night? Are safety caps on bottles intended to prevent bears and chipmunks from tampering? Human moral supremacy is a (silly) idea-not a fact. That’s why I wont call it speciesism–it invites the nonsense that every species is speciesist. It may be true that any human is capable of being a racist or sexist regardless of race or gender-but what we really mean when discussing animal rights is the idea that humans have superior moral worth and can systemically discriminate based on that idea. Only humans can be shown to do this. So, how much does a human or nonhuman cost? In the end, it doesnt really matter for the issues in question–form meat consumption to pet ownership to zoos.

  4. Ron says:

    You are merely saying that you are closer to your children than your animals and thus are willing to take greater responsibility for them. But that has nothing to do with whether animals have intrinsic worth or not.

    • James says:

      I’m not sure I agree. My suggestion is that it might indicate more than a personal emotional preference limited to the critters in my household. Would I lend half my salary to fund an operation that would possibly save the life of a good friend’s father, whom I did not know while refusing to lend that money to fund an operation that would possibly save the life of a good friend’s beloved Cocker Spaniel? I’m not going to answer that question here, other than to say that the scenario I ended my piece with suggests that more might be at stake than personal choice.

  5. Ron says:

    But if you made the decision not to fund that friend’s father’s operation, for whatever reason, he still would have intrinsic worth – as that is not dependent on your decision. I just don’t see the connection with intrinsic worth. There are many factors that might influence one’s decision, of which species membership is simply one. And for some people, it might not be a factor at all, or very minimal.

  6. Interesting, but does/do the exception/s you cited (Willie, George, Claus… etc.) kill the rule? We seek absolutes for clarity, but in practice spend our lifetimes working them out.

    I like several of Amin’s comments as they represent this “working them out”. There comes a point where we’d not spend money to extend our own lives as well as others’ but it does not cancel our intrinsic value—a concept I’m unable to drop. In part, that’s because I see intrinsic worth in an ecological sense. Can it be diminished? In practice—invasive species are treated differently than noninvasive. But do we ever want to drop entirely all consideration of intrinsic worth regardless of circumstances as we figure out how we are going to behave? Intrinsic worth may be that my bones will be gnawed by field mice who eventually return “my” calcium to the ecosystem. That does not give me more moral superiority over the mice, but ecologically is a consideration of intrinsic value held in common.

    Abolishing the idea of moral human superiority will go a long way and perhaps make us more humble. Yet in our dealings with others, believing in the goodness of others, including those who have harmed us, remains essential to our “working things out”. I’m not sure how we’d easily drop our moral superiority if we didn’t see the intrinsic value in individuals and ecosystems. The platitudes, the inconsistencies we express, are violations of degree against the rule of intrinsic worth.

    Lots of ways to approach this, more than I know.

    However we may chose to define the why of what we do on behalf of these individuals from other species, the incremental reforms applied to animal agriculture are creating a more lucrative sector that the public believes has cured itself of evil. We know that green- and humane-washing makes consumers comfortable with animal agriculture. It disconnects them from the harms that remain intact.

    It would help if the advocates in our midst had backgrounds in economics and market behavior to add to the discussion. Believing that “small family farms raise ‘humane’ meat, eggs, and dairy”, animal ag becomes acceptable in a generalized way while the specifics are buried. Enabling reforms has fortified animal agriculture while the core of suffering and injustice remain.

  7. Mountain says:

    Philosophy may be over my head, but I don’t see how any of us, human or non-human, have intrinsic value. Our value is based on how those around us value us, an amount that will vary from person to person.

    There is no difference between monetized value and non-monetized value. Money is just a means to measure. You’ve suggested that you value your children more than your companion animals. Okay. Perhaps you value your friend’s father more than your friend’s cocker spaniel. Okay. But do you value your friend’s father more than your own companion animals? Maybe you do, but I have a hard time believing that.

    I, for one, value my companion animals more than I value your friend’s father.

    • James says:

      To say that there’s no such thing as having intrinsic moral worth strikes me as dangerous, at least in terms in allowing our worth to be defined by external contingencies and circumstances. So, based on the belief that the Enlightenment bequeathed a sense (however vague) that some beings have intrinsic worth, I would say that there is a difference between monetized and non-monetized value. The former undermines intrinsic worth while the latter confirms it. I also admit that this is all rather unclear to me.

      As for my father’s friend and your companion animals, I’m wondering to what extent your decision would change if I allowed my friend to appeal to you personally, and he told you a really heart-tugging story? I’m also wondering to what extent it matters that my friend can do that–try to persuade you with a story– but your companion animals may not? I suspect the difference—telling stories/not telling stories—is morally irrelevant, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about what makes humans unique (not superior, unique), and I keep coming back to storytelling.

      Too much Benjamin on the brain.

      • Mountain says:

        I would probably feel an emotional response to story-telling, but I doubt it would affect my behavior. Because here’s the thing:

        If he needed $10,000, that’s an acre of land. Which could support 50 chickens. Who would lay enough eggs every year to save the lives of 25 industrial chickens. And who, by foraging their own food rather than eating chicken feed, would save the lives of 5-10 field animals every year.

        If it’s $100,000 he needs, it’s 500, 250, and 50-100. And if it’s a million dollars he needs, forget it.

        Also, and I’m sorry if this sounds heartless, but your hypothetical friend’s father has had his whole life to save money or buy insurance. If he needs something that costs money, he had the capacity to be self-reliant. Animals, while any many ways more self-reliant than us, do not have the capacity to save money. So, when in doubt, we should choose animals over BFFs (bloggers’ friends’ fathers).

      • Rhys Southan says:

        I think “intrinsic value” is often a confused way of saying “self-valuation.” Everyone could hate a person who still loves herself, and so she could still have value in the sense that she values her own life. So we could similarly say that a serial killer has intrinsic or inherent value in the sense that he possibly likes himself even if no one else likes him. But if intrinsic value is disassociated from even self valuation, then I think it becomes a mystical concept with no apparent grounding in reality. The vegan philosopher Joel Marks discussed this in a comment to Tom Regan. Marks distinguished between “intrinsic” and “inherent” value but I think the way you’re using “intrinsic value” is what he takes to mean “inherent value”:

        Marks doesn’t see acknowledging the lack of inherent value as dangerous, but rather truthful (albeit perhaps destabilizing for the way vegan philosophers often state their case). Value is created by valuators. Where else could value come from?

        But animal rights philosophy doesn’t rise or fall with the reality of inherent value or lack thereof. It can still work by reminding us that humans are not the only valuators, and that non-human animals can value themselves. This also seems to be more convenient for vegans in a way because it escapes the tricky implications of plants and mountains and such potentially having inherent value.

        • James says:

          You may be right about confusing intrinsic/inherent. I’d never considered exploring the difference (and I’m sure the philosophers who read this blog cringe at the sloppiness of my terminology). I would agree that self-valuation may be integral to intrinsic worth, or at least influential in determining its nature. It is this self-refertial aspect of intrinsic (or inherent?) that gets around the plant/mountain question of their intrinsic/inherent worth. I suppose that there may be different kinds of intrinsic/inherent worth, with that of plants and mountains being more mystical, and that of sentient beings being rooted in some sense that we are more than a clump of matter responding to an ecosystem.

        • Mountain says:

          This is a much more elegant way to say what I was trying to say. Your value is based on how you are valued, both by yourself and by others. And I think this is what the focus on sentience is getting at in vegan thinking. If an animal is sentient enough to value itself (and/or be valued by others), it has value and deserves moral consideration.

          Also, this Mountain values himself greatly, even if no one else does.

  8. Taylor says:

    Gary Varner emphasizes the ability to tell stories about our lives in making his distinction among persons, near-persons, and the merely sentient. Here is a review of his book Personhood, Ethics, and Animal Cognition.
    Few people who are not seriously into philosophy will want to slog all the way through the book, but Varner has interesting arguments to make about the moral significance of different kinds of beings based on their cognitive capacities. (He goes into considerable detail about current scientific knowledge of animal cognition.)

    Varner’s tripartite division of sentient beings is at odds both with Gary Francione’s view and also with that of Elisa Aaltola, who examines different conceptions of personhood in the following article:

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