What Is the Value of a Human Life?

In an essay titled “What Is the Value of a Human Life?”, Kenneth Feinberg, the Special Master for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, recounts his odyssey of conscience regarding the legitimacy of what he now considers the law’s invidious distinctions between individuals based upon their incomes. He describes how he originally accepted the standard legal view that the value of a human life, for the purpose of determining compensation, is calculated according to the victim’s expected financial earnings:

After Sept. 11, I confronted the challenge of placing a value on human life by calculating different amounts of compensation for each and every victim. The law required that I give more money to the stockbroker, the bond trader and the banker than to the waiter, the policeman, the fireman and the soldier at the Pentagon. This is what happens every day in courtrooms throughout our nation. Our system of justice has always been based upon this idea — that compensation for death should be directly related to the financial circumstances of each victim.

He subsequently describes how he “began to question this basic premise of our legal system”, finding “the law in conflict with my growing belief in the equality of all life”:

I was engaged in a personal struggle. I felt it would make more sense for Congress to provide the same amount of public compensation to each and every victim — to declare, in effect, that all lives are equal. But in this case, the law prevailed.

His conclusion:

In the case of Sept. 11, if there is a next time, and Congress again decides to award public compensation, I hope the law will declare that all life should be treated the same. Courtrooms, judges, lawyers and juries are not the answer when it comes to public compensation. I have resolved my personal conflict and have learned a valuable lesson at the same time. I believe that public compensation should avoid financial distinctions which only fuel the hurt and grief of the survivors. I believe all lives should be treated the same.

Mr. Feinberg’s legal and moral reasoning is somewhat unclear; while he repeatedly declares his newfound “belief in the equality of all life”1, he also seems to repeatedly limit the application of this principle to public compensation. He fails to explain whether he actually advocates that the law governing private compensation for wrongful death – the law that is applied “every day in courtrooms throughout our nation” – should be revised to treat all lives equally, or, alternatively, to provide a distinction between public and private compensation.

In any event, Halacha also does not treat all lives equally; it has the same perspective as the law on compensation for wrongful death:

[תניא] ונתן פדיון נפשו דמי ניזק רבי ישמעאל בנו של רבי יוחנן בן ברוקה אומר דמי מזיק2

זה שאמר בתורה [גבי שור המועד שהמית את האדם – י’] וגם בעליו יומת מפי השמועה למדו שחיוב מיתה זו בידי שמים ואם נתן כופר הנהרג נתכפר לו. ואף על פי שהכופר כפרה הוא ממשכנין את מי שנתחייב בכופר בעל כרחו3

כמה הוא הכופר. כמו שיראו הדיינין שהוא דמי הנהרג הכל לפי שוויו של נהרג שנאמר ונתן פדיון נפשו ככל אשר יושת עליו.4

  1. By which I presume he means “all human life”. []
  2. בבא קמא דף מ’ ע”א []
  3. רמב”ם הלכות נזקי ממון פרק י’ הלכה ד []
  4. שם פרק י”א הלכה א []

2 thoughts on “What Is the Value of a Human Life?”

  1. There are areas where the Torah does treat all life equally – Erachin and a slave who was killed by an animal.

    It seems that the Torah acknowledges both ways of evaluating peolpe, either by their productive capacity, or based on set amounts.

  2. You are, of course, correct. I was discussing the specific question of the value of a human life with regard to compensation for wrongful death. Your point about a slave who is killed by an animal is specific to slaves; free men are valued according to their economic worth, which is exactly the point I made in my original post.

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