Archive | News RSS feed for this section

What Value to Place on Life?

14 Jan

Earlier this week, I was reading the Metro on my way into university when I came across the story of Charlene Pickering, a 23-year-old mother, who was hit by a train whilst attempting to retrieve her mobile phone from the train tracks at Wimbledon Station. Usually when I read of a tragic death, which this undoubtedly was, I am moved, at least for a minute or so, before I resume my day and forget all about it. The death of Ms. Pickering was different for two reasons: firstly, it left me almost entirely unmoved; secondly, I have thought about it a fair amount over the past few days and it has inspired me to write this, my inaugural blog post. My initial reaction, I am ashamed to admit, was to think that humanity was probably better off without someone who brought about their own death by such reckless stupidity. Darwinism in action, if you like.

However, after a some introspection, I realised that I too, and I presume a sizeable proportion of the rest of the population, was guilty of endagering my life over inconsequential things. I cannot count how many times I have pushed my luck at a level crossing or jogged across a road during a small gap in traffic in order to save myself a couple of minutes of precious time. It is not inconceivable that one day I might misjudge one of these actions and end up being a side story in the Metro for commuters to read before continuing with their lives and forgetting about my personal tragedy. Perhaps one would stop to consider it long enough to base a blog on it.

One way at looking at such an accident is to dismiss it as an unavoidable health risk of the human condition. As humans, we never believe that it will happen to when taking such a risk. Tragedy is always something that happens to other people. In essence, we are unable to comprehend our own mortality, and as such we are unable to assess the risks of our actions properly. We will always underestimate the danger of our actions. Such a conclusion implies that such tragedies are unavoidable and will continue to occur. In essence, society can shrug its shoulders and continue with the commute.

A wholly darker perspective is to consider the value that we, as a society, place on human life. It is not uncommon to read of people being murdered over a mobile phone. Often I read such a story and wonder how a person can place so little value on the life of another. It is wholly inconceivable to me that someone can value their own life less than a mobile phone. Yet I would not be writing this had someone not put their life at significant and obvious risk over one. The picture becomes even more depressing once one factors in the fact that Ms. Pickering was the mother of a four-year-old son.

The US Government place the value of life at around $50,000 (£32,650) per quality year of life. To many the concept of placing a monetary value on human life may seem callous or unethical. However, it would appear that the economists responsible for producing such figures can at least be praised for placing a more reasonable value on life than the US Department of Defence, which values the life if an American soldier at $600,000 (£400,000). Even this pitifully low figure seems reasonable in comparison £500 of a basic iPhone 4S. The tragedy is even greater if Ms. Pickering were one one of the seemingly tiny proportion of the population which does not own an iPhone.

How about the ideological value of life? Was the deposition of Saddam Hussein worth the deaths of 5,000 soldiers? In addition, why has so much more value been placed upon the lives of 179 British servicemen than the over 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties of the war? Morally, one cannot help but feel that each Iraqi civilian was more worthy of sympathy. After all, at least the soldiers chose to sign up for the army. The Iraqi civilians had no such luxury. One cannot help but feel that Western society is seriously dysfunctional in terms of the value that it places on the life of a human being.

Perhaps if we valued life more highly, this and other tragedies would be less common. Perhaps my initial reaction would no longer be that of a misanthrope who has long since given up on the collective intelligence of humanity, and instead I would judge the story for what it is: the tragic death of a young woman and the story of a young child who will never see his mother again.