How much is a human life worth? The question, once reserved for theologians, philosophers, and poets in love, has lately fallen into the hands of government bureaucrats, whose approach resembles that of an assessor appraising a piece of property.
The Federal Aviation Administration has submitted the figure of $650,000 as fair value for an American citizen in 1984 dollars.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration generously estimates $3.5 million per man or woman.
The staffers at the Environmental Protection Agency - not wishing to appear either cheap or exorbitant - have established the range between $400,000 and $7 million.
The general idea of the evaluation is to measure whether any new safety rule proposed by a federal agency to prevent fatal accidents will be economically reasonable - ''cost-effective'' - in terms of the investment at risk: you and me.
All the bureaucrats are inclined to agree that the government should not spend more money on safeguards than people, judged as property, are worth. What they cannot agree upon is how a human life should be appraised in dollars and cents. As a ''statistical'' value, theoretically arrived at? Or as a ''market'' value, worked out in practice? - for instance, the sum of wealth a man or woman may be expected to earn in the course of a lifetime.
How much is a human life worth? This may be the first time in history the question has been made so literal, and addressed to economists.
Once it was fashionable to quote the net worth of the human body in chemical content - 23 cents worth of potash, and so on. The sum always came to less than a dollar. But that was the point - to show how the body was the least of it in those days when the word ''soul'' found general use among theologians, philosophers, and poets in love.
There is something here that chills the soul - this business of leaving the evaluation of human life to economists. Even as numbers the high appraisals ring with insincerity, as if, like distracted parents at Christmas, we were all trying to prove by the volume of our gifts how much we cherish our children.
How much is a human life worth? The question, taken seriously, haunts our time.
Any smug assumption that human life is universally held to be sacred went up with the smoke from the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.
From Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad on, we have been forced to confront in literature and in life the calm amorality of a terrorist - throwing his bomb with equal indifference into an emperor's carriage or a baby's.
We can only wonder what our long-range weapons - allowing soldiers to kill other soldiers (and civilians) without ever seeing them - have done to our sense of the preciousness of human life. What price tag, what bureaucrat's accident policy can there be on the hydrogen bomb?
But it is not just the violence of modern history and its megaforces that threaten to discount human life. Prevailing philosophies - Darwinism, dialectical materialism, Freudianism - have left the human being feeling either like an animal or a machine, and a rather inglorious animal, a rather faulty machine at that.
Much of the latter-day quest for ''identity'' would appear to be a panicky reaction against these diminishing visions. But even as we assert ''personhood'' until we stumble into the Age of Me, we sense that the self being concentrated upon is my self, not your self, and that valuing one's own life at peak rates may not be the same as valuing everybody else's. Quite the contrary.
How much is a human life worth? Finally this question translates into another ancient question, ''Do I love my neighbor as myself?'' - and its anxious modern version: ''Am I, in fact, capable of love at all?''
Little wonder that our regulatory officials sidestep both questions in favor of calculating human worth in the absurd but definite currency of dollars and cents.
Once the problem would have been resolved simply by the affirmation that every human being's worth rests in God's infinite love for him or her. This resolution, as the most casual scrutiny of history indicates, has never prevented human beings from enslaving other human beings and killing them if they belonged to another nationality or subscribed to another credo - or for even less adequate justification.
On the other hand, the record also shows that human beings, applying the most rational arguments and the most strenuous efforts of the will, have never been able on their own to produce in their hearts the love without which any avowed respect for other human beings must falter under the stress of history.