Skip to main content

On Making Life and Death Decisions

  • Chapter

Part of the General Motors Research Laboratories book series (RLSS)


Recent research has provided us with methods by which an individual can make decisions that involve risk to his life in a way that is consistent with his total preferences and with his current risk environment. These methods may ethically be used only by the individual himself or by an agent designated by the individual. In the absence of such delegation, anyone who imposes a risk on another is guilty of assault if the risk is large enough. Just as society has found ways to distinguish a “pat on the back” from physical battery, so must it now determine what risk may be placed upon another without his consent.

The research on hazardous decision making creates a framework for this exploration. The basic concept of this approach is that no one may impose on another a risk-of-death loss greater than a specified criterion value established by the experience of society. If anyone attempted to do so, he could be forbidden by injunction. The only way that an injunction could be avoided would be by showing evidence of insurance that would cover the damages to be paid by the imposer of the risk if the unfortunate outcome should occur. The methodological framework is used both to estimate the risk-of-death loss and the amount to be paid if death occurs, an amount that is likely to be much larger than present “economic” values of life. Evidence would be required both on the preferences of the individual-at-risk as revealed and corroborated by his behavior and on the magnitude of the risk as assessed by experts.

Such a system is likely to require revisions in the present legal codes. It is to be expected that when a logically and ethically based risk system is functioning, there will be an increased interest in purchasing the consent of people to imposed risk. Problems of securing the consent of contiguous property owners, for example, could be handled by interlocking options. People will also be more likely to be informed of the risk implied by using products or services. Thus risk would become an explicit part of purchasing decisions. The joining of logic and ethics in these new procedures offers hope for a more effective and humane treatment of risk issues in society.


  • Risk Evaluation
  • Limited Liability
  • Risk Tolerance
  • Death Probability
  • American Nuclear Society

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4899-0445-4_5
  • Chapter length: 25 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   169.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-1-4899-0445-4
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   219.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   199.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. R. A. Howard, “Life and Death Decision Analysis,” Second Lawrence Symposium on Systems and Decision Sciences, Berkeley, California, October 1978.

    Google Scholar 

  2. R. A. Howard, “Life and Death Decision Analysis,” Research Report EES DA-79-2, Department of Engineering-Economic Systems, Stanford University, December 1979.

    Google Scholar 

  3. R. A. Howard, J. E. Matheson and D. L. Owen, “The Value of Life and Nuclear Design,” Proceedings of the American Nuclear Society Topical Meeting on Probabilistic Analysis of Nuclear Reactor Safety, American Nuclear Society, May 8–10, 1978.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 1980 Springer Science+Business Media New York

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Howard, R.A. (1980). On Making Life and Death Decisions. In: Schwing, R.C., Albers, W.A. (eds) Societal Risk Assessment. General Motors Research Laboratories. Springer, Boston, MA.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Publisher Name: Springer, Boston, MA

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-4899-0447-8

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-4899-0445-4

  • eBook Packages: Springer Book Archive