Life has been called “cheap” and it’s been called “priceless.” So what’s a life really worth?

Published estimates of the value of the human body, when broken down to its basic elements of hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, etc., range from $1 to $600. If one considers the value of human organs—even if it’s just the ones a person can live without—we get a much higher figure; a kidney alone can sell for $50,000 or more on the black market.

But people are more than the sum of their parts, and there are other ways of valuing human life. One, unsavory as it may be, is seen in the practice of slavery, which still flourishes, though it’s illegal and well-hidden in most countries—including the U.S. According to Kevin Bales, an author who writes extensively on the subject, the average price of a slave in 1809 was about $40,000 in today’s dollars. In 2020, the average price is closer to $100.

Most Americans pay at least some of their health insurance expenses, and when someone’s putting out several hundred dollars per month in premiums, not to mention co-pays, deductibles, and other associated costs, the life of the person being insured would seem to be worth many times more. A 2008 article revealed that when deciding whether to cover a new medical procedure, the international standard for health insurance companies (both private and government-operated), valued a year of “quality life” at $50,000. Stanford economists put the figure higher, with a year of quality life worth around $129,000.

A single number, applying to everyone, runs completely counter to the Human Life Value (HLV) method, used in the life insurance industry (and often, the court system) to determine the monetary value of a human life. HLV is a calculation based on the value of benefits others might receive from the individual’s future efforts. That might sound comprehensive (and complicated), but because measuring things that haven’t happened yet is just guesswork—not to mention the impossibility of quantifying a person’s emotional value—HLV generally indicates that the higher your current level of income, the more your life is worth.

Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who oversaw the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and used a system similar to HLV to determine payouts to families, has spoken about the emotional toll of calculating those payouts, and the stark contrast between the legal approach to valuing a life and the American ideal that all lives are equal. It may be self-evident that all men are created equal, as per our Declaration of Independence, but it seems just as evident that the math changes soon thereafter.

I mention all this about valuing human life not because of any secret aspirations to the actuarial arts, but because the question seems to be a crucial underpinning of what’s going on around us in 2020. Every dollar spent in search of a vaccine, every business that restricts its indoor access acknowledges that there is an inherent value to human life. But what is it? No one seems to have a clear answer—perhaps because there isn’t one.

Variations of the no-win situation—or Kobayashi Maru, for Star Trek fans—are frequently utilized in the thought experiments of social scientists. Famous examples such as the Trolley Dilemma and the Heinz Dilemma don’t involve transportation alternatives or condiment choices, but rather ask volunteers to choose the lesser of two evils in a particular, hypothetical life-or-death scenario. These exercises rarely have a “correct” answer, but they do reveal interesting things about the way people make decisions. The less participants are impacted by emotional triggers, the more they’re willing to make seemingly rational decisions—to sacrifice one life to save several, for example. As the fictional, unemotional Mr. Spock says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, “[..] the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In 2020, the “needs of the many” might be interpreted as restaurants, theaters, and gyms at full capacity, and an economy quickly getting back to normal.

But when humans are personally involved—when they see the eyes of the person who’s being condemned to death—the neat logic often goes out the window, as it does in the next Star Trek film when James T. Kirk says, “[..] the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” In context, it’s a heroic sentiment, not a selfish one, an ideal of “no one left behind” that many non-fictional Americans, like the doctors and nurses who’ve seen COVID deaths firsthand or the families who’ve lost children, parents, or grandparents, would support.

But unlike in the movies, we can’t have it both ways. Death rates have fallen since March and April, but New Jersey residents are still dying from COVID every day. The fatality rate among younger people is significantly lower than that of older Americans, but it’s not nonexistent.

We can’t close every school and business, or completely avoid other people. But it’s sobering to remember that every action, and every inaction, has a steep cost. With COVID-19 still spreading, a vaccine months away, and many workers and business owners clinging to their livelihoods by their fingernails, public policy should be informed by accurate numbers—statistics, metrics, treatment outcomes. But the more we quantify everything else, the more the uncertainty at the heart of it all looms large.

What’s a life worth? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else—in part because we don’t really want to know. We shy away from the ugly math, reluctant to assign a dollar figure to the most precious thing any of us possess. Open businesses, or restrict them further? Loosen mask restrictions, or add more? We may never know the exact cost of the decisions we make in the next few months, but we’ll pay the price nonetheless.

Life may not be cheap, but right now it’s definitely for sale.

Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com. His books can be purchased at amazon.com.