What’s a life worth?

Thinking about numbers, fairness, and justice lately.

Consider nut allergies. Exposure to various sorts of nuts can cause anaphylactic shock. The person (victim? potential survivor?) gasps, unable to breathe. Without help (usually epinephrine), they can die. That’s pretty bad, right?

The question is “To what length should we go, as individuals and as a society, to protect these folks?”

A rational approach to this would probably use some sort of calculus of suffering. How prevalent is the sensitivity? How great is the risk to each person? What potential actions could we take to help? What do those actions cost? Which possible courses of action are incompatible (i.e: Doing this *or* that makes sense – but not both).

It’s hard to stay rational when dealing with these numbers. If your child died, gasping on the floor, or was even at risk of such a fate then you probably – very reasonably – consider the risk to be infinite. A child’s death from a preventable cause is a horrible thing. On the other hand, I know for a fact that if kids were dying in horrible and cheaply preventable ways an hour off the coast of Florida in, say, Haiti – then a majority of Americans would rank that as having “zero” importance. Seriously. On the whole, we’d rather have a latte.

Infinities and zeros make the math a bit tricky.

I believe that the USDA requires food manufacturers to disclose if their foods contain or may contain nuts and / or shellfish. That’s the result of legislation – and legislation is usually derived from a downright nasty set of compromises. It tends to come down to a fight for limited attention between those with personal and those with financial interests in the problem. In this case, any requirement placed on the food producers makes food more expensive for everyone. Even pennies multiplied by “every person in the country,” get big in a hurry. There’s a common strawman argument involved when it’s an essential good like food. “You can’t make us do anything different,” goes the argument, “because then people on a fixed income won’t be able to eat.” It’s a compelling argument, and it is (in modified form) working out nicely for the as a hedge against dealing with global climate change. The risk is huge but hard to measure. The costs, rather specific. We can’t have grandma going cold over Christmas, can we? Especially not when we’re all just sad that Al Gore lost the election.

My father in law made a strong point over the holidays. “Some people have no choice,” he said “but to believe that you have an ulterior motive. They must believe this because their only other choice is to admit that they are cheapskate bastards. If you really were sensible, honest, and painting a comprehensive picture – then they would have to admit that they don’t live up to their stated morals. That they would rather,” in the case we were talking about, “close down the schools instead of paying a penny more in property taxes.”

For these people, caught between making crap up about your motives and admitting their own cheap meanness, “logic is not enough. You must use overwhelming, browbeating logic.”

If you’re asking someone to admit that they value human life at zero – it may take a bit of doing. That’s the cost, for some folks, in changing their mind on topics like climate change.

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