How to value a life
A case from my early days as a lawyer still bothers me. It wasn’t even my case, just one in our firm, handled, in my opinion, wrong. Not wrong, perhaps, in the legal sense, but wrong in the great moral cosmic picture of things we know to be true sense. I think of it periodically. In the matter, a little girl wearing a bright red sweater crossed in an intersection against the light and was killed by an oncoming car. On appeal from the substantial wrongful death verdict, my colleague argued that the judgment was too high because this little girl wasn’t particularly special. She wasn’t a violin prodigy, for instance, or a young movie star. She didn’t make any money or show any unique promise to do so. She was just a girl, admittedly beloved by her family, but her death might, in fact, save the parents money, what with no need now to support her or send her to college or buy her a stuffed animal for her birthday.
I thought of this case when I read about a man released from prison this week after decades in jail when the judge concluded there was substantial evidence of his innocence of a murder. Not innocence in general, I suppose, because he admits to selling drugs at the time of the killing. But innocence of murder. What is this man’s life worth? How do you value it? What is the value of the students’ lives struck down recently at a college shooting, or at a celebration, or an elementary school? How do we value these lives lost in an ever-increasingly violent society? What of the lives lost in a devastating earthquake? Do we somehow weigh lives against another, concluding some are more valuable than others? Do we consider the monetary value of each life, as my colleague argued? Have we somehow gotten to a place where the tragic loss of life from violence is normal?
Have we lost something about the ‘inestimable value’ of human life?
I came across this poem offered up in the face of unceasing violence. It spoke to me in way that got behind my buffers and filters, and approached what is true.