Viruses and Valuing Human Lives

posted May 28, 2004

A popular satirical article examining the idea of executing virus writers is offending a lot of people in a number of ways... but it's offending a lot of people for the wrong reason.

First and foremost, hello, satire! ("...a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.")

Second, "how dare he place a value on human life!" Above and beyond the satire issue, a careful reading of the article (always difficult when you are outraged) shows the author doesn't place a value on human life; he uses a (conservative) scientifically determined value that people estimate their own lives at. Any number of that nature which is stable within a factor of magnitude is pretty good.

Completely and utterly aside from the "true" value of a life, there is the value of your life as shown by your actions. The two need not be connected since it is trivial to show that humans are not intrinsically rational creatures, especially in the "game theory" domain. And the fact is, you, yes, you personally, dear reader, do not act as if your life has infinite value... unless, that is, you never ride in a motor vehicle, or engage in any sort of competitive sports, or do anything else that has a higher danger then some other alternative. If you ever do any of those things, then by your actions you are showing a preference for economic gain of some kind (time, money, energy, entertainment) over some degree of your safety.

It is this value that has been determined and the article is based on. You may argue that people do not value even their own lives as much as they should... but then, you are most likely, logically speaking, arguing hypocritically. The value itself is rather difficult to assail, since it is derived rather simply from direct observations of human choices.

Personally, while I would not extend the death penalty as satirically espoused in this article, I do think that "white collar crime" is seriously undervalued in society. I am not entirely surprised that "the Right" doesn't pay attention to this, but I am surprised by "the Left"'s lack of comprehension on this issue; anyone who can say with a straight face that the funding NASA gets should be used "on Earth", lest people die here for lack of food or health care, let me tell you something: You've got a much richer source of money if you just go after white collar crime, both here and abroad. (Entire countries are paralysed, to the detriment of everybody in them, due to systematic white collar crimes like "bribes" and a word I considered almost euphemistic in its lack of detail, "corruption".)

I can't quite get to the level where someone embezzling ten million dollars from UNESCO is worth a death penalty. But look at the opportunity cost incurred by such an embezzler, vs. what it could have done out in the field; it is not a stretch to imagine that ten million saving at least one life and raising the standard of living and extending the lifes of many, many others. It is irrational to see it any other way... yet that's the human way.

If you want to be offended by the article, hey, go ahead. But being offended about his use of valuations is probably not a good thing to be offended about.

Somewhere, I saw the value of a human life in government work placed at one million, in the sense that one million dollars could be used to save roughly one life on average. Since it is based solely on saving lifes, it is not reversible (you can't trade lives for money) and is much less offensive when understood. I wish I had a source for this. Ever since then, whenever a government project mentions cost, I always convert it to human lives in my head.

That really brings the pork in the federal budget into focus. It doesn't mean all programs except helping the poor directly must stop, because it is possible to profit from other endeavors enough to offset the cost, and sometimes, risks must be taken or you never get a reward. One must be certain not to only consider one side of the issue.

It is a sobering viewpoint.


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