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Am I a Cold-hearted Utilitarian?

Summary:
Here’s a letter to a long-time reader of Café Hayek: B___: You’re correct that I believe that a pathogen, such as SARS-CoV-2, that kills mostly old people poses a less-serious threat to humanity than does one that kills an equal number of young people, or one that kills an equal number of people indiscriminately. You’re correct also that I believe that a pathogen that kills mostly old people should be treated with less urgency than is appropriate for one equally lethal but that does not reserve the bulk of its ravages for the elderly. But you’re incorrect to infer from these beliefs of mine that I “do not regard all lives as equally sacred.” (Nor, by the way, do I believe that Covid-19 “should be ignored.” Never have I said such a thing.) My argument rests on the indisputable fact

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Here’s a letter to a long-time reader of Café Hayek:

B___:

You’re correct that I believe that a pathogen, such as SARS-CoV-2, that kills mostly old people poses a less-serious threat to humanity than does one that kills an equal number of young people, or one that kills an equal number of people indiscriminately. You’re correct also that I believe that a pathogen that kills mostly old people should be treated with less urgency than is appropriate for one equally lethal but that does not reserve the bulk of its ravages for the elderly. But you’re incorrect to infer from these beliefs of mine that I “do not regard all lives as equally sacred.” (Nor, by the way, do I believe that Covid-19 “should be ignored.” Never have I said such a thing.)

My argument rests on the indisputable fact that the older is a person, the closer is that person to his or her inescapable death. And so although each life is indeed, as you say, sacred – although the moral value and ethical status of a life don’t deteriorate with age or with health – the deaths of old people are simply not to be lamented with the same intensity as are the deaths of younger people. It follows that, in our world of scarce resources, if it’s worthwhile to spend $X amount of resources and effort to reduce (say) 25-year-olds’ risk of dying within the year by Y percent, it might not be worthwhile to spend $X amount of resources and effort to achieve this same level of risk reduction for people (say) 60 and older. (I write these words as a 62 year old.)

If you doubt me, ask yourself how you’d react upon learning of the unexpected death of a kindly neighbor at the age of 85. You’d be sad. Now ask yourself how you’d react upon learning of the unexpected death, not of that elderly neighbor, but instead of that neighbor’s 19-year-old grandchild. You would, of course, regard the latter death as being a much greater tragedy than the former. In fact, the word “tragedy” is, on almost all occasions, an exaggerated descriptor of the death of an elderly person, although not of a young person.

Indeed, if you were to react to each of these deaths in the same manner your moral sentiments would be defective. You’d be an abnormal person, and not in a good way. But being a normal person, you understand that the significance of one of these deaths differs from that of the other. Yet surely this understanding of yours doesn’t signify that you do not regard all lives as equally sacred. It doesn’t signify that you are, to use your description of me, “a narrow and cold hearted utilitarian.” It signifies that you’re a normal person. I believe that – at least in this way – I, too, am a normal person.

Sincerely,
Don

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Don Boudreaux
He is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Previously, he was president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

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