The new Radiolab (definitely worth a listen) includes a story about a Michigan fireman killed in the Mack Lake Fire–a prescribed burn of a few acres that quickly got out of control and burned 24,000 acres. The burn was designed to regenerate habitat for the nearly extinct Kirtland’s Warbler that requires young jack pine forests as its habitat. The bird attracts many dedicated birders aiming to add the bird to their life list, a fuss that the local don’t always understand and makes them dislike the tiny bird. It even prompted one local to ask if saving a bird from extinction was worth a human life?
Is that really the right question? For sure, the firefighter would still be alive if no effort was made to save the bird, but a lot of people would also be still alive (particulalrly in the States) if pharmaceutical and medical insurance companies were not allowed to have such enormous profit margins. No one says capitalism kills. The real culprit is probably some combination of human error and unpredictable weather.
But that doesn’t mean the question isn’t interesting. Is the life of a person worth saving an endangered species? I’m exploring this in a Peter Singer fashion–asking difficult and controversial questions because we learn from them, not because I’m advocating a certain position. The question can be simple such as the one posed above: is the survival of species of warbler worth the life of volunteer fireman? If you were given an ultimatum–the bird or the firefighter–I’m not sure anyone would pick the bird (am I wrong?). But these sorts of decisions are made everyday when people give money to Greenpeace instead of the Red Cross. Is that the same thing? In an ideal world we’d save both humans and the environment, just as we’d save both the bird and firefighter. But should we be worried about human health before environmental health. Of course, they’re intimately intertwined, environmental health improves human health, but is spending millions of dollars on saving the pandas or the whales ethical when infant mortality in some countries of the world is above 1 in 10? Canada’s is about 5 in a 1000 in comparison. Again, I’m not trying to advocate any position here. The reason these questions are difficult to ask and think about is because they should be.
And I’m about to throw more difficult and philosophical curve balls at you. This whole debate reminds me of a series questions posed by philosophers called the Trolley Problem. Here are the first two:
If you’re not ready to push the fat man onto the track, what would you do in this situation:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. As in the first case, you can divert it onto a separate track. On this track is a single (fat) person. However, beyond that person, this track loops back onto the main line towards the five, and if it weren’t for the presence of that (fat) person, who will stop the trolley, flipping the switch would not save the five. Should you flip the switch?
And if you’re willing to flip the switch in the first one, what are you willing to do here:
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.
It’s war time, and you are hiding in a basement with several other people. The enemy soldiers are outside. Your baby starts to cry loudly, and if nothing is done the soldiers will find you and kill you, your baby, and everyone else in the basement. The only way to prevent this from happening is to cover your baby’s mouth, but if you do this the baby will smother to death. Is it morally permissible to do this?
Here’s an explanation of why people use different reasoning for what is essentially the same question (skip to 2:50 for the explantion):