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What Should Be Exchanged for a Human Life?: Cost-Benefit and COVID-19

Esmond Birnie


Has COVID-19 strengthened the case to use Cost-Benefit Analysis (hereafter CBA), including cash values assigned to lives? CBA derives from utilitarian economics. Utilitarianism’s weaknesses have been noted and attempts made to refine its application to economics. The Christian worldview implies an immense value should be placed on every human life. A theological economics would almost certainly critique key assumptions underpinning utilitarianism and hence of CBA. This article seeks to show that this need not mean a ban on use of CBA. We suggest, particularly in the context of COVID, that CBA, including valuations or exchange values for a life, can be used subject to ethical constraints. While this analysis yields ambivalent results as to the cost-benefit outcome for “large scale” policy responses, such as national lockdowns, “smaller scale” policies, such as masks, vaccination, and incentives to be vaccinated, may more likely produce net benefits.

Esmond Birnie, "What Should Be Exchanged for a Human Life?: Cost-Benefit and COVID-19," Journal of Markets & Morality 25, no. 2 (2022): 161-185

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