Monday, April 30, 2007

Relative Harm

On the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, I had a particular reaction. However, I decided that I should wait a couple of weeks before posting that reaction. I was concerned that people would react to it emotionally, and not actually think about what I was saying.

The thought that came into my head within minutes of hearing about the shooting was, “How would you like to live in a community where something like this happened on average three times per day?”

I had Iraq in mind at the time, where the casualty count last year was approximately equal to 3 Virginia Techs per day, seven days a week.

One of the responses that I thought would come to such a question would be, “How dare you trivialize the deaths of our loved ones like that!”

That misinterprets my question. I am not saying that we should hold our attitudes towards the deaths in Iraq constant and reduce our response to the deaths at Virginia Tech proportionally. Rather, I was suggesting holding our response to the deaths at Virginia Tech constant, and adjust our concern with the fatalities in Iraq accordingly.

The next response that I imagined was, “But these are our own children – young lives ended in their prime.”

Yet. The same can be said of the 3,200 young Americans who have died so far in Iraq. One hundred died this month alone – three times the number killed in Virginia. If the level of grief that we showed for Virginia Tech was appropriate, then we should be showing a comparable level of grief every ten days for the young Americans who are killed and wounded in Iraq. Their families, also, are our neighbors.

A Digression into Theory

If I can wander off into moral theory for a moment, desire utilitarianism, unlike standard forms of utilitarianism, allows for people to give special attention to those who are closer to home. Standard utilitarianism says that all well-being is equal, and that the well-being of somebody half-way around the world should not be treated as less important than the well-being of one’s own children.

Desire utilitarianism says that this is true on one level, but false on another. We evaluate desires on their tendency to fulfill other desires. If “preference for the well-being of one’s own children” is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, then “preference for the well-being of one’s own children” is a virtue under this model.

And, indeed, special affection for those who are near to a person is something that tends to fulfill other desires.

One way to start to see this is to imagine a business, whose job is to increase overall profits. To do so, it takes its business and divides it into regions. There is a New England region, Mid Atlantic, Midwest, South, Southwest, Plains, Rocky Mountain, and Pacific Coast region. To each region, it assigns a regional vice-President. The business does not tell each regional vice-President, “I want you to consider the profits of all regions equally in all of your decisions.” It says, “You job is to maximize profits in your region. In doing so, there are certain ways in which you may not interfere with other vice-Presidents doing business in their region. However, you do not have to consider their profitability. That’s not your concern.”

Similarly, we can see how a society can benefit if we tell people, “We need all of our children taken care of. To do this, we are going to assign certain children to each of you. Your job is to take care of those children assigned to you. Do not think of taking care of all children equally. Instead, each of you is to focus specifically on the children under your care. You will, however, be limited to what you may do to others in caring for your children.”

There is another element of desire utilitarianism that needs to be considered here. Desire utilitarianism deals with malleable desires only. Parental and spousal affection (love) are not sufficiently malleable. “Love all people equally” fits in the same moral category as “do not permit any child to get sick”. It is not possible – and, drawing on the principle ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ – it is not an obligation.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) my 20th wedding anniversary. Last year, she almost died. It would not even make sense to say that my grief for her should be equal to my grief for a stranger half way around the world. That which we have shared and experienced together makes it impossible that her life would not be of special significance to me. I assume that the same is true for others – for their friends and families. No sane moral theory can prohibit the acquisition of friends and the special bonds to one’s family and neighbors.

So, I can understand giving some special significance to the deaths at Virginia Tech. I have a harder time treating the deaths of 3,200 American soldiers in Iraq as less important than the deaths at Virginia Tech. And even though I recognize that it is permissible to feel a stronger sense of loss at the deaths of Americans, I cannot forget that second moral level – the level at which desires are judged good or bad – where they are not different.

(Note: Those who are familiar with the writings of moral philosopher R.M. Hare will notice similarities between what I have written above about two levels of moral evaluation, and the distinction between the ‘archangel’ and the ‘prole’ that Hare uses in his rule utilitarianism. Only, I apply it to the evaluation of desires, rather than rules.)

Other Harms

At that second level of moral reasoning, we must weigh the deaths of 32 Americans at Virginia Tech with the deaths of 32,000 Iraqis just last year, the equivalent (like I said) of three Virginia Techs per day.

I also thought about Darfur. At Virginia Tech, a lone gunman went up and down the hall shooting students sitting in a classroom. In Darfur, armed bands would walk in and do the same to an entire village. The casualty rate there is estimated to be in the millions, with the additional cost of people being driven from their homes.

I also thought about the people – particularly the children – who will die from malaria and other preventable childhood diseases. Where morality permits a special affection for one’s own children, this means an unbearable grief for those parents who will lose a child in this way.

I thought about the expected casualties caused by global warming – with estimates in the hundreds of millions. Now, it is true that these fatalities will occur over the course of several years. If we were to draw a comparis2on, we must look at all of the school shootings that may occur over that same time period. Yet, it does seem to be somewhat inconsistent to be willing to put so much effort into preventing the next killing of 32 students at some future date in some future school, yet care so little about saving the hundreds of millions of lives put at risk as a result of global warming.

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” This phrase (often attributed to Stalin though there is no source to confirm this) seems to be an accurate description of how people think. While a nation grieves over the death of 32 students, they let 320 million people die without a moment’s diversion from their day’s entertainment.


BlackSun said...

Hi Alonzo,

I totally agree with you. I posted about a similar subject last year:

and got this response in my comments:

"You have it wrong that the whole world has some collective responsibility to do anything....A libertarian policy of non-intervention, which I support, only means the government should not get involved in situations not involving our national defense. Private individuals and groups should be free to take appropriate action....Sean, I nominate you to lead a squad of freedom fighters to Darfur."

In other words, the commenter is saying, like many comfortable Americans: "I'm not willing to include victims of genocide in my moral universe."

Anonymous said...

I go to Virginia Tech, and I was thinking the same thing when we got all that media coverage. Its one thing for students here to grieve more than for dead Iraqis or American soldiers - we have a special relation to the students who died. But it little sense for the national media to focus so much attention on the virginia tech shooting when the relation of 99% of their viewers to the students who died is simply that they were fellow Americans. Same for the 100x more troops who have died. The only reason for their focus on the Tech shootings, then, is novelty - I guess its the business of the media to be entertaining though. There seems to be something disrespectful about using these deaths for entertainment value, but its kind of hard for me to envision the media doing otherwise. They just need to be reminded to not ignore other deaths completely/ report them as lifeless statistics.

S said...

Nice article and it sums up a lot of my own thoughts about the Virginia Tech shootings.

The only real reasoning I have managed to fathom up about the vast differences in grief you have outlined is that tradegies that occur in western society (Virg Tech, 9/11 etc) people can more easily relate to being in that situation. Many people have gone to a similar university or worked in office blocks. Much like the London underground bombings it frightens people that such a thing could occur in modern society and when they see the pictures on the TV they can easily transfer themselves or a close relative/friend with the casulaties. Where as deaths in a war zone or in Darfur are so 'foreign' to peoples daily lifes it doesnt have the same impact.

The maiden said...

Well written!

Sheldon said...

Because you also live in Colorado, I am wondering if you saw the column by Paul Campos in the Rocky Mountain News, published almost the following day after the VTech shootings? He wrote on a similar topic, putting in proportion the deaths of Iraqis. And he got the reactions you predicted.

Anyway, on a rational level, we should not distinguish between the suffering of fellow Americans and fellow human beings.

One thing though that is in play here is how people relate to things. All of us have either been at a university or a high school in the United States, or have close friends and family in similar circumstances. We expect to be safe in those places and when something like this pierces our expectations we react. It is easier to have a more powerful empathy because we have more direct experiences with those circumstances, and with similar people.

What occurs in Iraq on a daily basis on the other hand is in accordance with our expectations.

Conversely we are much more able to put aside the suffering of people who we relate to less directly. Many people have not had the experiences to relate to people living in the world's most miserable locales.

However, I have for along time thought that our moral evolution is advanced by broadening the scope of people we relate to. And we must at least on a rational level think in terms of treating injustices to distant and near fellow humans as equal.

Anonymous said...

This is off-topic, by I couldn't find a another means to ask you. How would you analyze this recent case?,0,5507193.story?coll=chi-news-hed