What's A Life Worth?

I imagine that everyone, at one time or another, begins to ask this question about their life. More than likely it happens as they get older and start to realize that their own life has more history than it does future. When I turned 40, I considered it to be a halfway point, and I began to question the worth of my own life. But then there were my friends who never made it to 40, let alone 80. Some of my friends died in their 20's in Vietnam, and another at 30 from a rare disease. Does longevity give value to a life? If one person dies at age 45 and another lives to see 90, is that additional longevity a valid criterion for adding value?

Many would argue that it's not the length of a life, but how that life is lived. That is certainly the view of many religions. Was the individual a criminal or a saint? A philosopher might ask, “...worth to whom?” Does the life of a person you don't know, and have never met, have more value or less value than someone you have met and do know? Was president Kennedy's life worth more than the life of your father? I'd rather see someone else's dog die than mine, so there is certainly an emotional element to consider. The lives of people we know have more value to us than those we don't know. If people must die, we'd rather it be people we don't know.

I do an excercise in my decision-making class where the students play God. They are given a situation where they can only save half of a group of diverse people. The group consists of old, middle aged, young, married, single, parents, babies, monks, priests, famous people, aids victims, rich, poor, and John and Jane Doe. After many years of doing this, there is a definite bias towards saving women and children, religious people, married over single people, and younger rather than older folks. Students seems to give the least value to the lives of older single men – which pisses me off.

After considerable pondering of this matter, I've decided that the most important question is, what is your life is worth to you? You have to live with yourself, and if you don't like yourself, then your value is not worth much – at least to you. This helps to explain why people kill themselves, and also the origin of the expression, ‘Kill or be Killed,' which is the title to a book I have. It describes such lovely self-defense tactics such as the eye gouge and the groin kick when encountering people who's lives you don't value.

Value has a lot to do with success. If, at the end of your life, you consider yourself to have been successful, then your life has more value to you than if you were a failure. But what is success, and how do you know if you have achieved it?

I posed this question to my class of college seniors who were about to graduate into the working world. As I expected, the answers were varied and mostly un-measurable. One girl said that if she could make $100,000 a year, she would consider herself successful. Another said if she could strike a balance between a career and family life. I didn't ask how she defined success in either of those. A guy said that he would consider himself successful if he could stay in school forever and never have to work. I asked him if he had discussed this with his parents.

Probably the best answer was from a girl who said that she would feel successful if she didn't consider her job to be a job. She was saying that if you love what you are doing, it's not a job. I'm not sure when the definition of a job included unhappiness, but that seems to be part of the modern view of it. I happen to enjoy my job very much, but I still think of it as a job. If I could support myself without doing it, I'd stop doing it.

There are a lot of philosophical thoughts, opinions, theories and beliefs about life, the purpose if it, and what makes it valuable. There is no one answer. Male suicide bombers willingly blow themselves to bits thinking that it makes their life valuable, and that they will be rewarded with 72 virgins in heaven. I'm not sure what the female suicide bombers are expecting – perhaps the same thing. But since there are very few female suicide bombers, I guess they are not promised much. Does that mean their lives are more valuable or less valuable? Personally I'd rather be blown up by a woman than by a man, but I'm not sure why.

I think that, at the end of my life, if I can say I had a good time, had lots of friends, did no harm, and had a positive impact on the people who passed my way, then I will have had a valuable life. As for what happens after I die, I'll not let that influence my life now. It might be heaven, hell, decomposition, another life, or 72 virgins. I think 72 virgins would not be all that great, but perhaps one who was young and attractive might be okay – at least for a short while. Then it could become hell.

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