Sunday, Oct 17, 2010: “Questions of Value: Session 5”

St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“Questions of Value, Session 5”
An In-Depth Discussion Led by Wayne Harper
Sunday, October 17, 2010


* NOTE:  The materials offered were borrowed and adapted for our use from two primary sources: ‘Questions of Value’ taught by Patrick Grim and ‘The Quest for Meaning: Value, Ethics, and the Modern Experience’ taught by Robert Kane. Both are courses produced by The Teaching Company.


                                                      Questions of Value*

The Cash Value of a Life

What is the value of a human life? If you ask the Ford Motor Company this question their answer would be $200,000 – the cash value of a human life. How did Ford arrive at this figure? It was an educated guess used in a cost-benefit analysis that came out in court concerning the Ford Pinto. 

The Ford Pinto’s rear mounted gas tank was an invitation to disaster, resulting in at least 500 burn deaths. In preproduction, a different gas tank placement was considered but rejected because it took up too much trunk space. The risk could have been eliminated by installing a fire-prevention device in each gas tank at $11 per car. This option also was rejected. Ford’s cost-benefit analysis compared the cost of installing the fire extinguisher in its fleet of Pintos to the estimated cost of court-ordered settlements awarded to the families of victims injured or killed. Injuries were estimated at $67,000 and deaths at $200,000 each. The potential benefit to Ford was calculated at $49.5 million. Bottomline: it was cheaper to pay off the victims than fix the problem! Offended? 

Question: So what is the value of a human life? Are human lives always of equal value? 

Question: Is it life itself or the content of a life that is of value? How might a doctor or pastor answer this question? 

Gift of Life

Life is often described as a gift from God. But mortals also have the opportunity to provide the ‘gift of life’. Here we take up the subject of organ transplants, and the values of both donors and recipients.

Many, perhaps most, organs available for transplant are harvested from donors who have died. But in the case of kidneys, many donors are alive and well. Very often they donate a kidney to a family member or a close loved one – they know each other. Consider for a moment the expectations of both kidney donor and kidney recipient. For example, is it reasonable to expect the donor should have some ‘say’ in the recipient’s life? In turn, is it reasonable to expect the recipient should be somehow ‘obligated’ to the donor?

Question: Suppose the transplant fails. Who’s likely to be more devastated, the recipient or the donor?

Question: There’s a shortage of blood in your community. You answer the call. Your blood is sent to the blood bank but never used; it’s discarded. How’s that make you feel? 
Better Off Dead

Could someone literally be better off dead? Death is not like the experience of being in a dark room; what it represents is the absence of experience. One cannot compare the experience of living with the experience of not-living because the latter does not exist. Does this make sense?

Most fear death. Is it the pain of dying? What is so bad about death? Well, if we value experience at all, death must be seen as the loss of that aspect of value. Loss leads to regret. We’re apt to regret missing out on what will happen after our death. Curiously, we seldom regret missing out on what happened before our birth. 

Death affects different values in different ways. There are things that are of value because they are of value to us – our own accomplishments, for example. That value is lost with our death. But there are also things that are of value in themselves, independently of us. That value need not be lost with our death.

Question: What things of value will/will-not continue after your death?

Perhaps it’s the quality of life that lies behind the idea of ‘better off dead’. Can the quality of a person’s life be so negative (painful, frightening, useless, etc.) that death is preferred to living? Consider the life of a severe burn victim, a battered and abused spouse, or the coma patient. 

Question: Does the picture in which quality of life can be genuinely negative entail that suicide is sometimes rational?

Question: Anything worth dying for? Life insurance? What about the suicide bomber?


You may be thinking, why discuss immortality? Nobody either lives forever or leaves this world alive, so why bother? Well, for two reasons. First, our different values have a complex relationship to time. Second, philosophical reflection on immortality teaches us much about what we ultimately value in our mortal lives.

Permanent existence is clearly not the only value. Some things, were they to last forever, would not have the value that they do. Examples include a child’s smile or the hypnotic glow of a campfire. There are also things that are valued because of their relative position in time. Examples include your first kiss and a parent’s final farewell. 

Question: If it were revealed that you would live on Earth forever, what things would change in value? What things would not?

What about immortality and the meaning of life? In our Christian tradition, this life is merely a portal to the next, from which it gets its significance. Immortality – everlasting life – is the ultimate reward, but it is also an aspect of the ultimate punishment. We’ve all heard the question: where do you wish to spend eternity?

The standard caricatures of Heaven carry a general promise of eternal bliss. Heaven is a place void of unfulfilled needs. But does not the idea of continual bliss or ecstasy seem a bit tedious? An unchanging eternity of subjective bliss would eliminate the joys of curiosity, exploration, discovery, learning and growth – all of which engage change. Other things we value, such as service and self-sacrifice, would lose their meaning in Heaven.

Question: What role, if any, does Heaven or an afterlife play in your life?

Question: What attributes or conditions do you hope are revealed in Heaven?