Fight the dragon

My cliff notes for “The value of a life“:

Putting a price on a life is important for saving lives in our economic world, but this is different from the value of a life.

This post tells the fable of a civilization of happy people living to ripe old ages, highly valuing life, who one day are visited by an evil dragon who collects an annual tax of gold for each citizen in proportion to their age. May old members of society die in the early years, taken by the dragon, until slowly the civilization gets better and better at meeting the tax.

[Spoiler: Reading the actual post is going to be way more entertaining than my cliff notes from here on.]

The dragon is an allegory for death. Even as the people accept their fate, they develop specialization and economics and never stop fighting it. Soon, they push back to only small, old group dying each year. But in the meantime they also value art — because it helps with morale and motivation, etc.

And, in this world, you can calculate the exact economic cost of saving a life. Which leads to a difficult conflict: It is true that we must treat a life as equivalent in value to some amount of some other commodity (like movie tickets). (If the economy is running efficiently, and thus people are buying movie tickets in proportion to their entertainment/motivational value, then if the people producing those files turned their attention instead to mining more gold to save more lives, the society’s net output of lives saved would actually drop!)

At the same time, the value of a human life is priceless, infinite, or at least far beyond compare of the value of watching  a few thousand movies. (The price equivalence between 1 life and 1 thousand movies is definitely not saying their value is equal; to think so is to forget the most important contextual fact driving all of this, which is that the village is plagued by a dragon: In fact, 1 life is worth more than 1 thousand movies, which is why watching those 1 thousand movies to help maximize lives saved through entertainment/motivation is actually a significant value-gain for this efficient economy.)

In our reality, things are similar. (Here, markets on the value of life are inefficient (millions to push back death in developed economies, thousands in poor economies), and frankly we don’t prioritize maximizing lifespans. We also don’t act rationally in myriad ways, and life is about quality as much or more than quantity. But, still.)

Compare a button that pays you $10 when pressed at the cost of a 1 in a million chance of killing someone, with the risks of, say, driving a car, which has a much higher risk of resulting in someone’s death, a price you pay anyway for the value of convenience of driving a care. Press that button and take that $10, and put it toward saving other lives; we come out ahead. This illustrates the value of actually putting a market cost on saving a life.

To repeat: Don’t confuse this cost with the intrinsic value of a life. The gap between the two is because we are plagued by death that we’ve yet to figure out how to stop. That gap is as much a tragedy as it is real.

That gap is a direct measure of the difference between the universe that is, and the universe that should be.

That price difference, the difference between a few thousand dollars and a few thousand suns, is a direct measure of how fucked up things are.

If it weren’t for the dragon coming for us all, we could afford to put a lot more into saving those relatively few lives that would be occasionally, not inevitably imperiled.

This whole piece is a “sermon” preaching pushing back death. Some work the dragon’s mines: work in health care. Some build weapons to fight the dragon: To try and eliminate biological death. Some of us work in the entertainment industry, helping making life worthwhile for the rest.

You can join. You can do the right thing even if you don’t feel care in the proportion. Care for yourself before you care for others; you can do more good that way. Drum up some fury, some resolve, some defiance, etc. — and leave your guilt and shame at home.

This post is part of the thread: Replacing Guilt Cliffs Notes – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.

2 thoughts on “Fight the dragon”

  1. Hi Matthew, I stumbled across your blog when scouring the internet for the essay you wrote about in this post. Your analysis is very insightful, thanks for sharing! I could not, however, follow the link to the original essay (I get a 404 message) and can’t seem to find it anywhere else. Could you provide another link to it, or if not, at least the author’s name?


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