The ‘save one life’ fallacy

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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?

Steve Metz

Peachtree City, Ga.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Anyone replying to this putting a conservative or liberal spin on the point of the letter is way off base. You’re either a political ideologue or you just aren’t real smart. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the logic in his argument. We all understand that for the most fragile amongst us COVID-19 is devastating, there is no debating that point, but for the other 97% of our population its no worse than the seasonal flu. Why is the government quarantining an entire population of healthy people and not just taking precautions for those that are at risk? Why aren’t more everyday Americans asking this question and demanding the answers? Because we as Americans have had our freedom and our liberties for so long we take them for granted. Having said that, we’d still be pissed if the governmentt just said “we’re taking your freedom of travel, your right to assembly and your guns”. That’s what all of this is about , its a trial run to eliminate your freedoms.

    Wake up folks.

  2. “Recognize them for who they really are”. You mean rational? Point 1 is that we should think carefully before implementing a policy to be sure it doesn’t do more harm than good. Do you oppose that?

    Point 2 is that if you believe anything is justified if it saves even one life then we have to outlaw many everyday activities that make our lives enjoyable. So, are you in favor of that? Outlaw swimming pools, motorcycles, probably bicycles, tourism, the list would go on quite a ways. Do you somehow think there are no trade-offs in life?

    I could understand a spirited debate over where to draw these lines, but I’m mystified that an adult wouldn’t see that we can’t outlaw everything that might get someone killed.

    Lempkac – you ask how he would feel if it was his life or someone he loves. Your question is rather vague, but let’s try to work with it. If it were me, and closing every swimming pool would save my life or someone I love I imagine I’d do it. But we don’t know who will drown because we allow swimming pools. So – a more specific question – do you want to close every swimming pool in the U.S.? If not, it seems to me that you’ve just made the case that it isn’t worth it, even if it saves thousands of lives.

    Honestly trying to understand here, I don’t see how you can say do anything that can save a life and not close swimming pools, outlaw rock climbing, etc.

  3. I am deeply disappointed in the Citizen for printing this letter. Mr. Metz and the editorial staff of our local paper, I would like to pose a few questions to the ‘save one life fallacy’. If the one life was your mother’s, your wife’s, your children or grandchildren, would their lives be a fallacy? Have you know anyone who has become sick or died. I have and their life was not a fallacy. Most importantly, what if it was your life… would that life not be worth it? If I had to care you in the hospital, your life would not be a fallacy to me. I would care for you to best of my abilities. To my friends and coworkers who are risking their health and their families health, thank you. I stay home for everyone sir, even for you because no life is a fallacy to me.

    • Lempkac – I disagree. The Citizen does us a great service when it publishes this tripe. Sometimes people forget how heartless and self-centered the typical anti-government voter can be. We assume that it is merely an ideological stance to be against a collective nation, but it is also an ego-centric, unempathic affective state that fuels turning on Fox News for yet another segment of conservative victimization.

      It’s better to recognize the Steve Metzs of the world for who they really are.

    • Lempkac – his article doesn’t refer to people or lives a fallacies, which is good because fallacy is a term to describe ideas, not people. Please think this over & reframe your question.

      You seem to have missed the main point. Should we let doctors prescribe Hydroxychloroquine if it will save 100 lives. What if it means 120 people with Lupus die because they can’t get it? Not asking “what other effects does this have” will often kill more people. The world is actually complex.