Computing the Cost of a Life
I remember a discussion I had with some professor in the school of engineering.
We debated if their curriculum should or should not include an ethics course.
It was triggered by an exam given at the school which asked students to design a machine that could successfully process blood in some enormous quantity.
In my eyes, the issue was that not one student stopped to ask, where did this blood come from? What is this machine used for?
Maybe I was pushing too hard that in our education we should teach to look at what ideology lies behind what we do, to ask the ethical questions and not only to solve the problem mechanistically.
But this tendency to omit ethical questions from our education does not apply only to engineering—it applies even more so to the study of economics and business.
I remember a seminar paper I had to write during my final year to graduate from the school of economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
I decided to write about the feasibility of building a new road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, so I went to my instructor for help. I asked her how I should go about justifying building that road.
She told me to first find out how many fatalities occur on the existing road and then calculate how many fewer fatalities would occur on the new road. She told me to compute the value of human life by determining how much people who travel on that road earn on average per year and multiplying that number by how many productive years those people lose due to their premature deaths. Determine the present value of their lifetime earnings and, voilà, you have measured how much the new road is worth. Compare that value to the cost of building the road, and you have your answer.
While recently consulting to a construction company, I was reminded of this experience I had as a student.
The debate was over whether or not to have a department of environment, health, and safety (EHS ). The professionals in an EHS department are dedicated to supervising the construction site and ensuring that it is safe, free of health-endangering materials, and not adversely impacting the health of the construction workers.
Someone from the finance department, an economist, suggested analyzing how many people really got hurt, determining how much those injuries cost the company in damages and then comparing that number to how much it would cost to have such professionals on the payroll.
Wait, wait, wait.
Are we looking at the value of human life as a stream of income over their productive lifetime? Is that the real and important loss? Is anyone computing the cost of the tears of the child left orphaned by a deceased parent? Or calculating the pain of losing a loved one? Is lifetime stream of income really the value of a human life?
I suggest that economics and business educators need to revise their curricula to include courses in ethics. Economics and business students need to learn to use the heart as well as the brain.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes