Can’t put a price on human life? Nonsense. We do it all the time: Chris MacDonald

(Photo: Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

(Photo: Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

How much is a human life worth? Or, to put a finer point on it, how much is your life worth, to you? How much would you have to be paid in order to risk your life as part of your job?

It is sometimes said that you can’t put a price on a human life. This is of course nonsense—we do it all the time. When I buy life insurance, it means figuring out how much I am worth, financially, to my family: how much money would they have to receive to make up for the loss of my income? We also put a price on our own lives when we buy cars. Unless you’re driving the absolute safest car you could theoretically afford, you are implicitly putting a price on your life. To do the math, take the difference in price between your car and (let’s say) a high-end Volvo, compare that to the difference in the likelihood of death in the event of a crash, and there you go: you’ve put a price on your own life—and perhaps on your children’s lives too.

But what about in an employment context? What about paying people to do the relatively dangerous work of soldiers, firefighters, miners, or fishers? Is it OK to put a “price” on people’s lives that way?

It is a fact of life that there are dangerous jobs out there, and it is also a fact of life that there’s a limit to how much we can do to make them safer. No job is totally safe, and some are liable to remain downright dangerous. So employers are unable to avoid the fact that they are sometimes going to be paying people to risk their lives.

How much should they pay? To begin, let’s ask how much they need to pay. Other things being equal, an employer is likely to have to pay someone more to get them to do a job that is dangerous, that involves working in an isolated place, that is tedious, or that involves shift work. Those are all factors that most people would like to avoid, and so getting people to submit to such conditions is going to require some form of inducement. But that is really just a practical necessity, rather than a matter of ethics. It doesn’t answer the harder question of how much an employer should pay workers to do a dangerous job.

The problem with trying to answer that question is that not everyone sees risk the same, or sees risky activities in the same light. They may even disagree over whether a given activity (bungee jumping, anyone?) is risky at all. One person’s insanity is another’s adrenaline rush. Members of some occupations (miners, for example) apparently don’t see their job as especially risky, even though the relevant statistics put it among the riskiest. And some firefighters think that the risks of rushing into burning buildings pale in comparison to the agonies of sitting behind a desk all day. Putting the point quite generally, people weigh various costs and benefits differently, both because of differences in individual psychology and because of differences in their personal circumstances. And when it comes to sorting people according to the risks they see as worth taking, and compensating them accordingly, the more-or-less free market system we currently use is probably the best (or least-bad) system anyone has ever devised.

In the end, an employer’s primary focus really should be on safety—it is much better to eliminate or minimize a danger than to pay people extra to subject themselves to it. Part of the focus on safety should include a commitment to making sure employees and potential employees fully understand the risks that come with the job, something that can be no small achievement in a complex workplace. And once a workplace is as safe as practical, and once employees understand the residual risks, then from an ethical point of view offering and accepting danger pay becomes a matter of free and informed choice.

(Note: I discussed these issues on a recent episode of CBC Radio’s The Current. Thanks to the team there, including especially host Anna Maria Tremonti and producer Sujata Berry.)

Chris MacDonald is director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management

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2 comments on “Can’t put a price on human life? Nonsense. We do it all the time: Chris MacDonald

  1. I can see danger pay, but what is a retired veteran’s life worth to government after retirement. As per US veterans being short changed?

  2. Stephen: I’m interested in your Letters in the Mail subscription. I’m a high university English teacher, and i believed this may be a excellent way for getting my students to write responding to your letters. On the other hand, I have to be certain that the topics with the letters is going to be appropriate for my students 9, 10, and 11th graders. Will you please comment on what the topics might be in general? Thank you.