Early civilizations were entirely comfortable setting a price on human life. In early medieval Germanic societies, for example, a murderer might be required to pay a weregild to the relatives of his victim. The weregild was the worth of a person determined in large part by their social rank. Livestock, coins, or precious objects were exchanged and justice was deemed to have been served. Though the practice of paying a weregild was replaced with capital punishment by the 12th century, the idea that a person’s life could be measured by the worth of goods persisted.
As members of a modern technological society we like to think of ourselves as culturally superior to our brutal ancestors. Our communities no longer exist on such a thin margin of survival that we can’t afford to punish someone for his or her crimes. Add to that centuries of philosophical, scientific, and cultural development and we are well past the days where a person’s life amounts to no more than a portion of wealth determined by his or her social rank.
We give those ideas lip service, but we all realize that behind the veneer of enlightened culture we still inhabit a world where the idea of a weregild exists. Individually we might profess to believe that all people are equal, or that human life is infinitely precious, but the hard truth is that in practice our collective actions assign everybody a monetary value.
My thoughts were prompted by a brief article about a man who deliberately committed a crime to access adequate healthcare, but healthcare is only one way in which we assign value to people. Healthcare is a hot topic these days, but the central issue that all the pundits and politicians dance around is that the cost of healthcare is really the maximum value we are willing to place on those who occupy the lowest tiers of social rank. The one new twist that modern societies have added is that now the victim must pay the weregild to those who are willing to let him or her die.
Placing a monetary value on a person is not as simple as determining healthcare costs. What about education, infrastructure, housing – or less concrete ideas like opportunity, freedom, equality, justice. How do we determine what each person is worth when paying for those fundamental things that we claim are the bedrock of our compassionate, civilized societies?
This is a good place for a small digression. What is this thing – this money – against which we measure human lives? Money is a metaphor. Dollars, Euros, Yen, Rubles – they all represent the perceived value of an idea. Not even the perceived value of a specific commodity, but the perceived value of an idea. Money doesn’t exist. Money is, in some ways, a universal delusion that humanity has decided to believe is real. This entity that so dominates our lives, that in so many cases determines the length and quality of those lives, is just a concept given the illusion of form by numbers and pieces of paper.
When the 9th century Anglo-Saxons exchanged livestock as reparations for a person’s life, they gave each other real things for an act that had already been committed. A sheep or a cow, or even some coins, were things that could help a family survive the absence of the murdered person. The weregild was a way of preventing more deaths.
Today we put a price on an individual based on what we expect that person to contribute to society. We calculate a person’s potential monetary contribution and place a maximum value on a human life. People in shiny glass towers and neoclassic monuments shuffle around imaginary metaphors and we praise them for contributing to the wealth of the world. Our version of the weregild is not about preventing more deaths and ensuring the survival of a community, but about choosing who deserves life. And in the choosing what kind of a community do we create?