An old fallacy is getting a new lease on life in these trying times — the idea that something is “worth it if it saves one life.”
Don’t get me wrong: Saving lives is important, but as with almost anything, the devil is in the details and this idea can actually lead to a lot of harm. This is important when it comes to individual decisions but especially so when we talk about the government making us do (or not do) things.
There are two ways that this fallacy manifests itself. The first doesn’t necessarily occur but it usually does. The problem is one that economists warn about – the tendency to focus only on that which is seen and miss that which is unseen.
A policy may indeed save some lives that we can identify (even if only statistically) but it may cost more lives that we can’t see or identify.
One example: Many years ago the government began running public service announcements encouraging people to exercise more, along with the advice to talk to your doctor before starting any exercise program. Eventually they dropped the “talk to your doctor” bit. They concluded that this advice kept a lot of people from exercising because they never got around to seeing the doctor. This meant more people died because they never got the benefits of exercise than those who would have been saved by seeing the doctor first.
It must have been tempting to reinstate the “talk to your doctor first” advice. After all, the man who keels over on day three of his exercise routine is seen. The people who live longer, healthier lives because they got started are uncounted.
The second manifestation of the fallacy always occurs, although it doesn’t involve more lives lost. If you truly believe anything is worthwhile if it saves one life, there are an awful lot of pleasures we should forgo and a lot of inconveniences we should endure. Examples abound:
If we outlawed swimming pools, we’d save thousand of lives from drowning every year, many of them children. Sure, hundreds of millions of people would miss the joys of swimming pools, but it’ll be worth it if it saves one life, right?
And we’ll need to outlaw rock climbing, mountain climbing, motocross, etc. How about people riding in cars, shouldn’t they have to wear crash helmets? Travel for purely recreational purposes? Think about your life and the things you enjoy, odds are there are quite a few that should be outlawed under the “worth it for one life” policy.
Of course, if people aren’t allowed to swim in pools they may end up doing something more dangerous (sneaking out to a lake or river) which actually costs more lives. Or they may get less exercise and die much younger, but the statistics won’t show a drowning death, so our public safety program is a winner.
And in the end we may all lead much duller, less enjoyable and fulfilling lives, but it will be worth it “if it saves one life,” won’t it?
There’s a cute saying often seen in craft stores and souvenir shops – “It’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” You really want to flip that around – “my life has been as dull as it gets, but I’m expecting to have at least 80 bored-as-Hell years.”
So, when you hear something justified on this basis, I suggest you ask two questions:
Are there unseen costs that make it a bad idea?
Even if it saves lives, does it diminish our lives in ways that make it not worth the price?
Peachtree City, Ga.