This is going to be a long one. Maybe I should write more regularly instead of trying to do a total brain dump all at once.
How does one measure the value of life? It seems to undergird much of the debate, fear, and frustration these days. Can you put a price on someone’s life vs. another’s? What about the quality of life — maybe not comparing life vs. death but say, living (but in pain) vs. death? Is starving or chronically-ill life worth more than healthy, productive youth? And to whom?
Some would quickly respond to say that ALL life, in any condition or form, is more valuable than death including that of pets, livestock, and wild animals. It’s a complex issue, by all means, wrapped in emotions, faith, politics, economics, and even science. So, I think avoiding blanket responses without first carefully considering some of the possible permutations is wise.
That said, I don’t know of any way to put a measurable (like dollar) value on life. We, as a society, can’t even seem to agree on the definition of LIFE much less on how to determine its objective value. And even individually, our own values change constantly depending on our circumstances, time, and an innumerable set of caveats and exceptions.
It’s like trying to quantify Joy or Sorrow or Love or Anger. And it’s because these are values that are totally subjective, yet emotionally paramount, to each individual that we oftentimes find ourselves arguing with friends, loved ones, and complete strangers over them. They are at the core of who we are and define how we operate in a social society.
To further complicate matters, how do we weigh our subjective values against another’s? How do we even begin to measure how much I love someone vs. another person? How do we compare how much you need something vs. the general population’s need? Is it a matter of headcount? The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one (as Spock famously stated)?
In order to think about this topic, let’s take a step back and first define Values since there are many ways to look at this. Some would call them Morals, others our laws, even others would say they are Absolute and completely defined by God and not subjective at all.
To be clear, I’m not trying to describe any of these. At least not directly.
When it comes to values that people have, what I’m presently interested in is 1) how we rank the available Choices we have in front of us, right now, and 2) the actions we take as a result. It’s possible that by looking at these two, we can actually get a pretty good picture of the other Values described earlier (let’s call them Good vs. Bad). But that will be a topic for another post.
Let’s start with an example where I have a $10 bill. I can spend it on a McDonald’s #1 meal, buy a couple 40 oz bottles of malt liquor, pay for a month of Netflix, keep it in the bank to eventually pay my bills later in the month, give it to the homeless guy on my block, buy some candy for my kids, give it to the church. I can use it blow my nose or wipe . . . nah, I’ve got enough TP. I can also do nothing with it and sit on the couch.
In my mind, I might be weighing out all of these options, ranking the perceived benefits or costs. I like the idea of having a Big Mac in my stomach right about now, but I might also think a month of Netflix would be really sweet, particularly while on lockdown. Maybe I’m feeling bad about that homeless guy and want to help him out. And so on.
It’s also entirely possible that I give it no thought whatsoever and do nothing or even act impulsively. I could flip a coin to make up my mind.
The point is that only I can see what’s actually going on in my mind and heart. I’m creating a ranking of Value – to ME – for all the things that I could do with my $10. Realistically, I’m probably not thinking of my choices and their perceived outcome in terms of comparative orders of magnitude. Even for me, it would be impossible to say “I’d like McDonald’s twice as much as giving it to my church or four times as much as saving it in the bank.” That’s nonsensical. All I can do is rank them Ordinally in terms of preferring this vs. that right now – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.
As I had already mentioned, the order of my list could change, for no reason at all, at any moment. I might suddenly remember the last time I had McDonald’s, I felt terrible about an hour later. So, in my mind, McDonald’s just dropped from #1 to #20.
As new information comes to me, as time passes, as circumstances and emotions change, everything is up for grabs.
So how, with all this potential variability, can ANYONE else know what’s most valuable to me? How is it possible to know what a family of 5 people, a neighborhood block, a town, a county, a state, or a country values most right now? Or next week? Or next month?
This is where our Actions send a signal of our individual Values scales to others. As an outsider, the only way we can perceive someone’s Values scale is to observe their actions (or lack of action). We can observe someone buying McDonald’s or opening a bank account or taking donations to a charity or purchasing services.
These observations are just that – observations of what ranked the highest at that moment on their Values scales. We still have no idea what other choices each individual had available to them. We don’t know how long or quickly decisions were made. We don’t know if people’s motivations were selfish, altruistic, haughty, vain, philanthropic – even more fundamentally if their intentions were “Good” or “Bad”.
We can only see the results.
As outsiders, we might question their motives. We might accuse them of making bad choices. We could turn our noses up in the air and think “how dare they make that choice?!?” But without knowing their Values scales and how they arrived at their choices, we just don’t know anything except which Value was at the top of the list that led to an observed action (or inaction).
So where does that leave us? Hopefully, if you’ve never thought about it, it gives you a deeper appreciation (and maybe some room for graciousness) when it comes to your judgment of someone’s observed behavior. Commonly, you’ve likely heard someone say that you shouldn’t judge someone unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. I would simply say that it’s arrogant and short-sighted to assume your Values scale always aligns with mine or everyone else’s.
Now I’ll state this again because I can see my Christian readers getting all twisted. I am NOT talking about moral relativism. I’m not placing any ethical determination on how you created your Values scale, what your motivation was, how long you thought it through, whether you were drunk or high at the time, if you’re uneducated or scholarly . . . none of that. I am simply talking about the fact that what we, on the outside, observe are the fruits of someone’s internal Values scale.
I might have every good intention to eat right, go to the gym and work out, see my doctor regularly, avoid cigarette smoke or population-dense gatherings (something we’re all too aware of these days). But if I don’t do any of that, the only conclusion an outsider can make is that – for WHATEVER REASON – these were not high enough on my Values scale to cause me to act. Something else was more important to me.
Maybe I’m working 2 jobs and going to school at night. Maybe I’m struggling to take care of my family and have to eat whatever I can. Maybe there are no gyms around me. Or maybe I just don’t know enough about good and bad diet choices. Maybe I have a chronic, genetic illness. Or maybe I just don’t care enough about my health, and my good intentions disappear after Jan 2 each year. Again, there’s no way to know everyone’s situation or circumstance.
So then. Given our limitations on seeing everyone’s Values scales – how is it possible to weigh my choices against yours? How much weight should my choices influence decisions that impact your future choices? I won’t go into defining Positive vs. Negative Rights as I’ve done that already previously here. But here are a few considerations in thinking about them both.
Today, there are billions of people all over the world that are struggling with how to balance personal liberty, choices and the public good. In the US, there’s an internet war raging over the people who would love to force everyone into mandatory quarantine unless you are deemed an ‘essential employee’. That distinction loosely covers scientists, medical and emergency responders, law enforcement, legislators and executive branch members, providers of food (as long as it’s carry out or delivery), and stores where people can buy food and supplies. (For now, forget the fact that there are so many subjective ways to define these ‘essential’ exemptions.)
Many of these proponents will point to flattening bell curves, short supplies of hospital beds and respirators, and the all-powerful face mask supply as justification for completely abolishing our rights to make choices based on our own Values scales. The good of the people is more important. If we can save one life of a loved one or celebrity, then it’s worth it.
The sentiment I read a lot from these people is that if we don’t act now, drastically and dramatically, then more people will die from COVID-19. Usually, the fear is focused around someone specifically on their hearts and minds – a father, a grandmother, a medical employee, a child, or a spouse.
And because there’s such a personal, strong emotion tied to that fear, it’s difficult to say much that will convince them of any idea short of ALL HANDS-ON DECK. Lock it all down. Arrest anyone that violates the king’s orders. We must exhaust every resource available, public or private, to defeat this virus. If it means bankrupting the country or the world, throwing us into complete, tyrannical rule, and shredding any remnant of personal freedom remaining, with the hope (no guarantee) of saving lives, many are quickly willing to make that trade.
I’m overexaggerating and oversimplifying to a degree, and not everyone is in this camp that wants tighter controls. But it’s frightening to me to watch how quickly we’ve moved the political and social needles in such a short amount of time. What’s also noteworthy is that many of these people are in positions to be flexible. Many still have a job or have savings or relatives that can help them. Some of these people are perfectly fine deciding FOR ALL the sacrifices they need to make because the impact to them, personally, is a mild inconvenience.
At least it is for today.
Just some of the related news to note –
- In Hungary, parliament handed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unlimited executive authority to save them from the virus. Like a page right out of Star Wars when Jar Jar Binks nominated Palpatine into the Emperor’s seat, the Hungarian legislators didn’t even put any date or condition by which this executive authority would end. It’s as long as he wants to keep it or feels he needs it in order to keep the people safe.
- Reporters and politicians are applauding President Trump’s use of the Defense Production Act to order private businesses to manufacture and distribute ‘essential’ goods like he did with General Motors and ventilators. (Yes, other presidents have used this authority. It doesn’t make it any less scary.)
- The Department of Justice tried (and failed for now) to get Congress to suspend several Constitutional rights to speed lane the fight against COVID.
“But the Constitution grants citizens habeas corpus which gives arrestees the right to appear in front of a judge and ask to be released before trial. Enacting legislation like the DOJ wants would essentially suspend habeas corpus indefinitely until the emergency ended. Further, DOJ asked Congress to suspend the statute of limitations on criminal investigations and civil proceedings during the emergency until a year after it ended.
>Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told Politico the measure was “terrifying,” saying, “Not only would it be a violation of [habeas corpus], but it says ‘affecting pre-arrest.’ So that means you could be arrested and never brought before a judge until they decide that the emergency or the civil disobedience is over. I find it absolutely terrifying. Especially in a time of emergency, we should be very careful about granting new powers to the government.”
- Today, NJ Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order authorizing the State Police to commandeer medical supplies and equipment – privately owned supplies and equipment – in order to keep New Jersey safe.
- In the US, at the time of this writing, as many as 38 States (out of 50 for all you non-American readers) have shut down or severely restricted travel. More and more states are following Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s model of stopping out-of-state licensed vehicles and sending police door to door, without warrants, to search for New York City residents trying to find shelter in her state.
- Last week, Congress and the President signed into law the Cares Act – a $2 TRILLION emergency economic stabilization fund. Those of you that can’t get your head around that large of a number – here are some things to consider:
- $1 Trillion is a MILLION x MILLION. $2 TRILLION is the same amount of money as handing $1 Million to 2 million families or households!
- The US estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the year in 2019 is around $21 Trillion. That represents EVERYTHING the whole country produced in a year.
- Our current National Debt levels are sitting around $24 Trillion. (yes, we currently owe more than we make).
- Also today, the US Dept of Labor announced over 6.6 MILLION Americans filed for unemployment for the first time. Last week, that number was over 3.3 Million. In just 2 weeks, the government’s response of forcing businesses to shut down and cancel their plans has put 10 MILLION Americans out of work.
My intent in sharing all of these examples is not because I want the virus to spread like wildfire. I don’t want to see anyone die from this plague. I’m not just focused on the money. But the fact is that all of these decisions that are being made right now HAVE CONSEQUENCES, both short and long-term. And we need to carefully consider what those consequences are before we completely abdicate all authority to our kings and queens to manage everything for us.
We especially need to be careful that the restrictions and demands “we” are making on behalf of the people aren’t causing them harm in a different manner. Every time we restrict choices, we are not allowing countless individuals and families to pursue the things highest on their Values scales.
Earlier in the week, one of our refrigerators died overnight. Fortunately, we have another in the garage so some food could be salvaged. I also purchased an extended warranty on it less than 3 years ago. I called the big box store’s warranty dept. and waited almost 40 minutes on hold to speak to someone.
When I finally got through, the woman that helped me was a very calm, sympathetic, and friendly person, and she helped me get a service appointment within 48 hrs. I found out she lives in Indiana, and they’re going through the same things we were. I told her I was thankful she was still working so that I could get my fridge fixed. She mentioned that the company had the resources available to transition much of their phone support employees to Work From Home so that business could continue.
The local service contractors reached out to me the next morning to confirm my appointment. They too were short-staffed and limiting their workload. Again, I expressed my gratefulness that they were still in business even though some of the powers-that-be could easily have deemed their work “non-essential”. A technician came out this morning, was able to replace a bad compressor on our fridge, and we’re up and running.
The point I’m trying to make is that with just the 3 people I interacted with, there are likely dozens of dependencies in the supply chain to get me the service my family needed. I have no visibility into any of those dependencies, but neither does a government bureaucrat thousands of miles away. Any disruption to that supply chain could easily have left me without our main refrigerator – in a time when we’re all ordered to Stay Home.
It’s natural to have some fear during these times. It’s only human to have concern for our loved ones and even ‘humanity’ as a whole and want to do what we can do combat this plague. But we cannot allow, we must not allow, our society to be governed by fear.
There are countless examples daily of individuals and businesses, through no govt mandate or threat of force, that are voluntarily working to fight this virus — because it’s a priority to them. It’s highest on their Values scales. Many companies are working on producing more masks, ventilators or alternatives to ventilators, vaccines, testing kits, sanitizers, and cleaning supplies. Those that can are instructing their employees to work from home or to change to virtual meetings. Many of these companies did so preemptively before a State or Federal mandate was announced.
As for me, I join the ranks of Matt Kibbe from Free the People that are pushing back and not allowing us to completely burn the house down in fear. I hope you will consider pulling back from the ledge and calmly, rationally see what you can do personally to fight this plague without overriding another person’s ability to choose what’s highest on their own Values scales. As Kibbe writes –
“So when I see politicians mandating, or regular people demanding, as a moral imperative, that all human interaction cease immediately until the risk of infection ends, I know that they are probably not considering the consequences of such a policy. They are likely not thinking about, or are totally unaware of, the incredibly complex division of labor and distributed responsibilities that drive our prosperous modern economy. Millions, even billions of people you don’t know, are all working together constantly to ensure that each of us gets what we want and need to sustain our lives. We all contribute to this beautiful process, each of us deciding for our own selves, who does what best.
One of the many reasons people don’t like economists is that we are always going on about the importance of free exchange, the profound benefits of the division of labor, economic tradeoffs and the unintended problems created by actions motivated, perhaps, by the best of intentions. There is a cost and a benefit to everything, and sometime we are forced to choose. “You can do that, but did you consider that this other thing might happen as a consequence?” In a social media driven society that seems to hunger for quick fixes to complex problems, economic realities can be a real downer. Why, a hashtag trending on Twitter asks, can’t everyone just #StayTheF**kHome? But in a society that depends on the distributed expertise of each and every one of us, I’m willing to be that guy, the one offering unsolicited economic advice: There are unseen, unintended consequences of the currently proposed public policies intended to keep us safe, policies that will make us less safe and less able to take care of ourselves and others that need help.”