ESSA X Cainz Debate: Do policy makers put a high enough value on human life?

October 25, 2020
Editor(s): Thomas Sinclair
Writer(s): Oliver Soo, Aleisha Jiang, Qi Rui Soh


*The speakers in this article are competitive debaters, and therefore the views expressed may not necessarily represent their beliefs or the beliefs of the organisation they belong to.*

First Affirmative (Nigel Pereira)

Life is precious. An eternal expression that has superseded itself in the foundations of humanity. As society has evolved policymakers act as helmsmen steering principles (and with-it creating value) into the fabric of human existence.

Judicium divinum, God’s judgement, the retribution on creatures based of the merits and demerits of their behaviour. For many the act of creating a policy stems in what consequences it will result in. The death penalty’s eradication from Australia in 1973, highlights the highest possible valuation on human life. A removal of judgemental policy that uses life as an end and not a means unto itself. This policy choice frontlines that humans have evolved to highly value every life regardless of crime, highlighting the omnibenevolence of policymakers when implementing policies that may affect human life. Thus, through philosophical doctrine regarding punishment policymakers have pronounced that human life cannot fall on numerical scale, as it is invaluable.

Beyond this, the strict regulation around what and how policies can state allows for a high universalised valuation of humanity. Institutions like the United Nations and WHO, argue for a precedence of governing principles to be reflected in framework of all policies. Thus, they create a benchmark for what the base value of human life is.

Furthermore, these gigantic organisations deliberate over governing rules for global policies with some of the most intellectual and emotionally attuned personalities on the planet. Minds and hearts are utilised, and in postulation and conceptualisation of policies we obtain regulations that not only tell us how societies should be governed, by indirectly reflect how important all life is. Moreover, behavioural economics would suggest that people have a tendency to overemphasise the value of possession. It is undeniable that we all view our life to be ours, and thus when policymakers make decisions they fall into this psychological pattern of in-fact overvaluing human life.

Every single day, whether we know it or not, policies are embedded into the groundwork of society and are constantly working in our favour. The act of creating policies is to protect us and why would you protect something that isn’t precious? Life is invaluable, through constantly evolving policies we see that this universal statement is shared amongst all of humanity, and thus the motions stands.

First Negative (Oliver Soo)

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we think about our government.

As Victoria’s lockdowns continue, continuous debate has arisen over how we begin economic recovery while protecting the citizens health. Are these two goals compatible? At what point does the monetary cost of each life saved become unreasonable? While in the short-term politicians line up to emphasise the value of human life, what are their plans in the long term? What are they doing to protect future generations?

In late 2019, bushfires broke out in Australia.

Nearly 3 billion Australian animals were estimated to have been killed or displaced, with an estimated 28.32 million acres of land burnt. Professor David Karoly, who leads the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub at the CSIRO, stated there was evidence climate change was a major factor in Australia’s bushfires. And yet the top leadership of Australia’s government still resist; providing only details on how they would prevent similar climate change exacerbated events from occurring in the future. Regardless of political party, governments appear to be highly skilled at diverting focus away from long term issues. After all, election cycles are short and voters’ memories appear to be too. Why talk about protecting the lives of future generations of Australians when we can talk about the next juicy tax cut or subsidy, am I right?

The 2020 Climate Change Performance Index prepared by various think tanks rated Australia as the sixth-worst performing country. It described the Australian government as an increasingly ‘regressive force’.  While we cannot rule out that this index may have been politically motivated, the government’s lack of transparency on how certain climate-related targets will be achieved is concerning. Additionally, the Australian Government did not attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit in September 2019.

Some Labour politicians, every single Greens politician, NSW Liberal environment minister Matt Kean, and not-really-a-Liberal Malcom Turnbull are among those calling for more ambitious climate policy targets. Ultimately, until policy makers demonstrate their ability to unite and protect human lives from more climate related catastrophes in the future, there is no doubt these policy makers do not value human life highly enough, choosing to play petty political games at the expense of future generations livelihoods.

Clearly, it is politically convenient to be pro-humanity at any one point in time, however the value policy makers assign to human life greatly diminishes once they finish their tenure as a professional politician.

Second Affirmative (Jeremy Mann)

Nothing is certain. Unlike textbook questions and answers, the future is uncertain. Hence, everyone has an opinion and thus the ‘petty games played by politicians’ as the opposition states it is instead decree to come to a unified agreement. The affirmative team wants to emphasise the need to deliberate in order to reach an agreement, especially given the nature of decisions that involves trillions of dollars like climate change decisions.

So, what is mistakenly stated as ‘regressive’ behaviour is instead complex argumentation that involves millions of livelihoods and the generations of many to come. Thus, we must question this strawman fallacy that the negative team presents to us.

Innocent beyond proven guilty. Legal courts everywhere believe in the goodness of humanity. Courts that administer the very policy that is constructed by policymakers around the world. The role of the state as an arbiter in disputes between individuals is to provide fair, just and moral outcomes. Legislation enshrines and upholds the legal rights that we are all entitled to exercise, both in the courtroom and in everyday society.

Furthermore, one of the primary roles of the government is to protect the safety, security and material well-being of citizens across the globe. As such, innovative economic and social systems have been established, reformed and improved upon to reflect the changing needs of humanity.

For example, welfare. Welfare around the world feed into the importance of human life, and as a result an entire health system was built. For some conglomerates they cover workers with insurance policies that offer a lump-sum in payout, if anything detrimental were to happen. However, we the affirmative team believes that there the combination of creating policy as well as policies giving continual sums of money for generations to family shows how high the value on life is.

What humans value more than anything is the welfare of others. Fundamentally drilled into us at a young age, when our loved ones fall sick we care. Compassionate by nature, good at heart. Policymakers overstate the importance of life so not to undervalue a gift so precious.

In this sense, the establishment of social security is pivotal to a functioning and harmonious society that values the needs of individuals. Accounting for around 35 per cent of the Federal Government’s annual budget expenses, transfer payments in the form of pensions and unemployment benefits provide a substantial ‘safety net’ to the population on an as-needed basis.

With the majority of Australians being able to work, earn an income and pay the appropriate amount of tax, individuals finding themselves in less fortunate situations are able to have their needs met. At the same time, older Australians who have contributed to our country’s workforce throughout their lifetime are able to be supported during their retirement.

Those few in which we give responsibility to enact policies that affect the many do so with the highest regard for human life, and our society is all the better for it.

Second Negative (Aleisha Jiang)

According to the opposition, “life is precious” and “invaluable”. Yet, somehow, we also manage to “[overvalue] human life”. How can we overvalue something that is invaluable?

The opposition responds by stating that we have a tendency to overemphasise the value of possession. In other words, due to behavioural economics, we can sometimes overstate the importance of human life when there is a personal connection.

However, given that we can overvalue human life, we can also undervalue it.

Take family, as an example. Most of us believe that our own family is invaluable, and no monetary amount can ever do them justice. They are our everything and cannot be replaced. Thus naturally, we expect everyone else in the world to value them at the same level as we do.

However, since we tend to overvalue the importance of the lives of our family, we naturally undervalue other people’s lives.

Therefore, we often believe that policy makers do not put a high enough value on the human life of its citizens.

According to NASA, one of the basic needs for human survival is water.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized access to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right and called for international efforts to help countries to assist in the provision.

Eight years later, WaterAid Australia’s Chief Executive, Rosie Wheen expressed her dismay that 289,000 children under five years old still die each year from diarrhoeal illness directly linked to dirty water, lack of decent toilets and poor hygiene.

In 2019, WHO stated that 2.2 billion people still lack access to safely managed drinking water services, with over half of the global population lacking sanitation services.

However, in the ten years that have gone past since UN imposed the human right, World Vision has helped 12.5 million people receive access to clean water. Additionally, around 2 billion people have gained access to an improved and sustainable water source since 1990.

Yet, there are still billions of people in the world who do not have access to clean drinking water and sanitation, causing illness and death.

Thus, we can conclude that policy makers do care and value human life. Sometimes, change takes time and for some developing countries, the lack in resources may have hindered their ability to value human life at the same level as we value the life of our family. They need our compassion not our contempt. Instead of criticising these policy makers for not valuing human lives highly enough, why don’t we assist them so that they can value human life more highly in future?

Third Affirmative (Travis Huynh)

The opposition, claims that policy makers “do care and value human life” through their points regarding clean water as a necessity for facilitating human life. However, it is because of their high enough valuation of human life in the first place which causes organisations such as the WHO, World Vision and the UN to speak out and take action regarding clean water access. Policy makers in these organisations place a high enough value on human life to care about these issues.

Additionally, the opposition’s claims that the Australian government’s apparent lack of consideration for climate change, and therefore human life, is not indicative of policy makers in general. There are thousands, if not millions of other policy makers out there, all with potentially differing views on the value of human life.

All resources are scarce. This is the basis of economics. Policy makers know that scarce resources will give rise to trade-offs in policy creation. But for issues and concerns relating to morals and human life, a baseline dollar figure is required to illustrate the potential trade-off between human life and other costs/benefits.

In a world with perfect income forecasts, and where the monetary valuation of feelings is possible, the cost and value of each person’s life could be obtained with perfect accuracy. However, this is not the case in our world. Uncertainty and risk permeate throughout our world. The value of a single life can be roughly estimated through societal beliefs and expectations. However, this method relies on fixed assumptions that may not apply to the wider population.

When undertaking a cost-benefit analysis, the monetary value used as a substitute for one human life will never be perfect (if obtaining a value is even possible in the first place). However, an imprecise estimate for a life that is justifiable is sufficient for policy creation. Policy makers have a job to do, and dwelling over the precise dollar value of human life, given its large uncertainty, will not create policies in itself.

As such, we argue that policy makers do value human life highly enough, even if they only come up with an imprecise estimate. In the legal environment, the value of a child’s life has varied significantly from almost zero in the 1890s to over $700 000 in more recent times. This increase demonstrates that human life is comparatively valued highly in today’s world.

Third Negative (Qi Rui Soh)

While the affirmative side has presented many pertinent points including their argument that policymakers do put some sort of value on human life, they still haven’t shown that said value is high enough. While the third affirmative has shown that policy makers from organizations like WHO and the UN have given lip service to the issue of access clean water, it remains fact that 1 in 3 people globally still lack the access to safe drinking water (ironically, in a report by WHO themselves). The third affirmative has also mentioned that costs and values aren’t precisely estimable in our world. While this is true for the very arbitrary thing’s the third affirmative has brought up such as human feelings, this is definitely untrue for real world issues like clean drinking water. The World Bank has already calculated the cost of clean water to be 150 billion a year and the fact that a third of the world still lack access to a nutrient that is essential for human survival is a testament to the fact that the value on human life is ultimately way too low.

While the third affirmative is right that there are “thousands, if not millions” of policy makers that do at least pretend to care about climate change, it is important to remember that lip service and virtue signalling doesn’t improve the state of the climate; actionable change does. With almost daily reports that the manmade harm to our climate is accelerating with no signs of getting better, it is clear that the actionable change is sorely lacking. If policy makers cannot enact action to alleviate a problem that undoubtedly comes at great negative costs to human life, we might be slightly hard pressed to imagine there is sufficient value being placed on human life.

Essentially, the issues of water scarcity and climate change are, amongst many other things, issues that go beyond minor inconveniences to our lives and actually determine whether or not human life remains alive at all.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by the fact that in prosperous first world countries where medical technology is undoubtedly advanced, healthcare can still remain relatively unaffordable to a good many. When human lives are being lost because healthcare policy can’t work to provide access and affordability, one cannot help but feel that policy makers really aren’t valuing human lives enough.

The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ, our Partners and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.

Meet our authors:

Thomas Sinclair
Oliver Soo
Aleisha Jiang
Qi Rui Soh