What is the value of life?

If you are a victim of crime – a mugging or a burglary, for example – you may have the satisfaction of seeing the perpetrators convicted and punished. You may even receive some compensation. But suppose the crime of which you are a victim is murder: what then?

Let’s suppose the police investigate your murder, discover the murderer and bring him to court where he is duly found guilty and sent down for a long prison term. Do you, the deceased, feel content, satisfied? No, of course you don’t, because you don’t feel anything. Death has removed you from all sensation, from all thought, from all knowledge, in a word, from all consciousness. How, then, can you be compensated for your murder?

This raises the following question:

If when you are dead you are not conscious of anything, can you be said to have suffered any loss?

With other crimes – for example theft or assault – you, the victim, are aware of the damage that has been done to you and the loss that you have suffered. Your life has been diminished thereby and it makes sense to seek compensation in order to repair the damage as far as possible. But in the case of a murder, no such reparation is possible. You are dead and that’s that.

We intuitively regard murder (and for that matter, accidental death and all “premature death”) as a bad thing. Murders frighten us for the simple reason that we do not want to be murdered. We shy away from death as something frightful but we probably never stop to think what it is exactly that we think we suffer as a result of being dead. Yet this notion of suffering as a result of our murder lies behind the legal theory that convicts and punishes murderers.

If my car is stolen and I make a claim on the insurance, the insurance company will expect me to make a complete list of everything that has been taken from me together with its value. This list will quantify my loss, i.e. that which I had and which I no longer have.

Now, in the case of my murder, how do I quantify what I have lost? I cannot point to my life before the moment of death because that had already been consumed: I was never going to have that again. What about the future? Can I say I have been robbed of my future and all it comprehends? To do that, wouldn’t I need to be able to predict the future, something that no one has ever been proved to be able to do? For all we know, had I not been murdered, I might have stepped off the kerb and under a bus the very next minute. How can I prove that this is not the case? How can we prove that murder has robbed me of anything at all? We may suspect or believe that I would have lived on a good few years but we cannot prove this. Yet assumptions of this sort are made every time someone is brought to trial for murder.

Now I am not saying that it doesn’t matter if someone murders me. It does. No society can tolerate its members going around freely killing one another. It is right to take measures to prevent this. I simply question the reasons we give for evaluating the loss suffered by the victim. In fact, I am close to thinking that we cannot do this at all.

The life lived by the victim up to his murder cannot be used because he no longer has it. In any case, he may have lived a perfectly miserable life and wished for death. We cannot cite the years of life he might have enjoyed as we cannot prove he would have had them or that, if he had had them, they would have been worth having.

Yet, intuitively, we go on talking of the “value of human life”, of the “waste of life” when people are killed, of the “loss of life” when a plane crashes or a ship sinks. But on what do we base this “value” and this “loss”?

N.B. I accept that others may suffer as a result of my death (e.g. my dependents) but that is a separate issue. What about the loner who has no relatives, no friends, no dependents? Don’t we also intuitively regard his life as valuable to him and consider that if he is murdered, something has been taken away from him? But what?

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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9 Responses to What is the value of life?

  1. Simon says:

    If when you are dead you are not conscious of anything, can you be said to have suffered any loss?

    The most significant, and fundamental, aspect of being a person is being self conscious; that is, in the words of the philosopher James Rachels, ‘being able to live a biographical life and not just a biological life’. This implies a being who is aware that he or she has a life – can see that he or she is the same being that exists now, who existed in the past, and will exist in the future.

    The value of this ‘life’ is that as self conscious beings we can make decisions with what to do with our future. That is we can plan for a better future and make changes now to achieve that goal. My argument here is purely Utilitarian; the goal of ‘life’ is to maximize ‘happiness’ and decrease ‘unhappiness’. By taking the life of a self conscious being we are not adding to potential happiness but adding to the pool of unhappiness; we are limiting the happiness that the being was potentially able to experience. We do not need to be able to ‘predict the’ future but just be able to ‘conceive of a’ future.


  2. SilverTiger says:

    I agree with the statement in your second paragraph (The most significant, and fundamental, aspect…).

    My problem remains, however. In your next paragraph you make two points, one concerning the value of life and one concerning the Utilitarian concept of maximizing happiness. Now, surely, if I am dead I cannot plan, nor am I aware of any future (or even of any present), so this formula can therefore only apply while I am alive. Upon my death, it ceases to be relevant.

    With regard to happiness, surely death is “happiness neutral”: the dead are neither happy nor unhappy and therefore add neither happiness nor unhappiness to the general pool. The “collateral damage” of death may well do so (e.g. my grieving widow and children) but I have made that a separate issue.

    Intuitively, I agree with you but logically I find this agreement hard to justify.

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  3. Simon says:

    I can see how such a sophist position is popular and logical. Killing does not make one worse off; it makes one cease to exist. Once we have ceased to exist, we shall not miss the happiness we would have experienced. Of course this is logical from a deontological perspective but from a consequentialist’s perspective it is flawed. From the position of a consequentialist, such as a utilitarian, an action is judged, ethically, based on it’s consequences. If a moral agent who has the potential to experience further happiness, or even just positive feelings, is killed then this is morally wrong. It is a logical and coherent argument. The argument does not rely on any rule of action nor on the ‘victim’s’ state of mind but on the universal consequences of the action.

  4. mydigest says:

    All irrelevant game-playing. What matters is that the criminal be removed. Prison is cruel and unusual so a quick bullet in the brain is the proper way. Even a heinously cruel murderer should have this quick way out in acknowledgement of his/her having once been a new-born innocent, and maybe he/she was let down by society. Cy Quick at mydigest.wordpress.com

  5. Simon says:

    Criminal and murderer are culturally specific, morally relative terms. The only way we can validly, and logically, determine whether the person has in fact committed a moral offense is to analyse the situation. There is little doubt among most people that murderers should be stopped but this article is looking at what makes a murder a moral violation. If I were to kill a cow in Vrindavana, India I would be considered a murderer; If I were to kill person in America i would be considered a murderer; and if I killed a foetus in Australia I would not be considered a murderer. There is a need for a distinction between what is a murder and what isn’t. What killing, if any, is justified.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    I acknowledge your point of view, Simon, and its validity.

    There are, of course, consequences when someone dies, whether the death is a result of murder, accident, disease or deliberate killing. In many cases, these consequences are serious enough to warrant our trying to avoid the death, quite apart from any moral considerations. In particular, I acknowledge the Utilitarian point of view where third persons are involved: grieving widows, children and even pets certainly add to the total sum of unhappiness. We might also add the unhappiness caused by fear and pain during the process of death itself.

    However, it seems to me that we deprecate murder because of the damage and loss caused to the victim. This damage (though theoretical, given our inability to know what the victim’s alternative future would have been) seems pretty obvious. However, it is living third parties who recognize this loss and damage, not the victim himself. I think this may be a throwback to an animist stage in our culture when we believed (as some still do) that the dead continue to be conscious and to have knowledge of what goes on in the world and that punishment and reparation are therefore necessary in order to placate their angry shades.

    As you point out, there is in fact nothing obvious about what constitutes murder. In deciding each case, the victim’s loss is only one element but if it is to be an element at all then I think we need to be sure what it is and I haven’t seen any convincing arguments on the score.

    Thanks for your input.

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  7. SilverTiger says:

    To mydigest: Your point would be valid (to you but not necessarily to me) if this were a post about crime and punishment but it isn’t. It is a post about the philosophical question of the value of life, in particular when this is taken away by death. Postulating a murder is simply a convenient way into consideration of this question.

    By referring to the post as “irrelevant game-playing”, you seem to implying that there is something disingenuous about it. That seems to me unnecessarily dismissive. I might respect such a view if you were to show by adequate argument why you think it so. Evincing a rather draconian view of justice (which is itself irrelevant to this discussion) does not justify your evaluation.

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  8. Simon says:

    I guess we’ll just have to disagree on the details. Both arguments are certainly valid. I just seem to differ about the future; where as you seem to need empirical evidence of the murder victim’s future I just desire to know that he or she could conceive of a future. To me it is the person’s ability to conceive of a future that makes them ethically valuable.

    Thanks for the thought provoking discussion too by the way.

  9. SilverTiger says:

    I do see your point of view and it is the one I would go with intuitively. For example I deplore the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno because (quite apart from the suffering that entailed) I believe that he would have gone on to an even more brilliant future had he lived, even though the argument of my post would question that as a consideration.

    Thanks for your helpful and interesting comments.

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