What is the Value of Human Life?

New information from neuroscience, economics, literature, music and psychology, etc. continues to influence me personally and as a professional mediator, as a negotiator and trainer.  I often share the most recent concepts from  books I have read with the participants in mediation.  Or, I use an anecdote from a recent mediation to help the parties understand the legal system.

In this blog, I will tell stories from mediations, share radio programs I have heard, books or articles I have read and explain how they relate to mediation. On Saturday, for example, I took a long walk and listened to a podcast of Diane Rehm interviewing Eduardo Porter about his recent book,“The Cost of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do.” I learned that Ken Feinberg, who acted as Special Master over the settlement of the 9/11 claims, struggled with valuing human life in a public catastrophy.

In a radio broadcast on May 25, 2008, Feinberg articulated his internal struggle with explaining to the families that the law required him to value human life in accord with each person’s financial contribution to the world.  Feinberg found this distinction in conflict with his belief that all lives affected in a public disaster should be equally valued. He felt that the value distinction only fueled the hurt and grief of the survivors.  He knew that the families of bankers and stockbrokers would receive more money in court than the fireman, the waiter or the soldier.  For him, valuing human lives unequally was wrong but he was required to explain the law to the families.

Sounds familiar.  I had recently mediated several cases where I had explained this concept to the widow whose husband of many years had died in a truck accident.  With her grown children sitting at the conference room table surrounding her, grieving the loss of their father who taught them to fish and hunt, who helped raise their children and who served as their their handyman, I explained that the law values the loss by looking at the husband and father’s financial contribution. He was on social security income.  Only.  The discussion was painful but necessary.

In another mediation, I found myself explaining this concept to the siblings of a 30-year-old woman who had died in a truck accident, and in another mediation to a woman whose husband of 40 years died in a motorcycle accident.  In all instances, the person who had died earned modest wages or was on a fixed income.  However, the loss to the family was great.  In all instances, the accident may have been caused, at least partially, by the decedent, but the issue of valuing the loss of life had to be addressed.  After all, money is often the only remedy in wrongful death cases.

The disputes I mediate may not be 9/11, but they are every bit as important to the families.  This is their one dispute.  It may be their only contact with the judicial system. Like Feinberg, I struggle with explaining to them that the law requires us to somehow value the loss based on their loved one’s financial contribution to the world.  Explaining this to a family who has lost a companion of many year or to a to a sister whose best friend and confidant has died — is a delicate balance of reality and empathy.

What is the value of life when a young woman dies in an accident that appears to be the other driver’s fault?  Does that value change when she takes care of her brother’s child? Does that value further change if her brother died in the Iraq war serving our country and she was caring for his child? If the family was close knit, does that change the value? Valuing human life or a decrease in enjoyment of life is an imperfect science.  Unlike the 9/11 tragedy, the accident or event is not a public disaster clearly caused by another, but the questions are equally difficult.

As I read interesting articles relating to mediation or as I have interesting experiences, I will share them.  Please feel free to comment.

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About kshobbs

Karin has mediated over 3,600 disputes in her 14 years as a full on professional mediator.
This entry was posted in law, mediation, Mediation Advocacy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What is the Value of Human Life?

  1. Michele Straube says:

    Your examples highlight why the mediation process is so valuable in cases like this. The financial unfairness of the legal system can potentially be offset by giving the other party the opportunity to offer something to address the overwhelming emotional loss in the situation — an apology, a shared feeling of devastation, payment for something to honor the deceased in perpetuity, etc. These cases are really about so much more than money …

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