Ethics@Work: The value of life: quantity vs quality

Quantitative measures of life are a crass but essential tool.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
One of the most fundamental ethical principles we have is that no price can be put on a human life: Life is priceless, not for sale. As a result, many people have resistance to regulatory or business decisions that establish a dollar value on a life and make safety decisions in accordance. (US regulatory agencies typically use a value of around $5 million.) A classic example is the 1970s Ford Pinto. The Pinto originally had its gas tank placed in a way that designers knew carried an added chance of catching fire and causing fatalities. But Ford executives decided that the cost of changing the design was too expensive to justify the improvement in safety. More than 20 people died in fires when the gas tank did in fact explode. To this day, the Ford Pinto is a classic case study in business ethics courses - with Ford executives typically, and in my opinion unfairly, presented as the villain. When I present this concept to students, I point out that we assign a dollar value to our lives all the time. For example, when a person buys a new car he considers many parameters: the car's size, its gas mileage, reliability and so on. Then he decides how these factors interact with his budget. Only one of these factors is the car's safety record. At some level, when a person decides that an extra air bag is not worth an extra few hundred dollars but a bigger engine is, he is placing a dollar value on the risk of death. In fact, this kind of calculation is precisely behind the dollar valuations of some agencies, such as the US Federal Highway Administration. In fact, lives lost is also a misleading figure. Let's take the example of flu deaths. In the wake of the scores of deaths of people infected with the new strain of swine flu, public health experts have sought to reassure us by reminding us that ordinary flu also causes many deaths. This is certainly true. In fact, based on the statistics of the US Center for Disease Control, the annual number of flu-related deaths in the US is almost identical to the number of people killed in auto accidents. Does that mean flu is as dangerous as driving? The answer is no. Flu deaths are overwhelmingly among people who are already quite frail - people who would in any case have been expected to die within a relatively short time. So the years of life lost (YLL) is comparatively small. Auto accidents, by comparison, kill people at all stages of life and in fact are disproportionately common among young people. So the YLL is incomparably greater. I believe that YLL is the correct figure to use. Whenever we compare the numbers of deaths attributed to various causes, we have to remember that the true cause of death is being born. Any particular cause of death is only the proximate cause, since everybody dies eventually. (If you would like to exclude Enoch and Eliyahu, who according to tradition have been alive thousands of years, you will still acknowledge that their impact on the average is negligible.) The World Health Organization (WHO) has led the way in popularizing a comparatively new measure, which in my opinion is even more appropriate. It is called "Disability Adjusted Life Year" (DALY). The basis of this measure is that not all years are created equal, and that a year with disability is not the same as a year of full functioning. For example, deafness is considered approximately a 30 percent disability; a hazard that caused deafness in three individuals would be ranked approximately equal to a hazard that killed one person of similar age. Again, this may sound crass, but shunning disability is something we do all the time. I cannot judge whether the specific disability coefficients used by the WHO are appropriate. But I do think that despite our understandable aversion to quantifying human life and human suffering, indices such as DALY, which put efforts to compare hazards on a consistent basis, are an important tool in evaluating and ultimately minimizing risks to human well-being. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem Institute of Technology.