The Cost of a Human Life

The latest on the killings of 17 Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier starts as follows: “KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.”

I must say, I am proud of my government that it is willing to come up with such a sum to compensate the families of the victims. It beats the $1,000.00 or $2,000.00 the Afghan government paid out for the woundings and killings (respectively). It shows how much more generous we are. But seriously? How on earth does anyone come up with any dollar amount to compensate a distraught parent for the loss of his or her child? It cannot be done. And how do we decide on the correct dollar amount for a wound? Some wounds are more serious than others. Perhaps they should have come up with some sort of sliding scale. Again, seriously?

I am reminded of the calculation Ford Motor Company came up with some years ago for the victims in fiery collisions in their Pinto motor car. Ford, led by Lee Iacocca at the time, got out their handy calculator and figured out how much each maiming and each death should be worth — and then decided it would be cheaper to run the risk of law suits than to recall all of the Pintos on the road to replace a part that would have cost $11.00 per vehicle. So they didn’t recall the cars.

Surely, this is the reductio ad absurdum of our urge to quantify everything from love to life itself. How much does it cost? How fast can it go? How long before the battery runs out? How much is it worth to you?  Look at the chart and tell me how bad the pain is from 1 to 10. If it can’t be quantified, it ain’t real, so we think.

I don’t know about you, but I know if I was handed a check for even as much as $50,000.00 for the killing of my son or wife by a half-crazed soldier I would find it totally inadequate. You simply cannot measure some things — like the life of a loved one — by dollars and cents. And you cannot quantify something like love or fear, but they are very real. We need to tear ourselves away from the prejudice that wants to put a number on everything. The exact sciences are exact because they are supported by mathematics. That is entirely appropriate. But when the social sciences start posing as exact sciences by using math in the form of statistics and “studies” and “polls” we have started the skid toward absurdity — which is called “scientism” and it accompanies blind commitment to the scientific method in all walks of life.

Everything cannot be quantified. In fact, many of the most important things in human life cannot be quantified. But they are not only real, they are the very things that make us human. This is not a plea for metaphysics; it is a plea for common sense, and the rejection of the blind faith we all have in numbers. They cannot tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that our government chose to compensate the families of the victims of the shooting in Afghanistan. I don’t see any other way it could have been done — except to have the U.S. government commit itself to a total withdrawal of troops from that country. But this seems even more doubtful after the chaos stirred up by the shooting itself. And, oh yes, make sure the perpetrator of these crimes is justly punished. But even if we cannot see an alternative to dollars for lives, it can never be enough.

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