The Price of Human and Gorilla Life

An Iraqi lawyer complained that the price of an Iraqi life--set by our military at $2500--is too low. The lawyer, who lost several family members to an assault on unarmed civilians by US marines, pointed out that American families got millions in compensation from Libya for the Lockerbie bombing, and asked if Iraqi lives were worth less than American ones.

One often hears that "you can't put a price on human life", but we do it all the time. When corporations are assessing life-threatening risks--by saving money on a highway or building project, or putting a dangerous prescription drug on the market, they usually price a human life at over a million dollars a head. This is based on the cost of lawsuits when people get killed. If a corporation anticipates making twenty million dollars profit on a project or a drug, and causing only three or four deaths, not all of whose families will sue, the project or drug will probably get a green light.

The Pentagon's paltry $2500 payout is presumably predicated on the assumption that the Iraqis won't, or cannot, sue, but it still seems low for a human life. The usual price a zoo pays for a gorilla, for example, is between $100,000 and $200,000, and gorillas can't sue either.

There are those who feel that a gorilla's life is intrinsically worth more than that of a human, especially that of an impoverished African poacher. After all, scarcity is important in determining value, and gorillas are extremely rare and near extinction, while the earth is overrun with humans. The gorilla advocates bolster their argument with studies showing that gorillas have the ability to learn sign language, create tools, and so on, and would look just as smart as humans if only their vocal cords had been put in a different place.

To this view I would like to register a dissent. Consider this example: some years ago a toddler managed to scale a railing and fall 18 feet into a primate exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. A female gorilla, showing great anxiety and concern, picked up the unconscious child and rushed it to the door of the compound and into the waiting arms of zookeepers and paramedics.

How dumb is that? Human beings, after all, are the natural enemies of gorillas, having captured, kidnapped, and imprisoned them. How can we consider such beasts intelligent when they can't tell the difference between a friend and an enemy? Isn't this one of the basic criteria of humanity? The ability to classify certain living beings as hostile, evil, and hence fit for extermination?

If that gorilla were anywhere near as intelligent as a human, wouldn't she have taken advantage of the opportunity to rid herself of an enemy and dispatch the foreign infant immediately, thus scoring a victory for the gorilla team, even if it had cost her own life? Aren't medals given for heroism of this kind?

Some bleeding hearts may object that this particular enemy was a small child. But as members of a more intelligent species we have always recognized that the child of an enemy may grow up to take arms against us. Should a pilot dropping bombs on a city, shrink from his duty just because children are killed? Should the great hero Odysseus have refrained from throwing the son of his enemy over a cliff just because it was a baby? Should a rugged American individualist like Timothy McVeigh hesitate to blow up a federal building just because some children are brazen enough to attend day care there, displaying a blatant disregard for family values?

Even if the gorilla hadn't viewed the child as an enemy, civilized humans have come to recognize that rushing to the aid of a child who has suffered a misfortune will ill prepare him for living in a competitive society like ours. The gorilla should know that coddling a child who has gotten himself into trouble can only lead to chronic dependency. How could that child ever learn to pull himself up by his own bootstraps with female gorillas rushing in at every moment to protect him--letting him play hooky from the school of hard knocks? And didn't she realize that handing him over to bureaucrats would completely destroy his character as he grows up? A human would have known better than to interfere with the social mores that insure the survival of the most belligerent members of our species, since their well-being has been shown to serve all our best interests in the long run.

This demonstrates clearly the magnitude of the species gap, and suggests that human lives--even those of non-Americans--should command a higher price than those of gorillas.