26 November 2012

What is a Person Worth?

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa wants to make it clear that a person's worth cannot be defined by his intelligence:
In my book, The Intelligence Paradox, I attempt to break the equation of intelligence with human worth, by pointing out that intelligence (and intelligent people) may not be what you think. While more intelligent people can do many things better and more efficiently than less intelligent people, there are many things that they cannot, and intelligent people tend to fail at the most important things in life from a purely biological perspective. The list of what intelligent people are not good at may surprise you. Intelligent people are only good at doing things that are relatively new in the course of human evolution. They are not necessarily good at doing things that our ancestors have always done, like finding and keeping a mate, being a parent, and making friends. Intelligent people tend not to be good at doing things that are most important in life.

There is no question that intelligence is a positive trait, but then so are beauty, height, and health. Yet we don’t equate beauty, height, and health with human worth (although we do a little bit when it comes to beauty, by maintaining that people who are not physically attractive nonetheless have “inner beauty.” “Inner beauty” is to physical attractiveness what “multiple intelligences” are to intelligence.) We don’t necessarily think that beautiful, tall, or healthy people are better, more worthy humans than ugly, short, or unhealthy people. Nor do we claim that everyone is equally beautiful, equally tall, or equally healthy. But we seem to believe that more intelligent people are more worthy human beings. Or, conversely, because all humans ought to be equally worthy, they must all be equally intelligent. _Satoshi Kanazawa_via_HBDChick
Well, okay. Let's start with a more basic question, then. What is the worth of a human body?

The U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils invested many a hard-earned tax dollar in calculating the chemical and mineral composition of the human body, which breaks down as follows:
  • 65% Oxygen
  • 18% Carbon
  • 10% Hydrogen
  • 3% Nitrogen
  • 1.5% Calcium
  • 1% Phosphorous
  • 0.35% Potassium
  • 0.25% Sulfur
  • 0.15% Sodium
  • 0.15% Chlorine
  • 0.05% Magnesium
  • 0.0004% Iron
  • 0.00004% Iodine
  • Additionally, it was discovered that our bodies contain trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminum, and arsenic. Together, all of the above amounts to less than one dollar!
    Our most valuable asset is our skin, which the Japanese invested their time and money in measuring. The method the Imperial State Institute for Nutrition at Tokyo developed for measuring the amount of a person's skin is to take a naked person, and to apply a strong, thin paper to every surface of his body. After the paper dries, they carefully remove it, cut it into small pieces, and painstakingly total the person's measurements. Cut and dried, the average person is the proud owner of fourteen to eighteen square feet of skin, with the variables in this figure being height, weight, and breast size. Basing the skin's value on the selling price of cowhide, which is approximately $.25 per square foot, the value of an average person's skin is about $3.50.

    (Let's neglect, for the time being, the sentimental value of a dead person's skin to his loved ones, after it has been processed by a very skilled taxidermist.)

    So we're talking about roughly $4.50, including the skin's leather value.

    But that would be the low ball estimate, and most people would not be satisfied with that. Even a well wasted crack whore can bring in more than that with just a few minutes' work.

    Several approaches to estimating the value of a human life have been taken by legal systems (PDF) for tort purposes, by insurance companies, by government agencies such as the US EPA, and by a number of other institutions and organisations.

    But let's take a step back and look at the question in more general and abstract terms:
    Most people would say that human life is a precious thing, and that taking it away from someone by force is a bad thing. Most would also say that an (non-human) animal's life is less valuable, and most (if they are pushed to consider it) would say that the value of a life is based on the intelligence of that creature. Intelligent creatures (like a dog, chimp or dolphin) are more valuable unintelligent creatures (like flies, cockroaches or earth-worms).

    This is gives us a clue about the the nature of humanity which makes it valuable - a human's intelligence, but it also raises uncomfortable questions. Are the lives of more intelligent humans worth more than non-intelligent humans? Is the life of a severely brain damaged human with apparently less intelligence than an ape less valuable than that ape?

    In fact it has more to do with empathy than with intelligence. People empathize with other people, they empathize with dogs (because they make good pets), with dolphins (because they always seem to be smiling), and with apes (because they are physically so much like us), but generally do not empathize highly with insects or worms. _Bovination
    This is getting closer to the truth, of course. Humans evaluate the worth of a particular human in much the same way that a collector might evaluate the worth of a stamp, a coin, or a work of art. There is a great deal of sentiment involved, both overt and covert.

    In general, we value particular humans for the amusement, pleasure, profit, entertainment value, service, or satisfaction that they contribute to our lives. The person's intelligence, cleverness, competence, attractiveness, health, executive function, level of respect in the community, loyalty, income, devotion, resilience, emotional depth, net financial worth, fitness, resourcefulness, fame, creativity, humour, and "connectedness" would all play a strong part in our valuation.

    Such a valuation is quite subjective. Someone closely related or connected to us would be valued more highly than a stranger. The closer the connection or relationship, the higher the value.

    So Kanazawa is correct to say that intelligence is not the measure of ultimate human worth. But then, no one ever really believed that it was.

    On the other hand, intelligence and the ability to be cognitively present in space and time at a high level of functioning, is generally valued highly in most persons, and for good reason. Intelligence is also coming to be valued more highly in populations, likewise for good reason.

    The difference in wealth and quality of life of the average Singaporean and the average Jamaican, would have much to do with the average intelligence level of the respective populations.

    In this case, Kanazawa is treating the concept of "intelligence" as something of a straw man -- which he really shouldn't do, given what he does for a living. But everybody wants to be liked by his peers. And for an honest and intelligent academic of integrity, that can be very difficult to achieve in these modern times.

    It would be impossible to achieve a consensus answer to the title question, "What is a person worth?" But every now and then it is a concept that should be examined honestly, outside of actuarial offices, bureaucracies, and courts of law.

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    “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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