How Much Do You Cost?
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.