Hours after Boston's mayor and Massachusetts' governor asked him to administer a new fund to help victims of this week's Boston Marathon bombing, attorney Ken Feinberg posed difficult ethical questions about the value of human life to an audience at Cal State Bakersfield.
Feinberg was the special master for the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which distributed $7 billion to 5,300 people after the Sept. 11 attacks; as well for $6.5 billion that paid 1.2 million claims related to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
He also administered money collected after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, and many other high-profile tragedies.
Kegley Institute of Ethics brought in the nationally renowned attorney and law professor for the 27th annual Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture.
There is no easy way to decide who to compensate, or how much, Feinberg said Wednesday.
It doesn't matter that he is guided by standards no different from those used by judges and juries all over the country --what would this person have earned over the course of their working life but for the tragedy that injured or killed them?
"There's a certain hollow ring to the idea that all I'm doing is emulating the existing system," he said. "I am not a rabbi or priest. I am not Solomon. I cannot place a dollar figure on the moral integrity of a loved one."
Because both the 9/11 and Deepwater Horizon compensation involved taxpayer money accepted on the condition of waiving the right to sue, Feinberg was bound by a victim's earning power in his calculations. There was simply no way around the fact that a stockbroker earns more than a waiter, and thus would be entitled to more money, he said. In an egalitarian society that prizes equal access to justice, that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
But the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund for the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings was private money, so in that case, he proposed a flat, equal payment of $212,000 for each of the 27 students and five faculty members who were murdered.
That stirred the wrath of those who argued that survivors of professors with six-figure salaries should be paid more than families of unemployed students.
There were so many other murky ethical waters. How to handle same-sex couples. Whether or not to pay the fiancee of a man who died the day before his wedding day, when his parents claimed he'd been about to call off the wedding. Whether or not to tell a widow and mother of three about the claim from a mistress with two children fathered by her late husband.
These were "keep you awake at 3 a.m." dilemmas, Feinberg said.
The attorney is firm on just one issue. Although he believes using taxpayer money to keep would-be litigants out of the courts after the oil spill and Sept. 11 attacks was a good idea at the time, he's not anxious to see that particular public policy repeated.
Is it fair, he asked, that we single out these two incidents for public support when bad things happen to good people all the time? What about the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center attack, an act of terrorism in the same location? What about the Oklahoma City bombing? Why not them?
Feinberg added that he readily concedes that money is an inadequate and sort of crass way to respond to bottomless grief, but there's no alternative.
For more than 200 years, the nation's capitalist society has used money to make wronged parties whole, to the extent possible.
Feinberg explores all these issues in a new book, "What is Life Worth?", which he said he wrote in part as catharsis, a sort of emotional coping mechanism.
It's "horrible, horrible" work, he said, but he's at it again, a glutton for punishment. On Friday, Feinberg is off to Boston to work on One Fund Boston, which was already up to more than $7 million at the time of Wednesday's lecture.
The fact that so much money could come in so quickly, unsolicited, is a testament to the kind of country we live in, Feinberg said.
It's why he'll keep plugging along, "as long as there's a tragedy, as long as there's a program and somebody asks me to do it," Feinberg said. "One of these days I'll fail big time, and then I'll retire."