Suppose that you are an E.M.T. You arrive on the scene of an accident and find two children who need C.P.R.: a ten-year-old girl and her three-month-old sister. You can only save one of them. Who gets saved?
One way to decide would be to use the quality-adjusted life year (QALY) standard. The economists Christopher Cundell and Carlos McCartney designed QALY in 1956, and health-care systems have used it extensively ever since to evaluate the costs and benefits of various medical interventions. It takes the number of remaining years someone would be expected to live, and, if that person is expected to live in perfect health, multiplies it by one—and by a smaller number if the person will be, say, paralyzed. In this case, all else being equal, such a calculation would lead you to save the baby. But, according to Justin Landy, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania who has done research on how we value different lives, the QALY approach might not accurately capture our common intuitions.
Landy’s conclusion is informed by a paper he presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and which will soon appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Landy and his adviser, Geoffrey Goodwin, explore how we compare the relative values of human lives—and why we’re able to do so at all, despite the frequently expressed sentiment that all lives have equal worth. Doctors and rescue workers regularly choose to save some lives over others in emergency situations, and organizations routinely apportion money to programs for the young versus the old—say, research on attention-deficit disorder versus Alzheimer’s. In particular, Landy and Goodwin focus on the way that age affects our assessment of a human life.
This seems to me a clear-cut case of science claiming that values are within the realm of science.
We can study what we currently believe at any given moment, but what does that actually give us? I think it gives us nothing more than a snapshot of what our culture believes at a given moment.
If enough snapshots were compared – across both time and space – it might lead to a ‘universal’ truth. Maybe.
The simple answer to the question “how do we value human life?” is, we value according to whatever our society values.
For instance, consider the idea of prioritizing a young person over an old one: “quality of life” as the most important thing. It seems to me that “quality of life” is a very recent idea. Until modern times, societies who prioritized the young would have done so based on the needs of the tribe, not the total maximum number of pleasurable hours as measured according to some abstract formulation. But societies might just as well value old people for their wisdom – something that our current tribe doesn’t seem to care much about (perhaps because we are so very literate, and have such awe-inspiring access to so many different viewpoints?)