An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2008

What is your life worth?

John Broome

John Broome is White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His books include “Weighing Goods: Equality, Uncertainty and Time” (1991), “Ethics Out of Economics” (1999), and “Weighing Lives” (2004). He holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship.

What is your life worth to you?

‘Everything,’ you might say, since if you lose your life you lose everything. On the other hand, Epicurus’s answer appears to have been ‘nothing’:

Become accustomed to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation . . . . So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.1

Epicurus seems to be saying that death does you no harm. If that is so, continuing to live does you no good.

When I asked what your life is worth to you, I meant, more precisely: how good is it for you to continue living? Conversely, what harm would be done to you by not continuing to live? What would you lose by dying? I disagree with both of the extreme answers ‘everything’ and ‘nothing.’ My answer takes a middle course. I shall come to it after first rejecting the extremes. On the face of it, ‘nothing’ is the less plausible of the two, but it has the most interesting arguments in its favor. I shall start with that one.

Most of us find the answer ‘nothing’ implausible because we take it for granted that dying is terrible. It may even be an imposition on Epicurus to read him as answering ‘nothing.’ He may not mean to say that death does us no harm –I shall come to that. But he does supply materials that can be used to construct a case for that view. I shall make this case as persuasive as I can, but in the end I shall argue that it fails.

The goodness of life has two components: quality and quantity. You might think that the quantity of life does not matter at all, but only its quality. Indeed, this is exactly what most of us do think about the goodness of life in another context. One way of adding to the quantity of life in the world is by having more babies; that way, more life is lived in total. But most of us do not favor increasing quantity this way. We are concerned for the quality of life of the people who live, but we are not concerned to increase the number of people who live. When the Chinese government instituted its one-child policy, its aim was to improve the quality of life of the Chinese. Another consequence of the policy is that there are fewer Chinese than there would have been without it, but the government did not think of this reduction in quantity as a bad thing, to be set against the gain in quality. Most of us would have agreed.

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  • 1Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” in Whitney Oates, ed., The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers: The Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius (New York: Random House, 1940), 30–31.
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