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How much is a human life worth? This is both a puzzling and subversive question for human rights advocates to consider. The concept of human rights is premised on the sanctity and inviolability of human life as well as the equality of all human beings. Indeed, the right to life and the corollary right to be free from the arbitrary deprivation of life constitute the defining human right. To place a price on the value of human life is, thus, unsettling. And yet, monetary valuation of human life occurs frequently. Governments use cost-benefit analysis and calculations regarding the value of a statistical life (VSL) to make countless decisions on a variety of issues that implicate human life and affect mortality, including environmental standards, health regulations, transportation rules, and worker safety protocols.

This article examines the valuing of life from a human rights perspective. It suggests that some decisions based on cost-benefit analysis and that use VSL calculations may violate the right to life norm because they fail to provide sufficient protection to human life. In fact, efforts to monetize human life and other human rights may face insurmountable challenges because such rights are not easily amenable to quantification or monetization.

Regulatory decisions implicate human life around the world on a daily basis. Mortality risks are real, and people live and die based on the regulatory decisions that governments make. While this article addresses the use of cost-benefit analysis and VSL calculations in the United States, its conclusions apply to all governments that use this methodology in their decision-making process.