Nobody Is Without Worth: An Examination of Laplace’s Tenth Principle

Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace was a French mathematician who was greatly interested in determining the behavior of the universe through a knowledge of its underlying mathematical properties.  As a somewhat irreligious man of the French Enlightenment, he was one of the few people able to guide his way through the turmoil of the French Revolution, the Age of Napoleon, and the Bourbon Restoration without a scratch.  Nonetheless, despite this serious strike against him, he wrote, in 1812, a landmark work in probability in 1812, titled Theorie Analytique, in which he virtually invented the field of probability calculus.

Nonetheless, as interesting as his mathematical contributions are, the principles of mathematical hope that came along with his theory of probability calculus are even more more important to understand Laplace’s view of the relationship between mathematics and mankind.  To see this connection most clearly, let us examine his tenth principle of probability:  “The relative value of an infinitely small sum is equal to its absolute value divided by the total benefit of the person interested.  This supposes that everyone has a certain benefit whose value can never be estimated as zero.  Indeed even that one who possesses nothing always gives to the product of his labor and to his hopes a value at least equal to that which is absolutely necessary to sustain him [1].”

What is this principle really saying?  For one, it is expressing a deeply important human truth in the language of mathematics, which might be off-putting for people not interested in equations.  The mathematics is set up so that the relative value of a given risk or effort is the absolute value divided by the total worth of the individual involved.  For example, if a destitute person wins the lottery it means a lot more relatively speaking than if a wealthy person won it.  It would mean more because the gain would be so large in proportion to his existing “net worth.”  Likewise, the wealth of the rich person (or group of people) makes individual gains and losses mean less because they have less of an effect on someone.  These things are pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

Nonetheless, we might be tempted to consider some people as being worthless.  Despite the fact that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, it might be tempting to assume that certain ‘undesirables’ are completely without value.  Some societies, like our own, do not value the unborn.  Some societies do not value women, or minority peoples, or the poor, considering them to be worthless.  Nonetheless, Laplace gives a value to every life equal to that of the product of someone’s labors and one’s hopes.

What is the worth of someone’s hope?  While depression may cause people to lose hope that things will get any better, since despair saps at the hope and resolve and resilience of someone, all people have a blessed hope according to the Bible that is infinite (see 1 Thessalonians 4).  If the value of a person’s hope is infinite, their worth as a human being is infinite.  If this is the case than those societies that seek to destroy human life as worthless (whether fetuses being sacrificed to the idol of convenience in our society, or euthanasia for the elderly or those with terminal illnesses) or consider human beings to be worth so little that their exploitation (by employers, governments, family members) is no big deal, are in violation of a mathematical law of the universe.

The calculation of the worth of a human life is very tricky business.  After all, there are decisions that are made based on the worth of a life of a person by companies and governments, which may not hold up to scrutiny if the value of a human life is defined as infinite or nearly so.  For example, when I was a high school student the value of a streetlight for an intersection was $40,000, and it took five deaths at an intersection before a light was put in.  That meant that the Florida Department of Transportation valued a human life at $8,000, a criminal undervaluation.  Ford Motor Company lost a major lawsuit, in another example, in civil lawsuits because it valued the life of a human being at $60,000 when calculating the claims that would result from the faulty design of the gas tank for the Pinto.

Nonetheless, the anger that results from people being faced with the valuations of their lives by companies and government agencies is because that value is invariably far lower than the worth we think we have.  Most of us believe our lives are precious and valuable, and to be valued at the paltry sum of $8,000 or $60,000 is an insult.  Nonetheless, the fact that companies and governments do not wish to act as if all lives are infinitely valuable (especially in this age of socialist health care) means that some estimation of the worth of a human life must be uncovered.  The question remains, though, how are we to calculate this worth.  Laplace, in showing the value of a life by its hopes and the worth of its labor, provides a way to calculate worth that provides an honorable (and high) value to all human life, the fetus and the elderly, the sick and the healthy, the male and the female.  Let us therefore thank Laplace for that.

[1] Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan, Chances Are:  Adventures In Probability (New York, NY:  Viking Press, 2006), 40, 92.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Nobody Is Without Worth: An Examination of Laplace’s Tenth Principle

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  2. Mrs. I. says:

    Just a comment on the young lady you mentioned, perhaps you could mention something to her in private if you are offended. It is not good for you for that to “broil” within. Use the fruits of the Spirit (kindness, gentleness etc.) if you do – just as you have been using self-control to not say anything, use them to say something… She may be being defensive or spiritually immature or even “clueless,” but at least mentioning it in light of your past experience may give her something to think about & the opportunity to reconsider & even apologize. Either way, whatever her response, you will have the opportunity to forgive. 🙂 All of us are “not finished yet,” so none of us are “locked in a box” where we are in our character growth. Best hopes to you. 🙂 (p.s. I have Asperger’s Syndrome & have been married for 23 yrs now; not saying it’s been easy, and I didn’t even know I had AS until about 7 yrs ago… just saying; nothing’s impossible for our Maker who IS THE “ultimate matchmaker!” 🙂

    • I was not annoyed by the young lady at all, which was my point. I’m sorry that point wasn’t more clear. That said, I definitely understand the difficulties of Asperger’s, as it tends to be an affliction that runs in the family (I believe in the new DSM it will be changing its name). While what you say about maturity and cluelessness may be the case for my relative, it is not the case for the young lady I spoke of in the second example, who is quite sensitive and at least as emotionally mature as I am.

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