Thursday, 31 May 2012

How many children is your car worth?

Dr Melanie Nichols, an epidemiologist working for the British Heart Foundation, has determined that 4,500 lives per year would be saved if the government changed its advice regarding the safe limit for alcohol consumption to a quarter of a glass of wine a day (that's about a mouthful). In this insightful front page spread, The Daily Mail claims that 'Cutting consumption could stem the epidemic of alcohol-related chronic diseases set to cause 210,000 deaths during the next 20 years.' 

No Shit? Cutting inhalation would undoubtedly reduce the number of cases of infectious diseases although, because everyone would be brain dead, there seems little point in recommending this as a policy, even for the Liberal Democrats (though one doesn't need a focus group to see the obvious political benefits for the party of fairness). The only relevant difference between suggesting that people stop inhaling and that they stop drinking alcohol is that anyone following the first set of advice would die whereas those adopting the latter would merely wish they were dead.

Melanie seems to have assumed that deferring (she said 'preventing' but let's assume she's not as stupid as she sounds) 4,500 deaths is a good so obvious that it requires no further analysis. If you think about it for just a second, however, you will immediately see that some lives are worth more than others. I seriously doubt you disagree with this. Imagine yourself in the philosopher's balloon. With you is a healthy child and an old man, with cancer. You have to chuck one of them out, or you'll all die, and you are bolted to the floor, so you can't sacrifice yourself. 

In fact, we all implicitly calculate the value of an average life every day. The question posed in the title of this blog asks you to consider how many kids you think it's OK to kill every year in exchange for the freedom and convenience associated with driving yourself where you want to go. If you answered 'none' you are either an idiot or a hypocrite because a world in which cars driven by amateurs roam the roads implies that some children will die. Come on. How many do you think is reasonable? Ten a year? Twenty a year? A hundred? If the speed limit in towns were reduced to 10mph, the number of child fatalities on the roads would fall dramatically - I dare you to disagree with that claim. So surely you support a 10mph speed limit in towns? No? Well then you are implying that a certain level of child mortality is an acceptable price to pay for your freedom to drive through towns at a speed that gets you where you're going reasonably quickly.

As it happens, I agree with you, sicko. There is an acceptable level of child mortality - a price worth paying for the freedom to drive. Likewise I'd argue that, given we all will die eventually, the question we should be asking ourselves is not how long we shall live but how well? To take my own case, I could extend my own life, perhaps by decades, if I stopped drinking alcohol. I might also enhance the life of my wife and children and others who love me. But my own life would be diminished, a lot.

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