When an industry poses a risk of premature death to consumers, workers, or others, regulatory agencies employ a figure known as the “value of a statistical life” (VSL) to monetize the life-saving benefit of regulations designed to reduce that risk. Use of the VSL, which currently hovers around $9 million, has been highly controversial. While a number of prominent scholars have vigorously endorsed the VSL as necessary to the cost-benefit analysis of mortality risk regulations, other prominent scholars have vehemently rejected the very idea of attaching a monetary value to a statistical human life.
This article stakes out a more nuanced position based on a largely neglected aspect of mortality risk regulation: moral context. Whether and how the VSL is used to guide mortality risk regulation should depend on two morally significant features of the particular risk imposition in question: (i) the extent to which those exposed to the risk benefit from the industrial activity that gives rise to the risk and (ii) the extent to which those exposed to the risk bear the costs of compliance with the risk-reducing regulation. These two features vary in characteristic ways depending on the type of risk imposition at issue.
Consumption risks — risks of death associated with using or con-suming a particular product — typically fall on consumers who not only benefit meaningfully from the industry but who also bear all or sub-stantially all of the costs of risk-reducing regulations. Using a VSL to guide risk regulation in this moral context is defensible on the basis of the norm of personal autonomy. By contrast, workplace risks — risks of death associated with employment in a particular industry — typically fall on workers who benefit from the industry but who do not bear the costs of risk-reducing regulations. In this moral context, using a VSL to guide risk regulation is not normatively defensible. However, using the underlying economic concept of willingness-to-pay to guide the regulation of workplace mortality risks is defensible on the basis of the norm of equity.