Two Ways to Value Human Life

Virtually all human societies have used inconsistent valuations of life across different endeavors and contexts, and contemporary American society does so too. One reason for this is that life valuations perform an allocative function (where to spend money and how much?) and also an “advertising function,” reflecting social values about human dignity. The ideal society I outline in Stubborn Attachments probably would lower the discrepancy between these two approaches to valuing lives, but I doubt if that society could eliminate it. So the socially validated figures for life valuation likely would still stand above what might otherwise be an optimal level. Think of this as PR for the society as a whole.

Why love Vermeer? Stubborn Attachments stresses that a lot of other choices, including aesthetics, lie within paths of equal expected economic growth. They can be addressed by critics, art historians, and perhaps even philosophers of aesthetics. Besides, is it perhaps possible that Vermeer boosts economic growth in Delft to this day?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.