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Putting a value on a human life

  • 01 October 2020
  As Victoria locked down in response to its spike in infections, people whose economic interests or individual liberties were threatened protested strongly. As infections diminished they demanded an immediate and extensive easing of restrictions. The debate between those who wanted an immediate opening to business and those more cautious has been fuelled by discordant opinions among those with expertise in public health.

Underlying their differences, however, is a more fundamental judgment about whether the virus itself or the economic effects of the response to it have caused more damage to human lives. That question, in turn, has invited reflection about the relative value of one human death (and so of one human life) as compared with another. This is a radical question because it makes us ask whether the value of a human life is defined by economic wellbeing and by potential contribution to the economy, or by deeper qualities.

Duncan Maskell, the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University which has been severely affected economically by the loss of overseas students and the interruption of face to face teaching, has raised this question in interviews and speeches. He sees it as one that society must address. In his reflections he has referred to the Quality of Life Adjusted Year (QALY), a tool used by economists to put some price on the lives of different people. The measure can take into account the contribution that people can make to society, their health, their gifts and potentially all other aspects of their lives. Maskell sees some variant of QALY to have an important part to play in establishing priorities in the response to coronavirus.

The authority we give to QALY and similar economic measures will depend on how we define the value of human life. I would argue that their authority lies in assessing economic relationships, but does not extend beyond them. They help meet the occasional demand to put a figure on the economic value of relationships that transcend economics. When assessing the financial compensation due to people killed or maimed in a plane accident, for example, it is proper to take into account their position in life, their health, their family and their personal gifts and other factors. QALY can provide a useful guide to economic transactions.

QALY and similar tools, however, are of limited authority because the figure they put on personal values that lie beyond the economic is purely symbolic. It does not express