How Much Is My Son’s Life Worth?

The price we put on any life is never its real value

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Many years after 9/11, I read an article in The New York Times (Putting a Price of the Priceless: One Life, September 9, 2007) about how families of 9/11 victims were compensated. As I was reading it, it soon became clear that, given my son Diego’s autism and intellectual disability, his life would have been cheap.

The way the compensation fund was structured, all male victims got the same amount of money for “pain and suffering,” but different amounts based on: a) whether the person was married and had children, b) income and occupation, and, c) life insurance payments. Diego would have gotten nothing for a, and the minimum for b (“no income” victims got $788,022 while the highest earners received $6,379,288).

It was distressing at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the information shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, the case of the 9/11 fund is just one example of the myriad parameters, formulas and charts that society has come up with, through the ages, to assign a monetary value to a person’s life. 

The practice of putting a “price” on human life is an old one. About 3,800 years ago, the Code of Hammurabi assigned the free-born woman’s fetus a value of 10 shekels and the slave woman’s 2 shekels. We can’t know how the Babylonians came up with these numbers, but they clearly valued the free-born fetus five times more than the slave-born. 

Today, juries, actuaries, economists and the military routinely put a price on life when calculating compensation for relatives of victims of wrongful deaths. So do life insurance companies and their clients when deciding on life insurance premiums or how much insurance to take out. My husband and I are great examples of this!

Even kidnappers make a monetary calculation when deciding what ransom to ask for. And the calculus is not always about how much money the victim has, but on how valuable he or she might be to those who would pay. The case of John Paul Getty’s grandson comes to mind.

Yet ask people, “Are some lives worth more than others?” and most will quickly look at you like you’re crazy or insensitive to think the answer could be anything other than “Of course not!” 

We don’t easily see that this answer contradicts what we say and do. 

For instance, I once overheard my aunt comment about a good friend who had recently passed away: “He was worth more dead than alive.” My aunt (who has since passed away also) was the sweetest woman ever. She was just being sarcastic about the huge insurance payouts the family was getting. Still, the comment shows that -consciously or not- we assess the value of a life in terms of money.

When my sister-in-law’s grandmother, Rose, was in her nineties, there were frequent kidnappings in Caracas, where she lived. Rose used to say that, were she ever taken, she’d tell the kidnappers her family had strict orders not to pay more than $500. 

Still, it is oddly disquieting to ponder or discuss the death of a loved one, let alone what the person’s death could mean, financially, for you. I’ve experienced this distress when talking with my siblings about our parents, who are healthy but will presumably go before us, or when discussing life insurance with my husband.

And I experience it now as I write about the payouts given to relatives of 9/11 victims and how they would have applied to Diego, given his disability. 

Emotions aside, the conclusion is clear: from an economic perspective, Diego’s life is not very valuable. Moreover, because he gets money from the state and federal governments through various programs, because he doesn’t pay income taxes and likely never will, some might find that his life has negative value. 

Is Diego a drain on society? Is his life worth less than the lives of his non-disabled, wage-earning peers? 

In the realm of actuarial calculations informing insurance and other types of compensation, his life is undeniably worth less. In other ways that matter, really matter, it is not.

Diego adds immensely to many people’s human experience and even productivity in ways that aren’t accounted for in dollar terms. Diego motivates people to be and to do better, starting with those at the core of his existence and radiating outward to his community and beyond. 

Moreover, his life is infinitely valuable to at least two people: his parents. And, it’s enough for a life to be infinitely valuable to just one person for it’s value to be, well, infinite.


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