If it saves just one life…

(Originally posted October 10, 2007)

Okay, so I was watching a Deep Space Nine episode recently where Odo and Garak get captured by Romulans. Commander Sisko of DS9 then suggests that the entire command staff travel into the Gamma Quadrant to rescue these two men. Now, I know Odo is a pretty cool guy and a rather skilled security officer, but is he really worth risking everyone’s life over? (Meanwhile, everyone knows that Garak is just a Cardassian spy anyway…) Moreover, what about the risk to the ship they use to travel into danger, a ship which is Starfleet property?

This romanticism of sacrificing the overall good for individuals reminds me of a recent discussion during our Torts class. We asked if a constuction company is negligent if, during the course of constructing a multi-million-dollar building, it can be reasonably certain that one (or more) of its workers will die due to accident?

The answer is no. Life is full of risk, and sometimes any organization will suffer casualties. You have to maximize the overall utility. Say the construction company will make $7,000,000 in profits off the building. The value of the lost worker might amount to $3,000,000, based on his yearly income times his life expectancy (his life-span in the absence of any work-related accident). Ultimately, society is better off letting the man die to create the building.

Why is that so? If the owner of the construction company so chose, he could theoretically pay $3,000,000 to the man’s family, and STILL have $4,000,000 in profit left over to use however he saw fit. If you were him, you could pay off the dead worker’s family with $3,000,000 (although you wouldn’t have to pay this much, because you were not negligent), donate another three million dollars for chemotherapy to save random cancer patients (saving maybe 15 lives), and STILL make a profit.

In that case, you would basically have a net gain of fifteen lives AND $1,000,000. (the dead guy would be balanced out by the $3,000,000)

But some people don’t see that analysis. They only see the dead guy.

Thousands of people die in the United States during car accidents each year. We could prevent many of these fatal accidents by abolishing the interstate highway system. This “solution,” however, would harm the economy, ultimately resulting in even more lives lost.

If you went to the extreme of prohibiting all cars, you would save people from accidents. Nonetheless, you would be killing people in the process. Think about the people who would die from ordinary medical emergencies if there were no any ambulences to pick them up. Commerce would grind to a halt, impoverishing the nation and forcing many people to starve. Moreover, a weak economy would cripple the country and empower some corrupt nation like China to invade and enslave everyone.

Think about other proposals which do not sound so bad as abolishing cars, but which are similarly idiotic:

Banning firearms, keeping people from protecting themselves or doing gun-related recreation
Tariffs and protectionist economics, “keeping jobs” in the hands of inefficient Americans instead of saving money on goods
Protecting the environment at the expense of human well-being
Lowering speed limits to unnaturally low levels, improving safety but increasing delivery time, transit time, and aggravation for everyone
Requiring doctors to treat everyone for a fixed, lower wage, destroying the incentive to become a doctor
You often hear people say things like, “Well, if this proposal saves just ONE life, it will be worth the cost.” Hopefully now you’ll realize the flaw in that statement. You have to look at the big picture, the overall economic analysis of the situation. Saving one life accomplishes nothing if it kills or diminishes multiple other lives in the process. At what point does an action’s marginal cost begin to exceed its marginal utility? That’s where you have to draw the line.

———————————–

Fall Break has just begun! Thank goodness. I’m not sure what all I’ll be doing this weekend because several of my friends will be leaving town, but I’ll manage. Next weekend, of course, I’m planning on travelling to Rhodes for homecoming 2007. Should be a blast!

Until next time

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