Are there ethical politicians 1

Economist on corona, politics and ethics"Nobody knows how high the price of life really is"

"I don't know how you are, it sometimes brings me to sleep and I think of the people who are dying," said Ralph Brinkhaus on April 21, 2021 in the Bundestag during the debate about the amendment to the Infection Protection Act. This provides for drastic measures, and so the question arises to what extent these are justified.

Armin Falk, Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn and Director of the briq Institute for Behavior and Inequality, about the value of human life, whether it can be expressed in numbers at all, and ethical questions.

Barbara Weber: What is the conflict of goals in connection with the corona pandemic?

Armin Falk: In essence, it is about the question of what is life worth on the one hand - the life, what we are saving through the measures that have now been decided. And on the other hand: How high are the economic costs, but also the social and psychological costs.

The latter can be estimated reasonably well, for example the Institute for Employment Research has estimated that the economic, i.e. only the economic, losses per week are around 3.5 billion euros. Of course, these are all just estimates, but they give us roughly the order of magnitude. And on the other hand, you have to weigh that against the costs or benefits of saved or lost lives. And I think that is at the core of the trade-off, as we call it, that politics is about.

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How do you determine the statistical value of a life?

Weber: How high is the price for a human life? This is discussed again and again in other contexts or is tacitly assumed.

Falk: Nobody knows what the price of life really is, but there are ways or attempts to get a little closer to that question. On the one hand there is a very long and traditional philosophical debate, on the one hand as an extreme position, if you like, a deontological position or a position advocated by Kant, according to which life basically has no price. It has dignity and cannot be offset against other things. If you were to put it economically, you could say that the value of life, or the price of life, is almost infinite, so to speak.

On the other hand, there is a more empirically oriented research, especially in economics, that tries to determine the statistical value of a life. So that would follow a utilitarian logic. There are different estimates, these estimates are very dependent on the underlying assumptions, and one should not make a mistake of taking these estimates as moral judgments, so to speak. What they are more like are descriptive descriptions that describe how we de facto determine the value of a life. It's about the questions of how to interpret decisions that people make in order to prolong life or to expose themselves to risk, for example how much money do I have to pay someone more so that he or she is willing to join you take a riskier job or choose a riskier mode of transport and so on.

"More recent studies assume values ​​of five to ten million dollars for a human life," says behavioral economist Armin Falk (dpa / picture alliance / Tim Brakemeier)

Perhaps I can briefly illustrate how the logic of this type of study works: For example, you looked at changes in the speed limit in the US states in the 1990s. As expected, there were more road fatalities as a result. Then you asked yourself, how is the time saved on the other side, the time saved was then multiplied by hourly wages. And then you can roughly calculate what was de facto in the evaluation of this policy, what value was attached to life. That was about $ 1.5 million in this study. That is a value from the 1990s.

More recent studies assume values ​​of 5 to 10 million dollars. In 2012, the OECD issued a recommendation of around 1.8 to 5.5 million. So you can see that the fluctuations are huge, but in any case there are millions. And, as I said, these are not moral judgments, but rather the values ​​that we get when we de facto take people's behavior towards themselves as a guideline. How much money are you willing to spend to save lives, that is roughly 5 to 10 million euros or dollars.

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"Society tolerates different evaluations of life"

Weber: I am now simply assuming that we are talking about industrialized nations, so not necessarily about an African human life. Or?

Falk: Absolutely correct, that also shows the cynicism of this consideration, although it should not be viewed cynically, because it actually has no moral claim, but is only descriptive. But if we now export the logic, for example, and go to poor countries, you will automatically see that the value - I now consciously say this in quotation marks - the value, the statistical value of life is significantly lower.

In poorer countries, but also within societies, human lives count differently (dpa / SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire / Amarjeet Kumar Singh)

Weber: You notice that with us too, I don't think you have to go that far. With us, too, the socio-economic status plays a role in life expectancy.

Falk: Absolutely right. Everything I said earlier about comparing poorer and richer countries also applies within all societies we know. Incidentally, this is even possible in countries with significantly better health care than in Germany, for example in Scandinavian countries, where the care is even better, even there access to health and thus also the probability of survival are very much dependent on income and socio-economic background. This means that we as a society also tolerate different evaluations of life depending on social origin. One can justifiably describe this as very unjust. I would do that in any case.

Why Corona is making politics think about the value of life

I believe that the focus on saving lives is particularly great now in the Corona crisis - not least because population groups are affected who are otherwise not affected, i.e. politicians, business leaders, yes, decision-makers, many, Those who are otherwise on the sunny side of life are now basically equally affected, perhaps a little less than poorer or disadvantaged people, but in principle they are affected. And I think that's one of the reasons why the value of life is so central to political considerations right now.

Weber: You have just mentioned: We are spending a lot of money. In the event - contrary to expectations - that we cannot get the pandemic under control, this cannot go on forever because our resources are also limited. Is it conceivable that completely different considerations could then arise?

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Falk: The financing is of course a huge problem, not only in Germany, but also in other countries. And it is the rock-hard logic of economic thinking that the money that is now being spent here is of course not available anywhere else. And I would assume that because of this, we probably have fewer resources in other areas. Under certain circumstances, this can also - unintentionally, of course, but in the end inevitably - lead to more deaths in other areas. For example, you can now see this in the operations that have been postponed or not performed. Here, risks are shifted everywhere to other areas of life. That is about money, as you mentioned, but also about time, attention and other resources. In this respect, I would say, yes, the pandemic not only has corona deaths, but also many other consequences of death that we may not even have on our radar today. When I also think about who is particularly suffering in my eyes - namely children and adolescents - and what psychological costs we will have to face and what diseases and symptoms we will have to deal with later as a society, one unfortunately has to assume that that the knock-on effects will be very significant.

Difficult ethical questions

Weber: Is it all ethically justifiable? It's really hard to take.

Falk: Yes, I think that is ethically difficult to bear because the injustice in this world is ethically difficult to bear. The injustice in this world did not bring about the virus, it was there before. It is only now very much discussed and updated. But the scandals, with which we have basically always come to terms, that many people have no access to clean drinking water, to a decent education and so on, that is ethically difficult, I would also see it that way.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.