Reflections on the Disaster in Japan

An unusually astute and reflective reader of The Daily Dose of Reason writes in:

‘I’ve been thinking about the following.

Is it acceptable to sacrifice one man to save 100,000 or any large arbitrary number?

I know this question has shown up in many stories and films and I am sure philosophy classes.

Why did I start thinking about this?

Nuclear power. Nuclear power has been a great invention for mankind. It has supplied many countries with clean energy at a low cost. But as we are seeing in Japan there is a potential cost in lives, many lives if things go bad.

IF there is a chance that a technology can kill many people should that technology still be used? If one person died trying to save the plant, is that acceptable for the use of this power if it has potential to kill many? A plane can crash and kill many, but I wouldn’t not fly; but does the logic break down as we scale up in the cost of lives lost? Is there a death threshold that is acceptable? If a drug kills 1 out of every 10 people, but saves the other 9…acceptable?

Am I missing a fundamental point here?

I will continue to think on this, but welcome your perspective.”

Dr. Hurd replies:

The first point is: Principles are qualitative, not quantitative. Specifically, individual rights apply whether we’re talking about one person or a million people. It’s never right to sacrifice the individual rights of a single person. When you violate the principle of individual rights for this one person, you have — in a sense — violated the rights of all. Why? Because the moment it’s OK to violate the rights of one man, you can violate the rights of any or all men.

You mention that you will choose to fly despite the risks. ‘Choice’ is the operative word here. This risk is entirely optional. One can choose never to fly. If one dislikes or fears flying in an airplane, or if one holds an irrational belief that flying is unnatural and therefore immoral, one is free to choose not to fly. The freedom to make this choice in no way implies a right to prevent another from forming and operating an airline; and still others from flying on that airline, if they can pay the charges and choose to do so.

Rights, at their core, apply to your ability to think and the choice to operate on conclusions that arise from thinking. You’re free to be wrong, or to be unsure, or to act on impulse and evade thinking altogether — but it’s always your mind that you either must respect or evade when making a choice to act.

With regard to the sacrifice of one for the good of the many, the question always boils down to: Whose choice? Nuclear power plants are — or at least should be — built on private property, funded with private money paid for by consumers who freely choose to purchase that nuclear power. It’s up to the owner of the nuclear power plant to assume any liability — civil or criminal — for any dangers the power plant may pose to the public. Liability must be objective and scientific, not political. Political “liability” of the sort commonly known today is neither scientific nor objective, but based on mob rule, mob emotions and feelings over facts. That’s not always the case, but it’s usually the case, especially with federal government regulatory agencies that too many people assume will never lie, or have no personal interests. (They do, and they do.)

Even with the example of nuclear power, there is no need for some entity to decide who should be sacrificed, and who should not. If the liability is too great to be worthwhile for a private owner of a nuclear facility to take on the risk, then there will be no nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, most utilities — even in otherwise semi-capitalist societies, like Japan — are owned and operated (or so heavily regulated as to be effectively owned) by government entities. Government entities don’t answer to objective reality, and don’t answer to the laws of science or consumer demand. They answer to mob rule, political correctness and emotions, in most if not all cases. Government officials who operate public utilities do not assume the absolute responsibility for efficiency and safety that private owners do. If you doubt me, then contemplate the difference between the post office or the Department of Motor Vehicles and a private, for-profit corporation like Microsoft, Apple or

Any lives lost from the disaster in Japan are due to the earthquake. Many, many more lives would have been lost without the advances of capitalism, technology and utilities including but not limited to nuclear power.

Where would you rather experience an earthquake: In Japan, or Haiti? In San Francisco, or Mexico City? Of course, you don’t want to experience an earthquake anywhere. But there’s no question about where you have a much better chance of survival!

To say there should be no nuclear power because there are sometimes earthquakes would be like saying there should be no roads, because there are sometimes earthquakes — and roads collapse in earthquakes; or there should be no bridges, because there are sometimes floods — and bridges sometimes fail in floods. I’m not minimizing the devastation caused to even an advanced civilization like Japan by a massive and tragic earthquake. I’m not suggesting there can never be rational and objective liability, for owners of nuclear power plants or any other utility that can harm the health and well-being of people who did not choose to be exposed to the effects of that utility. At the same time, we have to remain rational, and — as in the case of oil spills and other disasters — recognize that human technology adds to the overall safety and value of human life for each and every individual.

Just as you would never say, “Medical accidents and medical malpractice sometimes occur, therefore there should be no medicine,” you should never say, “Dangerous technologies should not exist.” So long as life is the standard of value, all human beings benefit from the value brought about by the existence and continuing expansion of technology. The challenge with technology is to always be expanding and improving it — and keeping government out of it.

Private enterprise and rational science always have been, and always will be, man’s salvation. Government, when allowed to interfere with the workings of the human mind and human ingenuity, will just about always mess it up.

The deepest issue here is not government, but human reason. In a world where human reason, science and capitalism are left free to dominate, all individuals will always benefit. Although accidents and tragedies are always possible, because human error and natural disasters are always possible, it’s likewise true that on the whole human reason massively lifts mankind and propels it to ever greater heights. Think of all that has progressed in your own lifetime. Government didn’t do this ‘ the human mind (at its best) did.

A world without reason as opposed to one where reason dominates? There’s no comparison.