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₩hat I$ £¥₣€?

Life is sacred. Or, at least, life is invaluable. Our resistance to placing a specified value on life generally, or an identified person’s life specifically, or even approaching the task of deciding whether and how to place a value on life, leads us to some extreme places. The death penalty is one (controversial) example. If our public policy reflects, however bluntly, our values, then it makes at least some sense that we would apply the most severe sanction to the most severe crime. Even if the logic does not compute, the arithmetic does: 1 Life = 1 Life.

In situations less severe than murder, however, and units smaller than 1 Life, the practical push toward pricing life becomes difficult to avoid. This is so even where a whole life is lost. The realm of products liability provides two well-known examples: motor vehicles and cigarettes.


In the 1960s and 70s, Ford Motor Company manufactured a small car called the Pinto, which had the unique feature of exploding in rear-end collisions. Ford was aware of this feature, but it continued to manufacture and sell Pintos to the public for years without addressing the design defect because it concluded from its internal cost-benefit analysis that it was cheaper to settle wrongful death claims than stop production on the high-profit-margin vehicles. In order to reach that conclusion, of course, Ford had to determine how much, in terms of dollars, a human life was worth. In 1972, it was determined that that amount was $200,725, which Ford used as the basis of its argument to safety regulators that the necessary changes were too expensive.

In the 1980s and 90s, tobacco companies came under regulatory scrutiny and similarly found themselves in the position of pricing human lives in an attempt to avoid regulatory sanction. Tobacco litigation continues today, and the federal government has placed an updated value of human life at around $8 million.

In leading students through these waters, Professor Kip Viscusi, who was involved in and has analyzed the tobacco regulatory and litigation events of the 1990s, encourages consideration not of an actual human life, but of a “statistical life.” Viscusi is possessed of obvious intelligence and this post is neither intended as nor capable of a full critique of his view. Instead, the simple point is that conceptually distancing oneself from specifically identified lives by regarding almost-imagined “statistical” lives works to allow one to avoid the innate moral quandary the life-valuation task presents only if no actual human lives will be affected as a result of the policy or business decision in which the value of life is being established. If that’s so, of course, the broader decision is itself inconsequential. If the broader decision is a real one, though, then it will affect real lives, and pretending that those real lives are merely “statistical” lives for the purpose of sidestepping moral concerns is a denial of basic reality and does nothing to address the moral obstacle.

The monetary valuation of life and its component parts nevertheless continues, and the market is not always a public one. The 2016 major-league baseball season begins in a few days, and provides a recent example.

Aroldis Chapman consistently throws a baseball harder than anybody else. As a result, Chapman became a very successful relief pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. That was setting up a substantial payday for the Reds, a team that, despite Chapman’s success, was not collectively successful. With one year remaining on Chapman’s contract, the 2015-16 offseason was looking like an excellent time for Cincinnati to trade Chapman for a big haul from another team that was closer to contention.

In early December 2015, rumors emerged that the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball’s wealthiest team, was interested in trading for Chapman. The Reds’ return was expected to be “significant.”

Just as those Los Angeles trade rumors began to circulate, however, police released a report detailing a domestic violence incident that occurred in late October 2015 in which Chapman “allegedly fired eight gunshots in the garage of his Miami-area home following an . . . argument with his girlfriend in which she told police he ‘choked’ her and pushed her against a wall.”

This news apparently scuttled the possibility of the Reds-Dodgers deal, and, while the Reds eventually found a trading partner in the New York Yankees in late December, their return was uncontroversially regarded as less than what the Dodgers were offering, “significantly lighter than other trades for closers this offseason,” and, therefore, significantly less than they otherwise would have received for Chapman. Chapman was not arrested in connection with the October 2015 event, but, at the time teams were considering trading for him, there existed an unknown-but-nonzero chance that MLB nevertheless would suspend him, something it did earlier this month. His suspension will last for the first thirty games of the 2016 season.

While valuing employees in a labor marketplace is not precisely the same thing as the wholesale pricing of human lives, the Chapman case was not exactly a simple case of labor valuation. After all, Chapman’s value in the trade market fell because of something he did that had nothing to do with baseball and would not affect his baseball abilities. Yes, at the time the Yankees traded for Chapman, there was a chance of a suspension, but that chance existed because of that same non-baseball act. At a minimum, the situation was complicated. At a minimum, “the edges of baseball’s free market were brushing up against baseball’s humanity.”

Meg Rowley, for Baseball Prospectus, continued:

The Yankees get an incredible closer . . . all for a price far less than Chapman’s natural talent would dictate under less disturbing circumstances. It all makes a certain kind of sense: business sense. The Reds want to rebuild; a fire sale for prospects and the future is their preferred outcome. The Yankees want to contend; acquiring bullpen siege weapons to rival Boston’s seems only natural, especially when offered at such a deep discount. It’s a success, perhaps more so for New York than Cincinnati, but a success nonetheless, replete with words like “opportunity” and “due diligence.” It’s a brilliant bit of arbitrage, a lucky chance forcefully seized. And it comes at a great cost.

Like opt-outs, and no trade clauses, and guaranteed money, this awful moment in two people’s lives had a market value. It was monetized. It became part of the cold calculation of worth that is always present in this kind of accounting. But instead of Chapman’s trade value being depressed by injury or poor play or any of a hundred baseball facts that might have resulted in this exact same outcome, we’re faced with the reality that in addition to a fact of his biography, this night, is now a facet of his value, a consideration of his contract.

Like all speculators, teams will run right up to the line the law provides, even if it is well past where we might see decency make its stand. . . . It was legal and comprehensible, the logical extension of the search for exploitable value. And it might have been unconscionable anyway. Not because it wasn’t predictable, or calculable, but because it shifts the limits of good taste outward. Purposely or not, it assigns value not to the failing of a baseball player, but to the devastating failures of a man, and allows the first team immune to the muck’s smell to profit. The outcry is worth four prospects. It is worth a potential year of free agency. It fails to access the humanity at the core of the game, cleaving apart the discussion of the baseball from that of the person, until we’re accustomed to treating them separately. We know too well the mayhem and pain wrought by domestic violence. And sadly, we know there are likely more of these cases coming. There are so many things we know. But conditioned to praise the savvy and successful manipulator of market inefficiencies, we’ve rarely paused to wonder if maybe this thing should be off limits. If perhaps, in the face of understandable motivation and sound accounting, we ought not to exploit this thing. If perhaps, we end up paying a much graver price for baseball than a couple of prospects and an extra year of free agency. If perhaps, burdened with so much knowledge, we know too much to care about it being valuable, rather than decent.

Rowley’s struggle for a final landing point here is emblematic of the difficulty of enunciating precisely why people find it morally distasteful to assign monetary values to human lives, but a lack of a working vocabulary does not indicate the absence of a moral concern. And, in the context of the Chapman situation, we can go further than Rowley, who correctly writes that the market assigned a value– actually, the difference between the pre-police report Dodgers offer and the post-report Yankees offer– “not to the failing of a baseball player, but to the devastating failures of a man,” by acknowledging that, indirectly, imperfectly, and in cumbersome fashion, the baseball trade market really has placed a value on Chapman’s girlfriend’s fear and pain.

Sports today are as much about money as they are athletic achievement, and the more we know about them, the more we are presented with morally uncomfortable opportunities involving those who play them. The merging of the sporting and civic arenas means that our collective values increasingly will be projected into aggressive athletic-entertainment marketplaces, compelling us to grapple anew and again with fundamental questions of boundaries, virtues, and values. For some, the new knowledge in sports causes a feeling that something has been lost, but the new arenas for discourse also create new opportunities for defining the rules of the games. Play ball.

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