The human recipe.

Benchmarking the value of human life – Cultural, Economic & Geographic Considerations

Centuries ago, Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith attempted to assign a concrete value to human life. He, ultimately, landed on a wage-based valuation because, in his mind, this wealth represented “the ease or hardship, the cleanliness or dirtiness, the honorableness or dishonorableness of the employment.”

Though many still prescribe to the wage-based view of human valuation, the debate continues with, likely, no real answer. How can a person, group or economic indicator truly assign an accurate “price tag” to a single human’s life? And, more importantly, how could these individuals or parameters indicate this person’s life has more value than that person’s life?

Anchoring the Conversation: Wealth vs. Health vs. Location

Despite the seemingly endless loop of the human life valuation conversation, countless thought leaders have attempted to frame the back-and-forth in tangible, tactile terms. While arguments abound about how to value one human’s life from another’s, many of the most prominent debates are anchored in wealth — how much a person has or could have versus another — health and age and, finally, geographic location.
Valuing Life in Dollars and Cents
The wealth debate is fairly straightforward because quantifying values are relatively black and white. By this benchmark, a billionaire’s life would be worth exponentially more than someone living below the poverty line. For example, consider billionaire Warren Buffett and a minimum wage worker in Malawi:


$77.6 billion net worth

$12.7 billion annual revenue


$0 net worth

K15,000 per month (based on a six-day work week) = $248.16 annual salary

By this measure, at any given moment in time, Buffett’s life would be valued exponentially higher than the minimum wage worker. In a given year, the latter has no more than 2/1,000,000% value of Buffett based purely of their respective — and projected — earning potential. Layer in existing wealth or lack thereof and the balance is skewed even more.

Health & Age Considerations

That said, there’s also the health and age considerations which many weigh heavily when assessing the value of human life. While Buffett is a billionaire he’s also, currently, 86 years old, already exceeding the U.S. life expectancy by close to eight years. Side-by-side with a younger billionaire or, even, high momentum entrepreneur, investor or business leader, it’s hard to say his life has more value.

For example, Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg has a net worth of $70.5 billion — about 10% less than Buffett. However, Zuckerberg is 53 years younger than Buffett and, based on published accounts, in very good health. Because, presumably, Zuckerberg has decades longer to live and generate wealth than Buffett, one could make the leap that his life has greater value despite the elder’s economic superiority.

And it’s not just the ultra-wealthy who fall into these consideration sets. When thinking age and the value of life, many physicians, ethicists and academics have long debated the value of a terminally ill elderly patient versus a terminally ill child. One seems inherently more devastating as we console ourselves with reminders than the former “lived a good life.” It’s as if someone in their 60s, 70s or 80s life no longer holds the same value of a child or 20something.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they’ve already “spent” their years or, from a purely value perspective, that their earning potential and quantifiable value seems to be winding down or, even, obsolete. A child, on the other hand, is just getting started. Their life holds seemingly limitless possibilities and potential — potential to create tangible value for themselves and the world around them.

The valuation gap widens when health gets layered in. The terminally ill elderly patient versus the young, healthy child — most would argue the healthy child’s life has greater value when put head to head. This child not only has health on their side by, also, decades of potential contributions, earnings and more. The value, in this example, seems to far outpace the ill senior.

Geographic Value

Finally and, often, in conjunction with financial, age and health considerations, is the notion of geography and the role in plays in valuing a human’s life. More stable, wealthy countries tend to have citizens with higher household incomes and overall net worth.

Presently, the U.S. has the highest average salaries at $42,050. This high income is paired with the highest disposable income in the world, giving Americans’ lives significantly high tangible value. After the U.S. is Ireland ($41,170) where a well-educated workforce and relatively low tax rate contributes to their earning power and then Luxembourg ($37,997) anchored by a massive investment fund center that fuels the economy.

On the other end of the spectrum Malawi, again, has the lowest gross net income at approximately $250 per year followed by Burundi ($270), Central African Republic ($320), Liberia ($370) and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($380). Using geography and the economics that come with, the average Liberian’s life would be valued at 0.9% of an average American’s life.

Layer into this valuation other geographic considerations such as safety and security, freedom, opportunities for growth and development, education and general happiness/satisfaction and that number would, likely, adjust. For example, Liberia has a higher happiness score than the U.S. — 22.2 versus 20.7 — while the U.S. outpaces Liberia in life expectancy, well-being and equality. All of these geographic qualities would, then, adjust the valuation even more, likely giving U.S. lives even greater value over their Liberian counterparts.

Another potential geographic valuation point? The Fragile State Index. These countries are rife with political, social and economic challenges, with low GDPs, high unemployment and overall upheaval from war, famine and government unrest.

Top 10 States, Fragile States Index:

  1. South Sudan
  2. Somalia
  3. Central African Republic
  4. Yemen
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Democratic Republic of the Congo
  8. Chad
  9. Afghanistan
  10. Iraq

For comparison purposes, the United States ranks 158th out of 178 countries on the index, meaning it’s economic and foundational elements are strong.

Cultural Considerations

In the geography vein, there’s also the notion of different regions and cultures and the value they traditionally place on human life. A good example? The divide between men and women in some nations. In Nepal, for example, young women who aren’t married may be sold to traffickers in their teen and, even, pre-teen years. In Saudi Arabia, women are seen as lifelong dependents of their husband or close male relative. They can’t drive and can’t publically interact with men outside their families.

Given these existing frameworks, it’s clear the value of a woman’s life in these countries is significantly less than a man’s life — granted, this may be seen as extreme or, even, inappropriate benchmarking considering the human rights violations that surround.

On the other end are the wealthy nations where women are not only social equals but, also, outearn their male counterparts. In Ireland, Australia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, happiness ratings are high and childless women outearn men by upwards of 17%. One could argue the value of a woman’s life in these countries exceeds that of a woman in segregated societies. This, though, would be purely based in cultural considerations and regional inequalities in these nations.

Putting it Together: How the World Values Life

In the U.S., for example, many agencies have attempted to assign a value to human life. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) values human life at $9.1 million, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) puts a $7.9 million price tag on a single life and the Department of Transportation lands around $6 million. Each bases their calculations on economic theories of cost-benefit analysis surrounding wages and the value workers place on avoiding the risk of death. By these standards, those in more dangerous, more developing and less wealthy nations would, still, have much lower values assigned to their lives.

This debate is, likely, one that will wage on for generations, with some arguing putting a concrete value on a person’s life is impossible — it’s the “priceless” argument, which many continue to hold onto. However, as New Scientist explains, “Your life might feel priceless to you and your loved ones, but society needs to know its value.” Why? Because, simply, “If we were to embrace the idea that life has immeasurable value,” they write, “there would be no ceiling on how much we would be prepared to spend to reduce the chance of dying, even by an infinitesimal amount. That may seem morally right, but it is economic madness.” So, for now, the discourse and debate continues, as economists, academics, philosophers and countless others weigh the factors that contribute to our individual lives and their valuations.


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