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This is part of a rant that I wrote a while ago, updated and adapted:

"The value of a human life is beyond any reckoning". This argument easy to refute.

Thousands of people die in road accidents every year caused, for instance by simple things like tiredness, boredom or clumsiness on someone else's part. One death is too many! The value of a human life is beyond any reckoning! ! Good grief, we'd better ban the automobile right away

It is not in any dispute that inhaling smoke increases your chances of getting cancer. A certain number of deaths are caused each year by each coal-fired power station in each city. One death is too many! The value of a human life is beyond any reckoning! Good grief, we'd better shut down the electricity! Likewise the emissions from motor vehicles are carcinogenic. There are many more examples like this.

What is patently obvious is that a certain number of deaths per year are acceptable to our society, as a price for progress or convenience. You may not feel comfortable with it right now, but in general it doesn't bother us - we accept that we are all mortal, and everyone has to die sometime. Implicit in the structure of our society is the assumption that the value of a human life (which will end anyway, no matter what anyone does), is not beyond reckoning, and that the shortening of a certain number of lives is an acceptable price.

You can prolong a life, but you can not save it. In the long run the survival rate drops to zero. Quality, not quantity.

You may argue that civilisation saves more lives that it shortens, but we do not aim our civilisation at prolonging the most possible lives. If that were the case, no scrubber on that power station would be too expensive. All the time, we collectively take decisions along the lines of "we estimate that the new model car's exhaust will kill 3 people per year per million cars. We are willing to spend one million dollars to reduce that, but not two million."

We take a similar decision about the risk vs. cost to our own lives every time we go bungee-jumping or smoke a cigarette. We do not behave as if our own lives were of infinite value. We behave as if we are mortal. All rather obvious if you think about it.

A human life has a finite value. The calculus of the value of human life is so commonplace that we don't even notice it.

One death is too many and The value of a human life is beyond any reckoning are fine-sounding rhetoric, but are without any connection to the real world whatsoever. If you are truly principled and and truly believe this, then why not start by giving up your car and your use of electricity, or otherwise accept that the death toll is acceptable to you?


This is another fine nodeshell rescue you've gotten us into!

bol points out the wise words of Bill Hicks: "having sex and having a baby is no more a miracle than eating food and having shit come out of your ass". Though it must be said, there's a lot more to parenthood than just having a baby.

Jongleur claims that according to the US government, the value of a human life shouldn't have a monetary value placed upon it, but when it is unavoidable, $1,600,000 is the value to use. For a US citizen.


It has been suggested that this line of argument is sociopathically uncaring, and will cause callous injustices. No doubt it has been used to justify awful tyranny which devalues human life for political ends. But that doesn't refute the argument. Attempts to improve the world should proceed from an an honest appraisal of the reality that exists.


What is the resale value of a human body? It depends how you cut it up. Rendered down to simple elements, it is just just a few dollars. But the value of a living thing lies in the complex arrangement of the atoms. Some of that same matter, left as adrenaline, insulin, growth hormone and so on is worth a lot more (if you manage to extract it). As entire fresh organs, corneas and bones for transplant, a large amount if the donor was good.
And if we did turn off the electricity, get rid of the cars, and so on, what would happen?

Even more people would die.

No hospitals, no heat, no emergency services, and all the other things of modern society that have increased our lifespan from 40 to 70.

People die as a consequence of the many things society produces.
But, it seems, more people are saved than are killed.

Therefore, if we wish to reduce human death as much as possible, turning off the power, turning off cars, will not be much of a solution.

Shortening of a certain number of lives is an acceptable price, for saving even more of them.

(Well, yes, it's probably not too hard to poke holes in this argument, but, it's a perspective to consider as well.)

When I was twelve years old I had the unique privelege of taking a specialized college science course, which was geared for children of my age but covered many of the scientific topics that twenty-something college students learn.

One day, about three weeks into the course, I walked into the lab and saw that the professor had set out several vats of different-colored liquids, gases and pyrex boxes containing elemental solids. Nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, mercury... a few other elements that the human body is composed of, all in proportion to how much of each element could be found in the average adult human body. Each container had a sticker on it, the price tag, as dictated by the supplier from whence these elements were bought. At the far end of the table upon which all of this stuff sat was a folded card, like a tiny tent of paper, and on that piece of folded paper, standing up like a marquee, was the sum total of each price. It read:

"The cost of human life, in raw materials: $83.72"

We sat down, mentally chewing that rather difficult modicum of fact, and most eyes stayed fixed in rapt awe on that little card, which seemed to unravel the mystery we had all considered at one time or another. The professor, I don't recall his name now, came into the lab and silently surveyed the room and our curious gazes at this perplexing display. Finally, he picked up the card, showed it to us and said:

"This is what the human body is worth, if you were to go out to the store and purchase the materials necessary to build one. But there's more to it than that, isn't there? You can't just take these things, mix them up in a bowl, slap them in the oven and, nine months later, wind up with a human being. It takes much more than that. These items must be arranged in a certain way, at the molecular and cellular level, and manipulated to a degree that it would boggle the mind. Genetics, cellular mitosis, osmosis, molecular replication... these are some of the processes by which a human body develops." He waved to the elements behind him. "All these things are inert, by themselves, but something is added to make them dynamic and singular. Kids, I'm going to tell you this once and once only: the human body is cheap, dirt cheap in the grand scheme of things, but the quality that gives a human body life is something neither science nor money can ever measure. You're here to learn how science works and how it can be applied to learning how things work, but it can only work up to a certain point. At that point, we must stop and wait for science to catch up. The saying that life is precious is true only in that the human experience which validates that life is invaluable. We cannot put a price on experience. You can pay for some experiences, but that is only a fiction of economics. Life is more than just your body and mind. And science cannot even begin to comprehend where life begins and where it ends. That task is best left for the philosophers and dreamers. If you came here looking for answers to life, then you're paying a significantly steep price for answers that will get you nowhere. Or, at least, your parents are."

I was twelve and I was copying what he'd said like a mad man, word for word. I kept it and stuffed it in a box, only to discover it years later, when I was in my mid-twenties and living in Winston-Salem.

Life is not worthless, nor is human life. The human body, though, is cheaper than a TV set.

An old man picked up a tiny pine cone. He had been looking at it a bit before picking it up, apparently deciding if it was worth keeping.

He continued down the mountain path, pine cone in hand, stepping carefully from rock to rock. As he left the mountain trail, he noticed something else on the ground. It was an old button. He dropped the pine cone, picked up the button instead, and wandered away from the mountain.

A year later, a new tree had grown at the end of the mountain pass. It would turn out to be somehow more disease resistant than the other trees on the mountain. Maybe it was a new species.

A young lady walked into a shopping mall.

She was dressed just well enough to fit in, so nobody batted an eye as she walked into a store. Inside, she wandered around a bit and apparently slipped into the backroom when the clerks weren't looking. She picked up a spool of thread and left an old button.

A few days later, the store owner was making calls about the button. Apparently it was something made by the old masters using some technique that was now forgotten. Eventually the button ended up on display in a museum, though many wealthy bidders had wanted to purchase it as a centerpiece for their tailored clothing.

A burly man walked into a fishing store.

He picked up a fishing net and looked at it briefly before nodding quietly to himself. He walked right past the cash register and out of the store, fishing net in hand. The cashier noticed this and ran after him, shouting. The man turned around, looking surprised, and then with a look of realization, took a spool of thread out of his pocket, put it in the hands of the cashier, and seemed to disappear before the cashier could figure out what was going on.

A year later, scientists were still studying the spool of thread. They had already made many copies of it, all stronger and lighter than previously known versions of industrial thread, yet none were as strong as the original. They were still learning new things about the material every day by examining its molecular structure.

A soldier returned to his base one day, and walked into the personnel office. 

As he walked by, people gave him puzzled looks because this wasn't where he was supposed to be. He was carrying a fishing net with him for some reason. He opened the door to an old supply closet and took out a dusty typewriter. The clerks there were surprised to see it, considering they had switched to computers decades ago.

The soldier disappeared and was never heard from again, but they found a strange fishing net in the supply closet. The threads of the net seemed to glow with some sort of bioluminescence. This was not a material anybody could replicate, but when combined with the latest high tech industrial threads, they somehow made the material unbreakable, unless they separated the threads again.

A strange girl showed up in the mail room of a medium sized magazine.

She was struggling to hang on to a heavy, but pristine old-style typewriter. Her clothes were of a very poor quality. It looked like she might have just stolen the typewriter. She threw the typewriter aside. It made a clanging sound as it hit the floor but did not seem damaged. The girl began rummaging through everyone's mail slots. She was lucky nobody else was there at the moment. She picked out a letter from the editor-in-chief's mail slot and calmly walked out of the building.

When the employees discovered the typewriter in pristine condition, they couldn't resist trying it out. Something amazing happened when they sat down in front of it though. Not only did all their words come out spelled perfectly and without grammatical mistakes, they were able to write about their lives in ways they never previously thought possible. The typewriter quickly became a hidden secret among the employees of the company as the magazine tripled its circulation in two months.

A golden retriever bounded over the lawn of a retirement home. There seemed to be a letter in its mouth. 

Someone opened a door to leave the building and before he could react, the dog had slipped inside. It seemed to know exactly where it was going but was leaving a trail of knocked over chairs and books in its wake. It jumped on to the bed of a disabled man, dropped the letter, picked up a picture of his family on the nightstand, and quickly disappeared.

The man, though confused, found the letter addressed to him, so he read it. Within a week, everyone at the home was in almost perfect health, and the contents of the letter were being spread throughout the medical community.

A hooded woman came into my foster home, carrying a picture frame.

It seemed to shine with its own light. She set the frame down on the ground and immediately all the other kids were gathered around it.

Was it a portable TV? A tablet? Apparently what it was showing was so amazing that my foster parents were already offering money for it.

The woman refused but instead pointed at me. "I am here for this child," she said.

But it seemed nobody was listening except for me. "What good am I?" I asked. "Nobody likes me. I can't make friends. If I'm not hurting myself, I can barely stop myself from lashing out at others. And then they hate me more. I'm completely worthless."

"Because once I was you," the woman said, offering me her hand.

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