The Value of Life

Some of you might have heard of the recent furore caused over Satyendra Dubey’s death. Dubey was an IITian working on the Indian National Highway project. Some thought (rightly so?) that the media coverage was largely due to the fact that he was an IITian, part of the elite and that several such deaths of the ‘non-elite’ go unnoticed.

A few days ago, a friend sent an IM saying that some guy’s father needed a kidney urgently. The message highlighted the fact that this guy was an IITian.

All this triggered a debate on the gangasters mailing list questioning whether IITians are a privileged group? Does their ‘eliteness’ somehow translate into their lives being more valuable than those of others?

What follows are exchanges amongst us.. IITians. There’s no conclusion but several insights into this issue.

Warning: Very long post with profanities, innuendoes and some math!

Neville writes:
Boka sent this message:

danivikram: an IIT Kharagpur student’s fathers kidneys have failed; whoever knows abt any kidney doner pl call 9434217829, send this msg to all ur frnds plz

While I completely sympathise with the patient and the urgent need for kidney donors, I fail to understand what this has to do with his being the father of an IITian. I seem to be getting the message that the lives of IITians and their relatives are more important than other “lesser mortals”. This same sentiment sickened me during that whole episode of the murder of that IITian dude by some corrupt government conspiracy thingie. The only reason it seemed to have come into the limelight was because he was an IITian....and that’s just sad.

Boka replies:

i would love to discuss k’s views but a law end sem is approaching in 3 hrs so i will say the following

1. The msg was recieved from a non - iitian .(dani vikram is frm pune)
2. iit kgp is very close to this place which is why the msg went around on yahoo here.
3. about the dubey thing.....
what you say about the feeling of iitians’ lives being “previliedged” etc is true.
at the same time et me point out that every “community” looks out for its own. try hitting a lawyer outside a court. it was interesting to see the iitian community ,if you might call it that, make some noise, that the community showed the same arrogance that most of its memeberds possess came as no surprise.
4. Its like the US. until they didnt feel the heat ....there was no terrorism just bilateral conflicts.
5. the dubey incident is interested for some bokasu reasons. Technically speaking he was killed on the same project that i did my summer training on. for this and the obvious reason of him being a civil engg i got pretty senti about the affair.
6. that was the first time ive actaully fwded anything on yahoo msg. God damn dont make a fuss about.
7. from a more normative view of things i think its not that iitian lives are being valued more than normal lives but they are being given the value that any life ought to deserve but is not given in “normal” circumstances.
we should ideally be making a lot of noise if any civil engg was murdered for being honest. ( 2 other engg in bihar have also been killed.)

Nev again:

I read Boka’s bokasu and decided to hit back with a little food for thought. Here goes:

“....iit kgp is very close to this place which is why the msg went around on yahoo here…”

That doesn’t make a fucking iota of a difference. Who gives a shit about where his son studies? Would you send out a message saying “so-and-so - whose son studies in jharkand institute of technology and whose niece is a pretty girl of fair complexion and marriagable age and whose uncle was once the mud-wrestling champion of Jhumritalayya - has kidney problems and need a donor urgently” ?

No. Because it’s not fucking relevant. What’s relevant is that someone’s kidneys have failed and he needs a donor.

“ the same time et me point out that every ”community“ looks out for its own....”

Sure they do. But it wasn’t just IITians who were making a big fuss over the dubey incident. It wasn’t IITian journalists who came up with the headlines “IITian murdered!!” on every goddamn indian portal on the web. The whole issue was “sold” on the fact that an IITian was murdered. And it wouldn’t have sold had dubey not been an IITian. So it’s got nothing to do with a community looking out for itself.

“....The msg was recieved from a non - iitian .(dani vikram is frm pune) ....”

Hence my concern!! A non-iitian feels the need to specify the IIT connection of a sick man in the hope that it will get him better medical help. He feels that people take the lives of IITians more seriously. Which was exactly my point.

“.....Its like the US. until they didnt feel the heat ....there was no terrorism just bilateral conflicts…”

Again, irrelevant blather. I’ve already made it clear that it’s NOT just an IITian sentiment but a nationwide one. So the analogy is a pile of dung.

“....the dubey incident is interested for some bokasu reasons…”

Obviously the rest of this point is not worth debating.

“....i think its not that iitian lives are being valued more than normal lives but they are being given the value that any life ought to deserve but is not given in ”normal“ circumstances....”

Let’s hear it for the Miss. World contestant!! People put your hands together for Miss. India, Boka Madarchod.

There is a point to be clarified here. A rather subtle and somewhat philosophical (don’t rape me for using that word) point - what is the value that “any” life “ought” to deserve? Is there anything like an absolute value for a life? Do you really give a flying fuck about some motherfucker who got killed a thousand miles away? Do you give a shit about the dog that died in your street? How much would you care if your best pal died?

We typically care only about people and events that affect our personal universe. The larger picture doesn’t count as much - which usually manifests itself in the form of public apathy. The “value” of a person’s life varies - people whose universes overlapped with his would value it more (if they liked him) or less (if he was a dick) than people who lived in disjoint universes. But if we were to somehow take an average of these “values” over the global population we might come up with some sort of “worth” for that life.

So are all lives really equal? Does the worth of your life depend on the number of people who like you? Does it depend on the number of people who think you’re important?

Why was Dubey’s life valued more than the other engineers who were killed?

Like I said, that’s food for thought.

Abhijit’s POV:

It is not surprising that the media seems to “value” the life of IITians more. Because IITians symbolize a productive, diligent and intelligent India. Though we all know that not all IITians are productive and/or intelligent and that not all non IITians are lazy or dumb. But the fact is that IITs and IITians are perceived by the Indian public as one of the few things left to be proud of as an Indian. Hence any news item which has a connection to IITs will get more “newsworthy”.

There is another analogy of IITians and americans. Some time ago there was a earthquake in Iran and 50,000 peope were killed. The same day 3 americans were killed in Iraq. Guess which was the lead story in BBC (which is NOT american)? 3 lives worth more than 50,000? No, it is just that 3 american lives are more newsworthy than 50,000 poor koran reading sods who don’t even have a Mac in their town. The amount of coverage received in the media does not equate to the “value” of the concerned person(s).

The value of life, if absolute, would be the same for all human beings. All unbiased legal systems take this view since this is the only practical and objective way to assess the value of life. More likely, there is only a relative PERCEIVED value of life, which would then depend upon the individual’s frame of reference. For eg., I would definitely be concerned for K’s welfare if he were to be hung by his balls from the statue of liberty. So would the rest of you guys. I would even start a pressure group to get him back to terra firma. That’s how much I would care for my ex-wing mate. But the janitor in charge of the statue would be more worried about his beloved Liberty. Perceptions..perceptions.

Boka replies:

first let me concede the following
i quote my own mail:
“about the dubey thing.....
what you say about the feeling of iitians’ lives being ”previliedged“ etc is true.” “

i also concede that the point about the proximity of iit kgp is utter crap....and most of your argument makes sense.

but ,......(and you just knew boka wasnt gonna just concede and shut up no he has to put in his but.....)

and big big But.

I was talking about all those mails from iitians in the US ”callling for justice“ letters to the PM and the likes.

I wasnt talking about the media attention at all. i dont know why it surprises you as much. the IIT brand is bloody huge,,,,and i mean HUGE, you ve experienced it yourself.

About how valuation of lives takes place in general. ....
i dont know....havent thought about it
rest assured i;ll blurt out my first thought on the subject.

Neville speaketh:

”BB’s first paragraph“

True. Although not ENTIRELY accurate. Being admired or respected is a sufficient but NOT a necessary condition for a life to be valued as more news-worthy by the public. Dawood Ibrahim’s death would certainly make headlines. The sufficient and all-encompassing condition is that the person should be considered important in the big picture.

Most of us in the world are not famous. Our deaths wouldn’t make a difference to this world. Not in the least. To use a nostalgic phrase - we’re insignificant pieces of shit (IPS) :-). However, there are some people and institutions who ARE famous, and by virtue of their fame they touch many more lives than the average IPS. They are present in a lot of people’s ”personal universes“ although the converse is almost never true. We’re always interested to know about elements in our personal universe and hence the lives of these few are valued by a lot of people. And the media dishes out what the majority of the people want to know....hence the lives of famous people are considered more newsworthy.

The IIT’s are now a famous institution and as alumni we’re considered a part of that image. The death of dubey was considered a scratch on that image made by the goverment and hence the public yelled bloody murder - literally :-).

”BB’s third paragraph”:

Legal systems over the world are based on the equality of life not because it is necessarily the right way to go about things but because it is the only practical and publicly acceptable way. Hence the value of a life in a legal system is absolute and equal to a constant over the global population. The constant function is an easy function to work with. But as long as we’re talking theoretically, why not delve deeper into the matter and come up with what seems to be a better estimate of the value of a life.

BB says there’s is a relative PERCEIVED value of life which depends on the reference frame. So, like I mentioned in my last mail, average this value over all reference frames. Take a global poll, asking people to rate the value of this person’s life from -5 to 5. -5 if they want him dead at any cost, 5 if they think he should be kept alive at any cost and 0 if they don’t care. Assume a perfect world where everybody gives an honest and unbiased personal opinion. Add up all the scores and divide it by the total number of people who participated in the poll (the division is necessary because the global population will fluctuate from poll to poll and hence we can’t simply work with the summations). The people with scores further away from 0 are the ones whose lives are considered important. Dawood Ibrahim would likely be in the deep negatives and jenna jameson would be in the high positives :-). All of the rest of us ‘unimportant’ people wold be really really close to zero. However, it appears that if we told people that we’re from IIT our scores would move to the right on the score line.

Coming back to the Dubey issue, what irks me is this: when we believe in a legal system that considers all lives equal, why must we (the people) value dubey’s life more? Are these not double standards? What is the macroscopic and microscopic view of things?

questions, questions, questions.....

Nev’s formula correction:

I just realised my math-modelling for the value of a life is a little flawed.

It’s possible to have a mean close to zero when you have big scores on both sides of 0.

Take the global poll and model the score of a person as a random variable, with the distribution depending on the scores given to him by all the people that participated in the poll.

Then you are important if:

1. The mean of your random variable is siginificantly greater than 0, or

2. The mean of your random variable is siginificantly less than 0 or

3. The variance of your random variable is significantly greater than 0.

My own two cents

The value of an individual should also be a measure of
his value addition to the society. the value addition
may be economic, social or whatever. if this is taken
as one of the measures.. then IITians tend to fall in
the category of those with economic value creation.

this is not to say that the groupism is a good thing
or iitians or any other group should get a better
deal.. it’s just one more variable in the equation

and as i said.. it’s just my 2 singapore cents.

and that’s where the discussion petered out..