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How Much Is Your Life Worth?

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To decide why some lives are more valuable than others (if there is such a divergence at all), we must first explore the argument from the basics– that is, defining what value truly means. In the context of society and the interpersonal relationships therein, value is classified as either social or emotional. Social value is a subject’s ability to constructively contribute towards the greater good of society, while emotional value is the ability to enhance the emotional state of one or more other humans. The existence of these two different facets of value causes disagreement between which type holds more import than the other, depending on the situation. We, the human race, undoubtedly valuate particular individuals differently, but there appears to be no definite guideline regarding the situations in which each type of valuation is acceptable. Herein lies the debate.

Ethically, I believe that emotional value is acceptable provided that it is not at the expense of the general wellbeing of the majority. In intimate settings, as in families or friendships, those immediate one’s own social circles are valued the highest by those directly impacted by them. Logically, this makes complete sense, as these individuals have a stronger and more immediate effect on one’s own life; however, through an ethical lens this practice often holds no bearing. In consonance with the moral principal of utilitarianism, it is our ethical duty as humans to put the interests of society above our personal desires and opinions so that we may, in turn, improve the quality of life throughout the entire species. Herein lies the clarification of the discrepancy between the two. Emotional value can only exist for those directly impacted by the subject in question because it requires some sort of personal or emotional connection to exist at all. Conversely, social value may exist notwithstanding one’s personal connection with the subject in question so the standard for valuation is more regular and less subjective. Therefore, because the latter ensures the greater good for the greatest number of individuals, in times of conflict between social and emotional value, social value should be weighted more heavily.

To better put this into context, consider some of the trolley problems we have discussed in class. Ethically, the proper thing to do is to sacrifice the fat man for the family the trolley would otherwise kill – regardless of your relationship with either party. This same thing holds true notwithstanding who the individual being sacrificed is (save for one caveat mentioned later in the essay). This is to say that, even if the man being sacrificed is not fat or even if the sacrifice is a pregnant woman, the sheer numbers of the matter suggest that saving the family will always be the ethically sound decision. Another scenario that exemplifies this concept rather concretely is one in which you have the ability to save two strangers from death at the expense of someone you care about deeply or visa versa. Utilitarianism suggests that the more ethical of the two decisions would be to save the two strangers, because more lives would be spared that way. The concept of emotional value would compel you to save the person you care about deeply, because their connection to you makes them more valuable. This is obviously the more selfish decision and cannot be ethically justified under the premises of utilitarianism.

I argue that social value should and, in fact, does hold more import from a moral standpoint because it will always directly correlate to the beliefs of utilitarianism. In the aforementioned situation, the only way in which emotional value might ever justifiably be considered would be if the decision was between one stranger and one person you care deeply for. At this juncture, utilitarian beliefs would suggest that there is no inherently correct decision because either way only one life would be lost. For that reason, the construct of emotional value would likely step in as a sort of supplement to utilitarianism and suggest that the individual with personal connection to you would be the more logical one to save, because you can both enumerate and verify their value whereas the other individual is a mere gamble.

One possible argument that may arise in response to this ethical stance is that there are no degrees of value in reference to a human life. This view mirrors popular monotheistic religions like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, which state that all humans were created equally in the eyes of the supreme creator. While ideally this should hold true, supporters of this claim must realize that the world we live in simply will not uphold this ideal. The social construct of money and politics has all but eradicated any whimper of a possibility for this idealistic approach to human interaction. In the world today, money is power, and that power directly translates to value. The only source of power that trumps money in our society is the government, and regardless of whether we like it or not, government rules the plebeian.

It is precisely for this reason that there exists an inequality between the value of one life and the next. The creation of political constructs puts an individual or a small group in charge of the remainder of the population. By nature, this creates a social hierarchy that values those who hold positions in the government more highly than the plebeians they rule over.  This hierarchy is subject to varying complexities, of course, contingent on factors such as the type of governmental construct in place or the number of plebeians being ruled over. For a more concrete understanding of this phenomenon, consider the measures the government takes to protect high-powered figures like the President, Speaker of the House, and Vice President (this is the caveat I mentioned earlier). If it were true that all lives hold the same value, the secret service would be both unnecessary and illogical; however, we know through experience that the secret service is absolutely necessary for the physical safety of whomever they are protecting, as well as the wellbeing of the nation as a whole. The mere fact that high-powered individuals receive this extreme protection indicates that they are more valuable members of society. First, there would not be an increased desire to attack them if they were not more valuable than the average person in some way. Also, recall the Kennedy assassination and the widespread backlash the tragedy had on the country. At the time, President Kennedy’s life was valuable enough to the country that his death triggered conspiracy theories for years to come and a general distrust in the American government as a whole (Giokaris). In stark contrast, evaluate the effect the recent death of Joseph D. Anderson, a “normal” man, has had on the lives of our country (JOSEPH). Not much, right? I illuminate this point not to belittle Mr. Anderson’s life, but to highlight the fact that there clearly exists a double standard on the value of these two men’s lives.

All human lives are not equal in value. While this may differ from case to case on which lives hold more value, the fact remains that there some lives that are simply more valuable to the greater good of society than others. This discrepancy exists because some members of society contribute more than others, and although two members may exert the same amount of effort in their respective fields, some forms of contribution are more essential than others. Utilitarianism suggests that we must disregard the personal impact one has on us when attempting to discern what aspects promote value in context of the entire population, so social value is consequently the better indicator for making this decision. The matter of which field holds priority varies from society to society and from culture to culture, but the hierarchy of value remains the same across the board.


Works Cited 

Giokaris, John. "5 Ways JFK's Assassination Changed America Forever." Mic. N.p., 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

  "JOSEPH D. ANDERSON's Obituary on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh Post-Gazet

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