The Price of Life: In Search of What We’re Worth and Who Decides by Jenny Kleeman - review by Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini

Value Judgments

The Price of Life: In Search of What We’re Worth and Who Decides


Picador 352pp £18.99

Attaching a price to a human life is the height of poor taste. It obscures the distinction between two very different kinds of value – the monetary and the existential. However, there are situations in which one can, should or even must set aside any thought of the sanctity of human life and make cold, hard calculations. In The Price of Life, the journalist and broadcaster Jenny Kleeman crunches the numbers to reveal the many ways in which human beings are dispassionately priced.

Kleeman announces her intention to ignore all taboos by starting with murder. There may be a cost of living crisis, but the cost of killing remains chillingly affordable. Should you want to bump someone off, the average hitman will set you back around £15,000. But there are also bargains to be had, with the cheapest, non-professional killers costing as little as £200. ‘It’s within the pockets of ordinary people,’ professor of criminology David Wilson tells Kleeman. If you’re anxiously wondering who might be willing to cough up for your own assassination, the evidence from Australia suggests you should not look too far. One study reveals that 20 per cent of hits involve disputes between former romantic partners.

Another kind of price is put on a life when it comes to an end. How much people receive when a loved one dies can be brutally arbitrary. Consider the victims of the 2017 London Bridge attacks. Families of those who were stabbed typically received 5 to 10 per cent of the amount received by those who were run over by the van, because the vehicle was rented and so was covered by insurance for third-party damage.

Public appeals are another source of financial support for victims’ families. Here, it helps if the dead look like the wealthiest and most numerous potential donors. After the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in which eleven white people were killed, $4.4 million was raised in donations. In contrast, $1.5 million was donated after the 2015 Charleston church shooting, in which nine African-Americans were killed.

The most dispiriting chapter concerns the price of a slave. In the UK today, the average amount paid for a female trafficking victim is £3,000 to £4,000, while in some parts of the world a person can be bought for as little as $400. Astonishingly, this is much less than was paid when slavery was legal and rife. A male slave in ancient Egypt cost the equivalent of £25,000 today, while a ‘prime male field hand’ in the southern states of America cost the equivalent of £31,000.

In another chapter, Kleeman weighs up the cost of saving a life, which the charity GiveWell suggests can be as low as $4,500. Behind this figure, however, is a cold logic that leaves the reader unnerved. GiveWell advocates ‘effective altruism’, the idea that you should direct your donations towards causes that have the maximum impact. This may sound laudable, even obvious, but it has many counterintuitive consequences. For example, it implies that workers on their way to GiveWell’s San Francisco headquarters should donate nothing to help the thousands of homeless people that they pass, since the money would have more impact in sub-Saharan Africa.

Kleeman puts her finger on what is wrong with this way of thinking more concisely and precisely than many philosophers. ‘No human being is an altruism computational device, an instrument for maximizing good,’ she say. ‘We help others not just to save crude numbers of lives, but to create the world we want to live in.’ We don’t want a society where bonds of community and family count for nothing. The price of complete impartiality is the diminishing of what makes us human.

Kleeman’s investigation touches on some deep and important moral, political and philosophical issues. For example, every government has to decide how much its health system should spend to keep a person alive. In the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) determines this by working out how many quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) a treatment is likely to add. If a drug costs £20,000 to £30,000 per QALY, it’s deemed to be worth it. Disturbingly, it turns out that no one can give an economic or medical justification for this figure. It works out as much lower than the amount the country ended up spending to save lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. In total, lockdowns cost the nation £180,000 for every life year that they saved. Horrible though it sounds, we have to ask if this was good value, so as to be ready to decide what to do the next time we face such a scenario.

Numbers like these and the associated moral conundrums provide plenty of food for thought. But what makes the book compelling is Kleeman’s fascinating encounters with the people involved in all these life and death decisions. There’s Garland Shreves, a garrulous dealer in cadavers for medical research ($5,000 each, excluding shipping), whose fierce determination to defend the integrity and social value of his business makes him an embarrassingly hectoring interviewee. There’s the reformed hitman John Alite, whose charm sits uneasily with his violent past. Some of Kleeman’s encounters are more affectionate, though: for example, with the parents of a young woman killed on London Bridge and with a gay couple wanting to start a family who are struggling to find the $200,000 needed to pay the costs of IVF and surrogacy.

The reader is left with more questions than answers, but by the end a convincing case is made for Kleeman’s claim that ‘if you truly value life, it can’t be priceless’. Life remains beyond economic value, in the sense that nothing that money can buy can possibly compensate for its loss. But as individuals and a society, we cannot dodge the issue of how much we are prepared to spend to prevent the loss of life in the first place.

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