Saturday, February 4, 2012

What is a life worth?

The movie 'Margin Call' is a Wall-Street thriller, almost a re-enactment drama, almost a disaster movie. It depicts the events of a single night when a brilliant financial analyst, working alone, suddenly discovers the oncoming financial tsunami of the subprime mortgage crisis. It is simply brilliant, showing the startling, horrific influence of unfettered money-making on everything. It shows the impact and impotence of almost every positive, resilient human trait when faced with the sheer unmitigated power of wealth fighting for its own survival. 

Whilst watching the film, I was struck by how inexorable, how irresistible the force of this leviathan was. There's a scene when a senior analyst, previously fired by the firm and masterfully played by Stanley Tucci, looks over his life with a sense of regret and ponders his previous career as an engineer. He had built a bridge for commuters so that they spent less time in their cars and more time doing whatever they wanted to do. Tabulating in his head the millions of hours that 'his bridge' had saved over its lifetime, he could honestly claim to have made a tangible difference in the lives of the people who used his bridge. He could make no such calculation for his exorbitantly expensive career in finance. I was left feeling a little shocked and nauseated by the message of the scene, partially because it was so well delivered, partially because it was true. At some level, in the world today, the worth of a life is mainly measured in dollars, pounds and cents (or maybe even in yuan).

I'm a scientist, with healthy annual income, so why should I care? I think it matters what we value as a society since that's where we put our energy. We are immersed in the conversations of the wealthy and powerful. Donald Trump makes headlines by making the most absurd assertions and happily basks in undeserved notoriety and influence. I always have this almost uncontrollable urge to scream obscenities at the television whenever I see him on it. One day, I swear, I'll be unable to contain myself and get myself into all sorts of trouble. 

So let's ask the question: What is a life worth? How might we measure this? 

Christians (and some cartoonists) talk about the conversation you might have with St Peter at the Pearly Gates when he takes a long, lingering look over the balance sheet of your life to decide whether you may pass into the kingdom of Heaven (or not). I think of this often (although as an atheist, not with this particular imagery). When I die, looking back over my life, what would my balance sheet look like? What might I be proud of? What might I be ashamed of? Moreover, extrapolating from this sort of internal, private conversation, would it not be valuable to society as a whole to be able to evaluate this accurately and empower the people who make the biggest difference? We might stop paying such a lot of attention to ridiculous blowhards on TV.

A recent study by Kahneman and Beaton shows a distinction between emotional well being and life evaluation as measures of 'quality of life'. They show that there is a ceiling to the effect that money has on your emotional experience of life, beyond which, making more money has little effect. Broadly speaking, they did this by asking people about their day-to-day experience of positive emotions (laughing, happiness), 'blue' feelings (sadness, worry, anger) and stress. Having a family income of less than $75,000 per year seemed to exacerbate the impact of negative life events and simply makes it hard to cope. But having more money than that doesn't necessarily make your experience of life more positive or less stressful. This is in contrast to the way in which people evaluate their life in response to a question where respondents are asked to rate their 'current life' to their 'best possible life'. That question is directly correlated to how much money you have. There's always somewhere better to get to in the land of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Another statistic mentioned in this study is that, tellingly, of the 151 countries surveyed, Americans ranked 5th for their high levels of stress. 

This is significant if we think of our emotional experience of life, our impact on others and their impact on us. Even though this would probably be impossible to do, what if we could calculate the duration and intensity that the consequences of my actions had on another person's emotions? How many days of happiness, sadness, or stress did my actions convey to other people? There's a quotation that says "people may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they'll always remember how you made them feel" which speaks directly to this. This even correlates somewhat to a financial argument. If a product makes more people happy, it will sell more units.  The financial argument doesn't necessarily run too deeply though. A financial evaluation of worth is predicted by market forces, so that the value of something is based on the presence of a market for it. If the worth of something cannot be easily perceived (or measured) then there will be a disconnection between its perceived worth and its actual worth. 

Consider the lives of two giants of the Information Technology world who died in 2011. Steve Jobs was eulogized and celebrated (justifiably so) but only a relatively small number of people lamented the passing of Dennis Richie. He was the inventor of the C programming language and the UNIX operating system. In the words of the historian Paul Ceruzzi: "… if you had a microscope and could look into a computer, you'd see his work everywhere inside." To compare these two great men is unfair, but at some level, the contribution of Richie is an order of magnitude greater than that of Jobs. But, because Richie's contribution occurred two or three steps removed from the glitzy iMacs, iPods and xBoxes that people would buy (including the machine you're now using to read this blog), his 'worth' may well have been recognized by some industry insiders and computer scientists, but would never have had any real financial reward. The challenge of understanding causality is an unsolved problem in most scientific fields. Understanding each of our parts in the grand web of interaction that makes up life with its messiness and complication is so difficult to be considered impossible. 

Another example of the tragedy implicit in our lack of knowledge of our contribution and impact to one another is the story of William Carothers. He was a brilliant chemist, well-recognized for his work during his lifetime and was the inventor of Nylon. The crowning irony was that he committed suicide at the age of 41 largely because (so the story goes) he couldn't "satisfy women" within his turbulent private life. In some way, he was the ultimate creator of every kind of lingerie elegantly and flamboyantly worn by women since the 1940s. At the end of the day, his balance sheet would have had a sizable checkmark in the 'made women happy' column. But that never translated back to him, even with recognition, even with fame, even with money. This resonates with me as a scientist, even more so since I am now the same age he was when he died and even more so since, as a bachelor, it's hard to know just how much I matter in the emotional lives of others. How do we really see or understand the contribution that we make? 

On the other hand, I sometimes think of Joesph Stalin as a man who's balance sheet was firmly skewed in the red, quite literally. He famously said "When a single person dies, it's a tragedy; when a million people die, it's a statistic". I think we have an obligation to give that measurement some teeth, some impact. A parent who raises their children well has an impact on their children's emotional life in its entirety. A musician who gives voice to a sentiment felt by people at their saddest (such a blues singer) might alleviate that sadness in millions. A medical scientist might contribute to make a great many people just a little bit happier, or even save the lives of a few. A nurse might alleviate the suffering of people in such pain so that they can die with dignity. A murderer might traumatize an entire family for life by killing a loved one. A politician might send troops to war, causing untold destruction in lives and subsequent conflict. A financier might sell mortgages to people that ultimately means that they lose their homes, bankrupting nations as they go. 

We are bound to impact others lives. At the very least, we must be aware of that impact and strive, to the best of our ability, to have that impact be a positive one. A 'man of consequence' is a weighty phrase. I would like to see us understand what that means, based on a person's actual consequences.  


  1. Certainly measuring the value of your life by the financial balance sheet exposes you to the biases of those that pursue money. I know I'm happier being myself at a small fraction of Trump's worth, than being Trump. I suspect you want to scream when you hear him talk (as I do) because by any other measure, you wouldn't rate him as high. Money is overrated as suggested by the $75k study, and it's overrated as a measure of worth. It's not fair.

    Measuring by impact (the currency of Science?), as you well describe, is closer to evaluating your life on your own terms, but there's a fine line between what other people think of you and the effect you had on them. Certainly there are some who think quite negatively of their experience with the doctor, though he saved, or greatly improved their lives.

    I don't spend enough time in this area. A copy of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is on my e-reader waiting to be read. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Here's a recent biomedical ethics article that is somehow relevant to the "value of life":

    1. This seems to be a devils-advocate exploration of near-term abortion, rather than the elements that I was focussing on: how do we evaluate the worth of our actions during our lifetime? Nonetheless, an interesting and provocative article.