Friday, August 15, 2008

Processing people

Some of my friends think that a random process of deciding who should live or die is more important than the lives of those people, because lives should all be valued equally (and a process can ensure approximately random choice).

For example, this would mean it is better to make sure the life rafts are filled by a random selection of women and men and rich and poor and so on, even if that means that half of them drown while you flip the coin.

If lives should be valued equally, then why is a process of choosing between identically valuable things worth more than even one human life?

Also, even if you value this process more than another person's life, why shouldn't the person who's life is at stake's opinion on their relative value come into it? That is, if we are attempting to follow any ethical system other than egoism (of course your preference is of absolute importance if you are trying to be purely self interested). Try out the veil of ignorance!

For other readers, no this isn't a purely theoretical debate, I'm just not going to tell you what the context is.


denis bider said...

Your friends' thinking may appear irrational when phrased this way, but this could be interpreted as a variant on "treat others like you want to be treated yourself".

If you have no distinguishing characteristics that would make you likely to be chosen to be saved from death, then you would at least want the saving process to be arbitrary, so that at least you have a chance; and you'd be willing to pay a certain premium (increase the total number of lives lost) to ensure that at least you have a decent chance, as opposed to not having one (if you think it likely that other people have characteristics that will take priority).

Similarly, when people accuse a system designer of doing arithmetic with lives, what they are really worried about is that their life will be traded off for N rolls of toilet paper, and their life is obviously more important to them than any number of rolls of toilet paper, even though they wouldn't spare 10 rolls to help a kid in Malaysia (nor do I think they should).

As participants in a system, people try to advance those characteristics which will modify the system to be hospitable to them, not to produce the best outcome for everyone. Because everyone attempts to corrupts the system in this way, everyone ends up being worse off than if everyone supported the integrity of the system.

As a system designer or maintainer, it is your job to resist those who would like to tweak various parts of the system disproportionately to favor their goals, whether they be soccer moms or corporate heads.

This is hard, and people will try all sorts of tricks in order to make it look like they're trying to fix a terrible injustice the system, when in fact they are corrupting it to favor themselves.

Katja Grace said...

My friends at least firmly believe their motives are altruistic, and they are in no danger of being in the system we are discussing, so there is no need for self-preservation. Possibly they relate more to the people who they think will have a worse chance. In reality this will be countered by others having a better chance. My point stands that they are being unethical, so if they are trying to be ethical (as they say) they are irrational.