This essay is decidedly less concrete than my usual output. It was sparked by an interesting discussion with some friends including the Big Cajun Man.
We tend to think that our lives have infinite value to us. However, I’m going to argue that your life has a finite value to you and that this value can be quantified is various unsettling ways. I’m not just talking about the value others put on your life, but the value you place on it yourself.
We can see this finite valuation from our choice to engage in risky behaviour such as driving a car. According to this interesting picture, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident sometime in your life (presumably at the end) are about 1 in 84. This would be some sort of average US figure, and the real figure for you would depend on where you live, how much you drive, how you drive, etc. The main point is that your figure is some probability larger than zero.
Unless you have an unusual home or hobbies, driving a car is more dangerous than sitting in your home. So, choosing to drive is usually a voluntary choice to trade some increased risk of death for whatever benefit comes from traveling from one place to another in your car.
However, if your life has infinite value, then this increased risk of death has infinite cost. If the benefit from your car trip is finite, then you’ve made a bad choice.
Now I’m not arguing that driving a car or any other risky behaviour is irrational. What I am arguing is that it is inconsistent with a belief that we assign infinite value to our lives. Risky behaviour is sometimes justified if the benefit that it brings is worth more than the lost value due to the increased risk of death. This is true because the value of a life is finite, even to the person in question.
An apparent counter-argument is that it is rational for people to do just about anything to avoid an otherwise certain death. There is no amount of money you could pay someone to get them to stay in a burning building.
However, this doesn’t mean that people value their lives infinitely. What could anyone possibly do with a stack of money in the few minutes before burning up? In this situation, the money has no value. This is equivalent to “I’ll give you nothing if you stay and burn.”
However, things change if there is only a chance of death. Suppose you were offered a million dollars to roll a pair of dice, and you’d get the money if they don’t come up snake-eyes, but you die if they do both come up 1s. I certainly wouldn’t take this deal, and I suspect few people would take it.
What if we made it three dice so that the odds of dying are now 1 in 216? Still no takers? How about 4 dice? As we keep adding dice, the odds of having them all come up 1s will eventually drop below the chances of dying from some other cause while tossing the dice. At some number of dice it would become rational to take the offer, toss the dice, and walk away with the million dollars (assuming that we’re satisfied that the dice are fair and the game isn’t somehow rigged). Your life has a finite value to you, even measured in dollars.
If you live for 30,000 days (about 82 years), the value of your life is the sum total of the value you extract from each of these 30,000 days. If some event manages to steal the value of one of these days from you and the lost day is a typical day for you, then your loss is about one part in 30,000 as bad as if you had died in infancy.
The inescapable conclusion is that we don’t attach infinite value to our own lives.