Wednesday, 16 July 2014

How much more valuable is a 35 year old than a 40 year old?

At Good Done Right....

Its not a question I get asked every day. But according to Michelle Hutchinson, of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, there are robust experimental results showing that most people think a 35 year old is more deserving of life-saving medicine than a 40 year old. The questions are Why? and How much?

That such questions must be answered, and answered quantitatively, furthermore, is apparent as soon as you consider the decisions faced by governments and healthcare administrators every day. Should we fund this new drug? Who should we make it available to? And which drug or treatment should be cancelled in order to pay for it? It is difficult, emotive stuff, but it has got to be dealt with, and much of the time it demands facing up to some Sophie's choices about how to weigh up the competing claims of different people, or groups of people.

According to popular intuition then, a person's value, or claim on life saving medicine, peaks in late teenagehood and slowly drops off thereafter. Hutchinson argued that it is difficult to explain this result in terms of egalitarianism (we don't think it would be better if everyone died at 20, for example, even though that would be more fair) or the notion of having had your 'fair innings'.

What I found most interesting here is that the intuition lines up strikingly closely to that of 'reproductive value' -  an age-specific measure of an organism's expected lifetime reproductive success. This peaks at onset of reproductive fertility, and declines smoothly thereafter. Females are more valuable than males because they make a bigger investment in the offspring, and have much smaller variance in their probability of successful mating. Thirteen year old female humans are said to have the highest value of all humans, in reproductive biological terms (by Robert Wright, for example.  The death of such an individual represents the greatest possible loss of both investment and breeding potential.

So if reproductive value were the main driver of our ethical intuitions we would put all female teenagers on the lifeboats first, and prioritise their healthcare ahead of everyone else, especially post-reproductive adults.

Of course, most people don't think that moral truths are dictated by biological truths. I  think it is interesting, however, and worthy of explanation, when biological truths seem to reinforce some aspects of our moral intuition but not others.

Furthermore, I wonder if the biological prediction cannot be brought closer to moral norms by considering that: a) males invest a huge amount in reproduction in our species, which should reduce the margin of value between males and females. b) Older, especially post-menopausal women also contribute significantly to the care of children in our species, narrowing the gap there too. The intuition about babies and young children being less valuable than older children (typically explained in ethical theory in terms of gradually increasing personhood) remains.

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