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Multidimensional Poverty Measurement: The Value of Life and the Challenge to Value Aggregation

Part of the Philosophy and Poverty book series (PPOV,volume 2)

Abstract

Multidimensional poverty measures require implicit, if not explicit, trade-offs between different dimensions. One of the central values that has to be weighed against other values in this context is the value of life, since this is a central part of multidimensional poverty measures—often proxied for by longevity or child mortality. Different ways of weighting value dimensions (even weighting dimensions equally) require justification. This paper explores the idea that it is impossible to weigh the value of life (or poverty dimensions that reflect this value) against other values. We reject the idea that life has infinite value but provide a preliminary defence for two arguments that life’s value is incommensurable with but trumps the value of other things. On the first, life’s value is incommensurable with but trumps the value of other things because it is a necessary precondition for other things to be valuable to someone. On the second, the trumping relation is itself part of the value of life. If either of these arguments work, then there is reason to revise many multi-dimensional poverty measures that trade-off improvements in longevity against other things. Further investigation is necessary to determine whether similar arguments can show that other dimensions of poverty are likewise incommensurable.

Keywords

  • Poverty
  • Poverty measurement
  • Value of life
  • Discontinuity
  • Trumping
  • Incommensurability

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This conclusion is likely to encounter more diverse reactions in a more heterogeneous sample, as can be seen in an influential quantitative study of neonatologists’ beliefs across ten European countries. In this study, although there is a widespread agreement with the statement that “because human life is sacred, everything possible should be done to ensure a neonate’s survival”, still the authors conclude that different cultures and legal and religious contexts influence physicians’ attitudes to end-of-life procedures within Europe” (Rebagliato et al. 2000, p. 2459).

  2. 2.

    Those who accept the fair innings view (i.e. that it is important that everyone has a certain amount of life) might claim that this is not true in case one person has already lived her fair share while the second has not (Williams 1997). However, also those who accept the fair innings view would accept that 10 years of life is more valuable than a second of life in case neither person (or if it is the same person) has not lived her fair share.

  3. 3.

    This paper’s argument is also relevant to metrics for measuring health like the Quality Adjusted Life Year and Disability Adjusted Life Year metrics.

  4. 4.

    A similar line of argument seems to imply that the value of air and water trumps the value of other things as they are necessary conditions for life. Accepting that the value of air and water trumps the value of other things does not mean accepting that each air and water particle has value greater than other things. The idea is rather that the value of the air and water required for subsistence trumps the value of many other things, and that idea is not so counterintuitive.

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Hassoun, N., Herlitz, A., Esposito, L. (2020). Multidimensional Poverty Measurement: The Value of Life and the Challenge to Value Aggregation. In: Beck, V., Hahn, H., Lepenies, R. (eds) Dimensions of Poverty. Philosophy and Poverty, vol 2. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-31711-9_18

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