Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/June 1902/The Commercial Value of Human Life



ENLIGHTENED society readily grants that the lives of its members constitute its most treasured resource. Legislative authority has reserved its severest penalties for those who plot against and destroy its subjects. Along with the advancement of civilization has come a higher and higher appreciation of the inalienable right of the human organism to live its allotted time, and the most benign forms of government in the present day assume that its first duty is the preservation of the life and the comfort of its units.

Pagan history reveals a frightful waste of the resource vested in human life, and early Christian times are marked by only a slight improvement. Wanton destruction continued to be common even to a later date, and is at the present time excused under well-known and unusual circumstances. Yet the tendency has been and will ever be to preserve more and more securely bodily existence of mankind.

There are two radically distinct measures of human life. The one is purely humanitarian and considers only the divinity of man. Under such an estimate, the life of an individual must be priceless, and cannot be approximately valued in terms employed in monetary denomination. The other seeks to eliminate all sentimental considerations, and deals with the individual upon the basis of his value to the community as a productive agent, like a horse, locomotive or cotton gin. The second basis of measurement is an unpopular one, and has received so little attention that it is regarded as undeterminable by the general public. The majority of the computations set forth in the few paragraphs now available can be regarded as little more than wild, disingenious guesses.

What, then, determines the value of human life? As eminent an authority as Rochard has stated that it is the sum "that the individual has cost his family, the community or the state, for his living, development and education. It is the loan which the individual has made from the social capital in order to reach the age when he can restore it by his labor." It is hardly probable, however, that this statement will receive permanent acceptance by a thoughtful man. A little reflection will show that it reverts to the generally discredited and socialistic theory that values are determined by cost. Under such a valuation, the resource vested in an individual grows from birth, not with his increasing powers of production and the greater certainty of his attaining the age of self-support and becoming useful, but by reason of the fact that his maintenance is costing more and more. It would mean that the individual is most valuable at the moment before he becomes self-sustaining, and thereafter loses value until he has paid back to society the cost of his maintenance during dependent years. The time arrives when the account is balanced, and he is of no value whatsoever, even though he might be at the prime of his productive powers. On the other hand, the generally accepted meaning of value has little relation to the cost of production; it depends upon final utility. The value of a commodity depends upon its use, or its productive ability in a community, and, as we are dealing with life as a commodity, in truth, an article, these well-established economic principles must apply, even as truly as in the case of commercial products, in the market of New York. The more logical view, therefore, must be that the commercial value of a life must be measured by its general usefulness, its power of production, and the monetary returns which it makes to society.

Numerous suits for damages, in courts of law, for the wrongful deaths of individuals constitute the commonest, the most fruitful and almost the only trustworthy references available in which life values are dealt with. It has been necessary for judicial authority to consider the question to a minute degree, and if the basis of computation is applicable to the conditions found in the general social universe, it ought to provide a trustworthy source of information upon the subject.

It will be seen at once that in suits at law for compensation for death, the loss is computed from the standpoint of the surviving relatives who bring the suit; a widow prays for compensation for the loss of her means of support; or a bereaved family petitions for damages occasioned by the loss of services of a mother. The question therefore to be determined is: Does the loss to the surviving relatives represent, in any degree, the loss to society? Let us examine into the conditions governing judicial, procedure in cases of this kind.

The principle generally adhered to in estimates of life values is well defined by the English court procedure, and this has been followed in spirit if not in letter by the majority of the states of our union. It is, in effect, as follows: "The jury may give such damages as they shall deem a fair and just compensation with reference to the pecuniary injury resulting from such death." In nearly every state, therefore, pecuniary loss is made the basis of damages, and exemplary or punitive damages are not permitted. This means that the damages allowed in such cases represent what are believed by such courts to be actual loss, without any suspicion of punishment for the party responsible for the destruction. Such punishment assumes a charge for premeditation or criminal negligence, and is dealt with by other methods than by civil suit. The principle surely conforms to the basis of computation applicable to the loss to society at large.

Damages cannot be given as a solatium. It is assumed that the bereavement of a party can not be soothed by an application of the coin of the realm, and the higher courts scrutinize the work of juries in order to eliminate the results of passion upon the part of the members thereof. Sympathy for the destitute orphan can have no part in the award of damages. This principle, also, conforms to the requirements in estimating the loss to society.

Nothing can be allowed for the injury to the deceased nor for physical nor mental suffering. Again appears a conformation to the conditions demanded by the social state. The loss of a mill operative in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is indirectly felt by the inhabitants of the State of Delaware, yet such loss is not greater by reason of the physical disfigurement of said operative nor the mental sufferings which he may have been obliged to undergo in the process.

Insurance of the life of the deceased is no mitigation of damages; this rule of the courts is absolute. It is considered that if the deceased was sufficiently productive to enable him to pay his annual insurance premiums, it is clearly in testimony of his thrift and an element in favor of his greater usefulness, therefore his greater value to the community. Here conditions in the estimation of loss to society are still further met. It matters little to the great mass of individuals whether that money, the measure of value, is put into circulation via the insurance companies or by the individual.

Standard mortuary tables are admitted in evidence, in awarding damages for wrongful death. Such tables apply to the whole community even more clearly than to the deceased. Whatever a man's station in society, his value is dependent upon, and modified by, his life expectancy. If this be short, the guarantee of his continued usefulness is less assuring than that of a man with the prospect of a longer life.

The whole matter, therefore, naturally and finally goes back to a question of fact for the jury or court, and wherever an accidental death has been effected, the deceased is measured by his productiveness. This productiveness is directly enjoyed by his family, his employer and his associates, and through them, sooner or later in an equal degree by society at large. Therefore the measure of pecuniary loss to said family becomes a measure of damage to society. It is reasonable to believe then, that awards by courts of law for death are a safe and trustworthy estimate of the pecuniary value of the life of the deceased. There are, of course, exceptions; justice has ever been perverted; but the great mass of cases taken together, forms a reasonable basis of estimation of the value of human life.

Several of the states, however, permit their juries to assess punitive damages in cases of this character. The regulation applying to such is, in effect, as follows: "The jury may give such damages, pecuniary or exemplary, as, under the circumstances of the case, may seem to them just." Again, in some states, the maximum amount of assessment is limited by law to $5,000.00. These facts are mentioned in order to show that such damages cannot be safely included in a set of tables used for computation of values, as either the privilege of the jury, in the one case, or the statutory limitation, in the other, may prevent an award from representing a true estimate of the value of the deceased. Under the former conditions, an award of high damages may be in a large degree punitive, and only a small part of it may represent the court's estimate of the pecuniary loss. Under the latter state, an award of $5,000.00 may mean that, in the opinion of the authorities, the life was worth more, but the best that could be done was to give the maximum award.

From a mass of cases which have been collected for the estimates hereinafter set forth, there have been excluded all those occurring in states in which either of the above conditions were present. Careful exclusion has also been made of cases in which there appeared unusual circumstances or conditions which rendered them non-representative of the great majority. This process has left a total of 147 cases, the decedents in which were males, of all ages, classes and conditions, some completely supporting families, and others merely contributing to the support of other persons. These cases are believed to be the result of wise judicial procedure, the awards have all been confirmed by Supreme Courts or Courts of Appeals, and they seem to form a trustworthy basis upon which to estimate.

It appears that there are not conveniently available records of suits at law, in which the decedents were females, in sufficient number to warrant the construction of a table of values for this sex. Such cases seem to be infrequent, compared with those in which the male sex figures. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that man's existence is, by reason of his occupation and inborn venturesomeness, more hazardous than woman's, and therefore presents a greater number of casualties.

Arrangement of the different cases of award for wrongful death, in the order corresponding to the age of the decedents, from the youngest to the oldest, shows a somewhat heterogeneous mass of figures, often varying considerably in the same age column. This might be expected in such an arrangement, for mankind is widely diverse. The productiveness of an individual depends upon his habits, application, thrift, mental acuteness, physical condition and many of the other personal qualities which accompany mankind. Where one individual may possess many of these, they may be partially or altogether wanting in another, and so the judgment of juries and courts is altered to meet these conditions in the individual.

Dividing the life into age periods of five years, and combining the awards in each period, it is found that the resulting average in each period is thoroughly representative of the whole group and possesses tolerably narrow limits of probable error. Such an arrangement is shown in the accompanying diagram, in which the ordinates represent the ages of the decedents, and the abscissæ the average amount of damages awarded per case, for each age group. In this curve, it will be seen that the foci are plotted along the

PSM V61 D130 The value of human life.png

center ordinate, or two and one half years away from each age-group limit. This is done in order that they may more truly represent the value of the average valuation for each five-year term, and the resulting curve may more nearly conform to the extremes, in its course from the beginning to the end of each age group.

Let us now examine this diagram and observe as closely as possible how the relative values there expressed (without regard to the actual values which they represent) conform to common observation. From the initial point, there is a rapid rise, caused by a rapidly enhancing value occasioned by the greater certainty of escape from the dangers of tender childhood. Each month and week during this period is hazardous, and as each month and year is passed in safety the risk becomes correspondingly less. Following this, is a flat portion during which the values do not change so markedly, until the age of puberty is passed. Then occurs a sharp increase, which, as it merges with the term of self-sustenance, becomes more rapid, culminating at about the age of 30 years. This is the prime of American manhood; not the period of highest productiveness, nor the age of ripest wisdom. The future is now the important feature, and there are questions of permanence to be taken into consideration. Physical vigor usually begins to decline at this period. We are familiar with the fact that the powers of the athelete then begin to wane; champions of this age give way to younger aspirants. This means that the risk becomes greater and the confidence in future values is lowered. Therefore, even though the age of 30 is not the climax of existing usefulness, it comprises the highest combination of value and permanence.

After the age of 30, there follows a gradual decline of values until the age period 55-60 is reached, when the declivity becomes sharp, remaining so to the end. The decrease in each age group is not marked and might not be apparent when separate cases are considered, but the collective arrangement indicates with faithful accuracy all that might be expected from common observation.


1. The pecuniary value of life is subject to the same economic laws as are applied to the more vulgar commodities.

2. In courts of law, the measure of an individual's productiveness, which is the measure of his value, receives the most careful scrutiny; therefore the decisions of such courts, where existing statutes permit, are trustworthy in determining an individual's value to his family.

3. The pecuniary value of a life to its relatives represents its pecuniary value to society.

4. Damages given for wrongful death are such that they can be represented by an average in different age groups, with only narrow limits of probable error.

5. The relation of these age-group values, one to the other, is supported by common observation and statistical reasoning.