“Are two lives saved twice as good as one life saved?” I asked my friend. He thought about it and said, “Yes, from a 30,000 feet view, that seems reasonable, but something about it doesn’t sit right.” What is it about reducing a life to a number that feels uncomfortable?
Time Jump: 1922, Munich
German Middle School
The teacher walked into the class and nodded. The class stood up and took the oath they recited daily before beginning lessons, “I was born to die for Germany.” As they took their seats, the teacher noticed one boy still standing. They locked eyes, and the boy found his voice, “I think I was born to live for Germany,” he said.
This was a peculiar statement to make in the Germany of 1922. The nation had lost the First World War. There was a great sense of loyalty to the Kaiser, the supreme ruler of Germany, who had taken it to war. To go against the nationalistic sentiment off being ready to sacrifice one’s life for the country was no small thing, especially for a twelve-year old.
The teacher looked at the boy with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. “Write a paper justifying your peculiar statement,” he finally said.
The boy wrote an essay, for which he got a high grade but no discussion followed. He followed it up with another essay arguing against capital punishment — the state had no right to take a human life, he wrote. The teacher responded on the margin of that essay, “Then we should not be allowed to exterminate bedbugs either.” The boy wrote back, “No, in the bed bug state, we should not.”
This boy was Robert S. Hartman, who made it his life goal to study values and come up with a scientific way to prevent value confusion of the kind that he saw during the Nazi era. He was greatly pained by both the glorification and trivialization of death that had become prevalent around him.
Glorification and Trivialization of Life and Death
In popular culture, we are all too familiar with glorification of death through war movies and stories where an individual gives up his or her life for the nation. Distinguishing between the civil and the military state, Hartman noted in his autobiography, “I loved it (civil state) and would, in a given case, die for it, as I would die to save a drowning child, to rescue a person assaulted by a criminal, or to save the victims of a fire. These, I felt sure, are ways in which one may die for life. But can I, who am loved and who loves, disregard the grief, the despair of the human heart deliberately arranged by and for political power? Can I barter compassion for my fellow (hu)man for a mess of collective glory? Is not the choice, again, between truth and falsity, reality and fake? For the glory of the military state, won with the deaths of millions of men, women and children, is not my glory.”
Trivialization of death is far more insidious, and we tend to engage in it without awareness, for example when we count casualties. Hartman remembered a Berlin newspaper’s editorial early in the First World War, “We still remain a people of 65 million; a hundred thousand corpses more or less matter nothing.” Hartman notes:
Germany lost in the First World War 1,808,545 dead or three percent of her population. After the war the birth rate made up for this loss in 6.4 years. Thus, it could be argued from a collective viewpoint, Germany lost nothing. But the individual casualty was a man, loved and loving, and his loss was irreplaceable. It was a life lost, a life wasted, dumped into a manhole. The state takes human life supposedly to protect the whole. But is a human life of less value than a collective? Perhaps, I thought, in the true scale of values, the individual loss weighs more heavily than the supposed gain of the state. Perhaps the individual in his concreteness is worth more than the collective in its abstraction. Perhaps the simple arithmetic of population statistics is morally, and hence truly, false.
The suffering caused in Nazi Germany was not just to those who were the direct targets of violence. A form of suffering that is only now becoming clear is the one Germany wrought on her own people. A story a friend shared with me was that of a German elder, born right after the Second World War ended:
This man, now in his late-70s, was a part of a generation of children that was born to post-Holocaust survivors. The atmosphere at home and within neighboring communities was shrouded with feelings of distrust among these children on the role their parents (particularly men) had played during the Holocaust. The result was a generation of boys who had lost the connection with their fathers, and this generation was known as the “generation of lost fathers.” His own father never discussed the Holocaust with him. The sense of mystery with his father was never resolved as long as his father lived. His other friends had similar strained relationships with their fathers. It was only when as teenagers they started going to Guest Houses (community pubs in Germany are called that) to drink beer, that after a few drinks, older men would start talking about things which were suppressed within, and that is how the teenagers learned about the horrors that were perpetrated by the previous generation. But at home, this topic was never brought up — it was as though it never happened. I was quite pained to hear about this dimension of loss and amazed to think of the ramifications such an unfortunate event would have had, on an entire generation of men that were born and raised after Holocaust. No metric can begin to measure a pathetic loss of such magnitude.
It is easy to think that sweeping human lives into a statistic is something that only happened in the Germany of that era. But if we look around, we will find that we count life in numbers all the time. Any report of a war that one can find on the internet includes the essential statistic of how many people died. A smaller casualty count can sometimes make us feel that the loss of life was regrettable but not too high. When we reduce a single human life to a metric, in this case, the number 1, we risk trivializing death and rendering ourselves immune to the invaluable nature of human life. In doing so, we lose a big part of our own humanity and shape a world that is less sensitive to human suffering and more prone to causing suffering. The incredible richness of human life is dismissed by a method of counting that reduces it to a single number that is added to the count of an unfortunate collective. Is there a way to avoid such dangerous reductionism?
An Axiom is born
Robert S. Hartman would go on to achieve the impossible — his obsession with discovering a scientific method to prevent the trivialization of life led to an incredible odyssey. He would suffer a breakdown requiring hospitalization trying to work out the mathematics of this science. Eventually, unable to tolerate the environment in Germany at the time, he left for the United Kingdom, and finally reached the United States. It was here, one day, that he found the answer he had been looking for and birthed an entire field called formal or scientific axiology.
Hartman defined axioms that if accepted, would allow us to detect and declare valuation mistakes. He defined three dimensions of what we value:
Intrinsic values: These are valuable in-and-of themselves and defined upon life itself. e.g. my life, other’s lives
Extrinsic (or Practical) values: These are a means-to-an-end and defined upon behaviors or actions that have some reality in the physical world. e.g. brushing teeth, a beneficial action that has a reality in the physical world.
Systemic values: These are defined upon artificial constructs (e.g. clear rules or metrics) that drive actions. These constructs have no reality in the physical world. e.g. a rule to brush teeth twice a day is something that exists only in our head. This rule drives the action to actually brush, and the action is of practical value as this action has a reality in the physical world.
He also defined three dimensions of how we value (referred to as valuation):
Intrinsic values: Inseparable from who we are. We fully identify with what is being valued. These lie in the realm of uniqueness.
Extrinsic (Practical) values: Separable from self. We are not what is being valued, although we may express a desire for what is being valued. These lie in the realm of everyday desires.
Systemic values: Farthest distance from self, strongest sense of separation. These lie in the realm of objectivity.
With these definitions, he was able to declare valuation mistakes: Intrinsic valuation of non-intrinsic values AND non-intrinsic valuation of intrinsic values.
For instance, our starting question, “Are two lives more valuable than one life?” would be in the strictly systemic realm, as they are artificial constructs that are clear and comparable. However, since we are talking about life, this is a systemic valuation of an intrinsic value, and hence a valuation mistake!
Let’s try the other example we have encountered — the notion that the death of 1.8 million people would be made up by new births in six years. This is also a systemic valuation of an intrinsic value, and therefore a valuation mistake!
Finally, Nazi Germany went in the direction it did because of an ideology that had certain notions of racial purity. These notions could be whittled down to specific constructs related to one’s appearance or religion. Since these are clear rules of identification, they are systemic values. When these rules are used to justify the taking of life, the rules have been held higher than life itself. Indeed, these ideological rules were inseparable from the identity of many in the Nazi regime. This is an example of an intrinsic valuation of systemic values, a valuation mistake!
For the first time, our human civilization has in its hands a rational calculus that prevents us from trivializing life and death.
One may experience all three dimensions of value from the same event. For instance, consider the value of the life of a soldier killed in a war, being assessed by that soldier’s commanding officer. At an intrinsic level of valuation, the commanding officer has likely lost a dear friend and comrade who is irreplaceable. It is impossible to even begin to talk about the loss. At a practical level, the passing of the soldier creates difficulties in the war and has implications on how the unit will continue their work. In this realm, we are valuing someone’s life as a means to an end. This is a practical valuation of an intrinsic value. When this person’s death is reported in a casualty log, the number of casualties would go up by the number 1. It does not seem like much. That is a systemic valuation of an intrinsic value.
The axioms offer humanity a new way of thinking. The uncomfortable feeling in our stomach when life or death is being trivialized can now be transformed into a constructive conversation. We can check if we agree with the axioms, and if we do, reflect on how we feel about inconsistency with them. We can offer the axioms to our friends and ask them to test if their valuation is consistent, should they choose to accept the axioms.
Thanks to Hartman’s work, some questions that I have found useful when evaluating metrics for decision-making are:
1. What do I value intrinsically? How is that connected to honoring life?
2. Am I valuing an ideology, or rules, over life itself?
3. Do I use metrics to drive productive action toward what is important to me, or have I allowed my metrics to become a part of my identity?
4. Am I using someone’s life to further my objectives? Do I see my own life as intrinsically valuable over any objective that I wish to achieve?
This is a major upgrade to our language of values and metrics, one that if worked to its logical conclusion, will redefine our mathematics of value. A glimpse of this new mathematics in action came from a source I did not expect.
Mission Accomplished: An Unexpected Measure of Success
Experience: Keynote Presentation Meeting of the Society of Decision Professionals, April 2015 The Waterfront Beach Resort, Huntington Beach
“Counting bodies of the enemies we’ve killed was not an effective metric because their replacement pool was very large. The number of Afghan soldiers and police officers we trained and put in the field also felt like an imprecise metric.”
It was a pleasant spring day at Huntington Beach, California, where a hundred decision analysts had gathered to learn from each other. The keynote speaker, Lieutenant General Richard P. Mills of the US Marine Corps, was describing to a group of decision analysts how he and his team had arrived at a metric to judge success in the US war in Afghanistan. After rejecting many metrics, he finally shared the one they settled on, “The number of female children who go to school.” I almost fell off my chair hearing that.
Seeing the session chair standing next to me, I asked her, “Did I hear him right? Can he say that on camera?” She said, “You can ask him.” I raised my hand. “General, would you repeat that for me on camera?” To my delight, he agreed and allowed me to probe deeper.
Mills said, “It is only when a community feels safe that they allow their children to go to school. And it is only when we have crossed another level in their confidence that they allow their girls to go to school.”
The Taliban blew up the school that the US Marines built, not once but seven times. The Marines retaliated by rebuilding the school eight times. The last time it was rebuilt, they stayed put to ensure that it would not be destroyed again. I wondered if the schools were run by the US, and he clarified that they were not. The curriculum was decided by the central Afghan administration and run by them. A metric like the one Mills had selected does not just happen by accident, and Mills gave a glimpse of his depth when he shared his high regard for the Afghan civilization, with their tradition of poetry and music.
Mills’ metric of counting how many girls went to school illustrates how we can redefine the mathematics of value. He understood that honoring life was an intrinsic value. By thus avoiding its non-intrinsic valuation, he radically shifted the purpose of metrics — from measuring value to driving productive action.
Somik Raha holds a PhD in Decision Analysis from Stanford University and is Head of Product at SmartOrg, Inc. It was during his dissertation research that he discovered Dr. Hartman’s work from his own advisor, Prof. Ronald Howard, who took one class in his undergraduate days at MIT from Hartman on values, and recalled it six decades later in a conversation with Somik. It took a lot of help from Dr. Hartman’s direct student Prof. Rem Edwards for Somik to fully appreciate Hartman’s work. This article is an excerpt from a book on counting that Somik is working on, and was first published on Dailygood.