Review Politics International

How much should a life cost?

About: Ariel Colonomos, Pricing Lives: The Political Art of Measurement, OUP

by Eric Sangar , 6 June

What if human lives actually do have a price tag? Ariel Colonomos analyses the social and political conditions of pricing practices for human lives, offering an innovative interpretation of the role of the state in modern European history.

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end. [1]

Kant’s quote is at the heart of the legal and political legitimation of the modern liberal state. According to his conception, the state and its institutions are justified and bound by the equal and unmeasurable value of each and every human being. The pricelessness of human lives results from the Kantian assumption that human beings are the only animals capable “of acting from pure duty. Only (moral) humanity and morality in itself have dignity, have inner worth. They are real ends in itself, ‘far above all price’ and [therefore] ‘cannot at all be brought into computation or comparison without, as it were, mistaking and assailing (vergreifen) its holiness’.” [2]

Ariel Colonomos’ book Pricing Lives: The Political Art of Measurement radically challenges this normative and legal postulate by demonstrating that the actual measuring and weighing of the price of human lives has not only been a common social practice throughout human history but constitutes, more importantly, an essential feature of politics of the modern liberal state. The book, a reworked and expanded version of an earlier book in French published in 2020 [3], draws on examples from literature, economics, sociology, and political science to show how practices of measuring the price of life has been determined by various actors and factors, such as the state, the market, the law, as well as conceptions of community, religion, and morality. The historical omnipresence of such practices results in Colonomos’ main analytical conclusion according to which such decisions represent the very essence of politics themselves.

To make sense of the sheer variety of actors, methods, and ideational domains that have informed such practices over the course of history, Colonomos differentiates between two analytical situations:

Situations which involve paying with lives I call exercises of patriarchal power: that is, the state [or other political actors] is deciding to spend lives to protect or advance its own interests […]. Situations which involve paying for lives I call exercises of philanthropic power: that is, the state is deciding to spend resources, or take other costly actions, in order to benefit some group of its citizens, [while] companies or religious organizations might also decide to use their resources and make them available for the protection of individuals. (p. 8)

Why is the political so central in the processes of measuring the price of human lives and of negotiating the coexistence of these two driving factors? Colonomos argues that the essence of the political is to bring together and pragmatically resolve the otherwise fundamentally incompatible priorities of two opposing conceptions of the “appropriate” measuring of human lives: humanist (but perhaps also other types of) idealism on the one hand, and marked-driven materialism on the other. Whereas a “pure” application of humanist principles would be unable to solve the practical need of prioritising some human needs over others [4], a purely market-driven commodification of human lives would ultimately destroy the ideational basis and the resulting drives and desires that, as already shown by Max Weber, modern capitalism and its political communities are built on. It is in the political arena that the two opposing forces of idealism and materialism are permanently negotiated, balanced, and translated into actual criteria and practices of calculating and comparing the price of human lives. Concretely, these implementations can take shape in the notion of the ‘responsibility of protect’, via lockdowns in the context of pandemics, or in the adoption of doctrines enabling or excluding negotiations with armed groups about the liberation of hostages.

The first part of the book demonstrates how the considerations of and negotiations about the ‘right’ price of human lives has been a constant and indeed constitutive feature of societies, even before the modern state could assume the centralisation of these practices. Using examples drawn from Shakespeare’s works, such as the Merchant of Venice and Henry V, Colonomos analyses how social relations are constructed when subjects negotiate the value of their lives and of others, and how they justify such preferences. By doing this, the book also examines how such negotiations reflect the historical and cultural contexts of their time, such as the rise of capitalism, the religious conflicts, the emergence of the nation-state, and the changing ethics of war. These contexts are characterized by a competition of community ideas about measuring live, such as honor or religious duty, and materialist market-driven considerations.

The following parts discuss the emergence of the modern state as the central instance for the coordination, negotiation, and implementation of ways of pricing lives. Starting in part three with an analysis of Hobbes’ philosophical model of the modern state, Colonomos argues that he conceives the “Leviathan as a supremely rational entity, precisely because it is the ‘measure(r) of all things’: it, and it alone, is in a position to weigh up the relative value of human interests and human lives, and to determine the ‘weight’ that we should give each in the body politic, it therefore the political.” (p. 25-26) Part four features a more detailed discussion of the ways in which states centralise the pursuit of philanthropic and patriarchal power (and the potential opposing priorities), sometimes in conflict, sometimes in co-operation with the two other instances of regulating the pricing of human lives, namely communities and markets.

The final parts of the book are dedicated to the discussion of normative principles that can guide the evaluation of empirical practices of measurement of human lives. While being skeptical about the possibility of devising a universal ‘catalogue’ of criteria for the ethical viability of such practices, Colonomos suggests that decision on pricing lives could be guided by some rather procedural principles. These can include the principle of proportionality, the principle of transparency, the principle of participation, and the principle of humanity. He also proposes guidelines on how to take into account the difficulty of giving appropriate value to – temporally or spatial – distant lives.

The role of Modern State

This short review cannot do justice to the wealth of literary and historical references hidden in Ariel Colonomos’ book. But his most important contribution resides no doubt in the provision of an original and refreshing alternative interpretation of the (liberal) state that avoids both its idealisation as the institution built to protect each and every of its members, and a pessimistic view seeing it exclusively as an instrument of powerful material interests to impose order domestic and abroad.

Colonomos’ contribution therefore feeds into a larger trend of recent scholarship problematising the role of the liberal state as a universal and unconditional ‘protector’ of liberal subjects, including from feminist, postcolonial or Foucauldian perspectives. Similar works include for example Elsa Dorlin’s book Se défendre [5], in which she convincingly shows that the emergence of the Western liberal state should be read as a history of the selective governance of subjects right to defend themselves, rather than as a history of the universalization of their protection. Another example is Mathias Delori’s recent work Ce que vaut une vie : Théorie de la violence libérale [6] that suggests that the specificity of the liberal state’s use of violence against external enemies is precisely its justification through ‘cold’ cost-benefit calculations (or “patriarchal power”, in Colonomos’ terminology), rather than through the essentialist construction of an ideological enemy. Dorlin’s and Delor’s insights emphasise the fact that states discount some lives on purpose – at times even, as Judith Butler termed it, to an extent that they become “ungrievable” [7].

On this backdrop, Colonomos’ book could nevertheless benefit from a more systematic investigation into the contextual conditions that allow political and social orders to emerge in which some human lives are systematically considered as "less unworthy” than others. Chapter 4, which discusses the “challenge of weighing up the value of hostages”, can illustrate this point. The state is characterized here as being mainly an arbiter, “trapped between a set of competing ways to value hostages” (p. 112). Moreover, Colonomos seems to suggest that the “modern state”, compared to the premodern decision-making autonomy of princes benefiting from feudal or divine authority, has even less room for autonomous decision-making because

with growing acceptance of the idea that the lives of civilians are valuable and, as it were, non-fungible, the state finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. If it refuses to negotiate at all, it will be called intransigent and cruel, just as happens when it kills too many civilians during attacks in other places. If it is too accommodating to the demands of the hostage takers—for example, by paying the entirety of the demanded ransom—it will be stigmatized as weak, just as happens when it makes strategically costly choices in order to spare the population of the country it is bombing” (p. 112)

But is the modern state really only an apparently apolitical forum of negotiating competing claims of the value of hostages? In other words, do institutional decisions on the value of hostage lives necessarily and exclusively reflect a deliberation between societal demands and concerns for effectiveness? Is it not also possible that a state – or, to be more precise, a government – just like other political actors, including non-state armed groups, makes an informed calculation according to which some hostage lives are more valuable than others, and therefore “deserve” a differentiated treatment? Nazi authorities – by all accounts not a liberal, but neither a “pre-modern” state – conceived hostages primarily as an object of patriarchal power. They systematically took non-German hostages in occupied countries whenever lives of German soldiers were at risk [8], or when they considered they could obtain valuable goods in exchange for sparing the hostages’ lives, as in the case of Jews interned at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp [9].

But even democratic states may not always weigh the price of hostages exclusively through a process of negotiating competing moral and social claims. The Israeli response to the Hamas attack of 7 October 2023, resulting in the kidnapping of hundreds of hostages, can illustrate this. The Netanyahu government, based on a coalition of right-wing parties historically opposed to the idea of a negotiated peace, did not deliberate with the families of the hostages, the governments of the non-Israeli hostages, or even the parliament, on the morally but also strategically appropriate countermeasures. Instead, they unleashed an unprecedent bombing campaign followed by a ground invasion of Gaza that has claimed so far not only the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians – which have sometimes themselves been rhetorically considered hostages of Hamas – but also of at least dozens of the hostages which have been killed as part of the combat operations since. Liberated hostages reported that they had come under fire from Israeli attack helicopters [10]. In February 2024 the finance minister and leader of the National Religious Party–Religious Zionism Bezalel Smotrich admitted even in public “that bringing back the hostages abducted by Hamas in Gaza is not the top priority.” [11] Conceiving the state exclusively as an almost procedural forum of balancing competing claims for valuing human lives – here in the domain of hostages – seems therefore insufficient to grasp the divergences in state practices of measuring the value of lives, even in the contemporary context.

On this background, it appears uncertain to what extent states can really be trusted to perform a ‘rational’ measuring of human lives, at least in a contemporary context in which states but also sub-state communities are increasingly struggling for control over the remaining resources for sustaining live on earth. Although Colonomos is skeptical about the ability of communities to agree on more than procedural principles, he recommends societies to adopt “an approach that goes beyond national particularities: an approach that places the human being at the centre of a global community and that calls on states to cooperate with one another and with communities and the market.” (p. 215). But is such a cosmopolitan and, arguably, “Kantian” solution really compatible with the book’s initial claim according to which specific ideational and material factors co-determine how lives are concretely measured?

Colonomos’ book remains a groundbreaking analysis thanks to its wealth of theoretical observations and empirical examples, but also to its innovative way of combining arguments taken from drama analysis, the history of philosophy, and religious doctrine, to develop an integrated theory of the negotiation dynamics of the value of human lives as part of the history of the (European) state. Among other concepts of the book, the differentiation between the “philanthropic” and “patriarchal” role of the state in weighing lives deserves lasting attention in the research debate as it is useful to overcome the often reductionist conceptions of state power in both ‘Hobbesian’ and ‘Lockean’ perspectives. Consequently, the book will appeal to a diverse set of audiences, including students and scholars interested in the history of the European state, the ethics and philosophy of government, but also the contemporary politics of governing by numbers.

Ariel Colonomos, Pricing Lives: The Political Art of Measurement, OUP, 2023, 320 p.

by Eric Sangar, 6 June

To quote this article :

Eric Sangar, « How much should a life cost? », Books and Ideas , 6 June 2024. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Kant, I. (1998). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (trans. Mary Gregor). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 38.

[2Kaczmarek, E. (2022). What Does Pricelessness Mean? The Journal of Value Inquiry, 56 (3), 471.

[3Colonomos, A. (2020). Un prix à la vie: le défi politique de la juste mesure. Paris: PUF.

[4This is for instance a common criticism of the human security approach to international governance, cf. Colonomos’ argumentation on p. 239. See also: Paris, R. (2001). Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? International Security, 26 (2), 87-102.

[5Dorlin, E. (2019). Se défendre : une philosophie de la violence. Paris: La Découverte.

[6Delori, M. (2021). Ce que vaut une vie : Théorie de la violence libérale. Paris: Editions Amsterdam.

[7Butler, J. (2010). Frames of war: when is life grievable? London / New York: Verso.

[8Fattig, R. C.(1980). Reprisal: The German Army and the execution of hostages during the Second World War. San Diego: University of California.

[9Wenck, A.-E. (2000). Zwischen Menschenhandel und “Endlösung”: das Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen. Paderborn: F. Schöningh.

[10Eichner, I., & Chechenover, Y. (2023). Hostage families have tense meeting with War Cabinet, say Netanyahu ’detached’ from their concerns., 5 December 2023, (last accessed 30 March 2024).

[11Azulay, M. & Chechenover, Y. (2024). Smotrich: releasing hostages not top priority., 20 February 2024, (last accessed 30 March 2024).

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