The worth of souls is…about $1,418.

You’ve probably read about this elsewhere, but the U.S. Air Force pilot who killed four and wounded at least eight Canadians in Afghanistan has been fined $5,672. This article provides a fairly good summary of the decision. Personally, I’m disgusted that criminal charges against him were dropped, and that all he gets is the ‘maximum’ administrative penalty of about a month’s pay, along with a reprimand. The behavior of this pilot was outrageous, but even more troubling is the idea of a military institution capable of generating such self-justifying attitudes in the face of acts that are clearly wrong… One more reason I’m beginning to believe that all war is bad.

Ranting aside, this news has made me question LDS theories of atonement and “paying for our sins.” We speak of restitution and atonement as though we have two separate processes working contemporaneously: you repent of your sins, and you also give back the apple you stole or fix the fence you drove through. This seems to me to be erroneous, at least if we’re concerned exclusively with personal forgiveness. What payment would’ve been enough for this pilot? If we reject the notion of an eye for an eye, why do we require payment at all? Is the idea of payment generated out of the needs of the individual, or out of the demands of the community at large? For example, if God decides that an administrative reprimand is enough temporal suffering for this pilot to endure in order to be forgiven, does the community have any right to demand payment beyond that reprimand?

UPDATE: You can read the full text of the reprimand here.

UPDATE #2: ABC News has an older but still interesting article on how the U.S. military engages in relative soul valuation. You can view the article here.


  1. One more reason I’m beginning to believe that all war is bad.

    What?!?! But some wars are good!

    (jus’ kidding)

  2. Amen, sister — I avoided using those words, but it’s there, still, isn’t it?

  3. And here I thought the worth of a soul was $9,999,999.

  4. Blood atonement!

  5. Dave, you’re right — 500K would not have resolved anything (though it would feel better than 5K, I think). I guess what’s bothersome is not the amount restituted to victims and their families, but rather the lack of punishment to the perpetrator.

    Perhaps what I’m getting at is not the proper valuation of souls, but the proper punishment for crimes.

  6. I agree with Jordan. Fines and punishment by the government are conventional and not approximations of required restitution for purposes of atonement. That means that by paying your fine or serving your time you may be over- or under-paying in terms of restitution and have to “settle up” with God individually.

    Besides, can we really put a price on life? Although we have to in the context of regulation by the state in contexts like workplace safety and air pollution, those are just opportunity cost values for statistical life and not what someone would really take as compensation for their life . . . statistical life v. actual life.

  7. Measure says:

    I just want to say about the “all war is bad” comment in the post, that this cannot be true.

    If fighting a war results in fewer lives lost than would have been lost if the war was not fought, (i.e. stopping the germans from killing jews,) then we should feel morally obligated to fight it. No country’s lives should be given a higher value than another.

    This logic is irrespective of any individual war, not an endorsement of any current or past conflict.

  8. I saw this sort of debate go pretty far at T&S and I think one conclusion drawn was that “no war is good but some wars are necessary.” I kind of like that approach to the issue.

    Measure, I don’t really disagree with you that much though. I am no pacifist and I’m grateful for those who defeated the Germans and other like-minded fascists.

  9. I studied the Quran and ahadith quite a bit and learned about a concept of paying blood money (referred to as ‘diya’).

    All jokes about Canadians and French aside, this was a gross injustice. If it’s about money, then much more money should be paid. But it seems that there should be some prison time involved as well.

  10. I’ve also followed the T&S debates, and agree with danithew’s summary. No need to really rehash them here, though we can if we need to.

    I’m not an absolute pacifist, either, fwiw.

  11. If a temporal punishment is “not enough” (and I really have no idea how “enough for God” is to be gauged), then can’t a person voluntarily do/give/offer more?

  12. Interesting thoughts, Steve. It’s worth noting that the result only establishes that *Canadian* souls are worth about $1,418. It’s unclear what souls of other nationalities are worth. Since God in the OT and the BoM identifies chosen races and cursed ones, the idea that different souls have different values is not beyond the pale. On the other hand, the God of the NT makes it clear all souls are equal before God, as does the God of Thomas Jefferson with his inalienable right of equal creation.

    Frankly, unless one posits an infinite or incommensurable value, assigning any finite, monetary value to a soul is likely demeaning to most people. Would the result have been more satisfying if a Canadian soul was adjudged to be worth $500,000? [And I mean $500K in US dollars!]

  13. Jordan, if you read my post, I thought I was trying to make it clear that while I think this pilot got off super-easy, I believe there is a point at which paying for our sins in a temporal way no longer makes sense. I’m no advocate of a blood atonement.

    I think it is somewhat incorrect, however, to be an absolutist in separating ‘paying for our sins’ and temporal punishments. As mormons we already believe, albeit inconsistently, in the policy that one can’t receive forgiveness from God for a crime unless that person is willing to submit to the temporal punishment affixed to the crime. So from this perspective, going to jail or paying $5K is a necessary, though (as Blaine notes) not always sufficient, condition to forgiveness.

    This in turn begs the question (for me at least) of the adequacy of temporal punishments and how they factor into forgiveness from God. That is, it’s at least implied that unless you are willing to ‘pay your debt to society’, forgiveness from God may be elusive.

  14. Measure, you’re wrong, and here’s why: saying that all war is bad is not an exclusionary statement — there are plenty of things out there that are also bad, and some things that are worse. Permitting a holocaust is clearly worse than a war, and yes, in such scenarios we may feel morally obligated to fight.

    But that doesn’t change my belief that all war is bad. All it does is suggest that sometimes, there are no good options.

  15. So, now that the value of Canadians has been established – what would be the result of a similar situation occurring with U.S. soldiers dying?

  16. Some wars may be good. The Clone Wars were not good, though some of the Star Wars were pretty good.

  17. Steve,

    I agree that the Clone Wars were bad and that some of the Star Wars were good.

    However, I would like to add that I thought Darth Maul was wickid kool.

  18. The fines are substantially lower in a military setting than in a civil tort trial because we don’t want soldiers being overly cautious and endangering lives that way. A soldier walking on eggshells because she knows that a mistake will cost her life’s wages may endanger more lives than one who is less cautious. We set the fine at the optimal level where soldiers will act the most efficiently. Whether or not this fine level is the most efficient level is another question, but I don’t think it purports to estimate the worth of a Canadian soldier’s life. (which value, speaking as a Canadian, would at least equal that of an American soldier’s life)

  19. Too bad someone can’t run down Flammer (darn, I’m not sure of the spelling) a history prof at BYU, taught my honors Book of Mormon class, and taught in the military.

    He had a number of thoughts about war being bad and the moral calculus we engage in. Some deep thinking, and quite against war.

    It is why we need prophets.

  20. Well if the worth of a Canadian in the eyes of the U.S. Air Force is only $1,418, I can only imagine what the worth of a poor French soul must be!

  21. You know, for someone who probably opposes the death penalty (Steve), it seems interesting to hear intimations of “blood atonement”. Would you have this man put to death over this incident?

    We have to remember that man’s tribunals are not God’s tribunals. We also have to remember that despite how we mortals perceive (and judge) the actions of another, the atonement is powerful medicine.

    President Packer said that some sins are impossible to make restitution for on this earth. But he said that the atonement can make amends for such things (he also explicitly states that “can” does not necessarily mean”will”, even after “full repentance”- as in the case of David).

    I think that any fines/damages/penalties imposed on this earth are based on the community notions of justice, although less so in the military since the community at large has no access to the rules.

    God’s justice is entirely separate (and I think completely unrelated to) our community penal systems.

    Which is why I find it so strange that mormons are such fierce advocates of the Death Penalty. Since we do not live in a theocracy, why does the biblical notion that if I kill I must die hold any sway in our temporal punishments?

  22. I Think that before you begin to question any LDS “theories” you should learn more about them first. As far as I know, “paying for your sins” isn’t an LDS practice. Sure, there is restitution, but that would be presumptuous to think that all restitution involves money.
    I for one believe that there is no value that can be placed on human life, because all life is sacred and beautiful. That is one of many reasons why taking a life, no matter the circumstances, is so severe. Only God is out judge, and that pilot has to live with what he has done, and will answer for it one day.

    As for this being a reflection on why all war is bad, do you honestly expect a war to be fought without any casualties? Of course war is not something to jump for joy over, but there are things worth fighting for! With all the lives lost it is no wonder why soldiers return to their homes changed as they are and we as citizens should remember that these soldiers have had to witness the loss of human life, both neccessary and pointless.

    I must conclude with saying that unless you are fighting in a war or serving on a jury panel, it is not your place to critisize.