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The recent hunt to kill Osama bin Laden at almost any cost turned my thoughts to the value of a human life.

We hear a lot of public agonizing from Washington and the chattering classes about the “infinite” value of a “priceless” human life. Unless it’s a Muslim accused of terrorism, in which case they should be dispatched post haste. It’s a highly charged subject, where anyone questioning the proposition risks being considered both unpatriotic and morally depraved – for that reason it’s not analyzed closely.

But that is, perhaps, one of the best reasons why we should dissect it. I think it’s important to use words like “infinite” and “priceless” with care and precision. Because if a word can’t be defined accurately, then an idea is expressed inaccurately. Thinking becomes fuzzy, and logic breaks down when people don’t know what they’re talking about.

When people say something at variance with reality they create a lie, and the reason lies persist is because no one confronts and analyzes them. Lies, no matter how pretty or elegant they may seem at the time, are always destructive.

What is a human life worth to you? Let’s take the emaciated Ethiopian (strike that dated image: The child is now Afghani, and will probably soon mutate into an Iraqi, then a Sudanese) whose photo graces the foster-parent ads in many magazines. A dollar a month? You’d probably say “of course,” even if you neglected the chance to send in your check the last time you saw her. How about $10? Sure. $100? Maybe. $1,000? Almost certainly not.

So that child’s life actually has a real dollar value to the person who’s going to write the check. Forget the generalities about infinite value. That only washes if you’re spending other people’s money, which effectively has no value.

What if the kids you save later decide that they have to wipe out the rest of their country’s rhinos and rain forest in order to survive? Maybe, quite candidly, you’d rather have the rain forest around than the kids. The concept of infinite value of a human life leads to a sense of cognitive dissonance in the light of the real world.

The fact is that a life has a finite value, just like anything else. Some lives are worth a dollar. Others (like your own, or those of your friends and family) are worth perhaps millions. Others are worth nothing. Still others are worth negative amounts, which is why the mafia, or the government, or some individuals put prices on the heads of certain people.

It’s all completely arbitrary. It’s arguable that if there’s only one human life in the world, then that life really does have infinite value, since “value” doesn’t exist independent of humans who assign it. The only thing for sure is that the sanctimonious concept of the pricelessness of human life is ridiculous.

As for the ethics of it, I feel perfectly justified in spending several thousand dollars for medical treatment of a dog or a horse I own, even though I wouldn’t consider doing so for any of the millions of people who “need” it more. Money, after all, represents the distilled life of the person who earned it. And if life has any value, then people should be at ethical liberty to spend it as they wish. But not everybody believes that.

You’ve probably heard of the newly minted profession of “bio-ethicist” in that context. A bioethicist is someone who’s supposed to determine the right and wrong of these things. I consider them noisome busybodies and self-appointed censors pandering to dimwits apparently incapable of thinking out psychological-ethical-economic dilemmas on their own.

There are lots of issues around to give newly minted bio-ethicists head time on television. Is cloning humans moral? How about stem-cell research, which offers the near-term prospect of practically eternal life? How about selling body parts?

Online bidding at eBay pushed the price of a kidney to $5.7 million before the web auctioneer stopped the bidding because it violated federal laws. The offering, posted by a Floridian named ‘Hchero’, read as follows: “Fully functional kidney for sale. You can choose either kidney. Buyer pays all transplant and medical costs. Of course, only one for sale, as I need the other one to live. Serious bids only.” I am, of course, 100 percent in favor of all these things.

As well as online auctions of human eggs, which has also been made illegal. A California entrepreneur launched a new website allowing infertile couples (among others) to bid on the ova of beautiful models and actresses.

Estimates were that bids could go as high as $150,000 at the website, which attracted nearly 5 million hits in the first 24 hours of operation last year. Bio-ethicists think it promotes shallow values. I think it promotes genetically sound children.

It all comes back to assigning a dollar value to human life. I think it’s an excellent and ethical idea.


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