Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's a Minute Out of Life?

By Mike Dorf

My latest FindLaw column asks whether the minuscule cancer risk from backscatter X-ray full-body scans is worth worrying about.  (Answer: Maybe.)  In the course of the column I cite the following calculation from Super Freakonomics:  Taking off and replacing shoes at the airport costs the average traveler about a minute, which aggregated over hundreds of millions of passengers wastes the equivalent of 14 lives per year.  In the column I note that of course 14 lives spread out this way over hundreds of millions of people in one-minute increments is much less of a harm than actually killing 14 people.

Here I just want to note an oddity.  Under the criminal law, killing a person who had a minute to live--someone in his death throes, say--is murder.  Thus, if someone were to somehow kill 500 million people one minute before each of them was going to die, that would be 500 million cases of murder.  So how come it feels trivial--and the Super Freakonomics calculation seems misplaced--to equate the time wasted with shoes with actual deprivations of life?  The difference is not that a minute taken out of the middle of life is different from a minute taken out of the end of life.  Rather, the crucial difference is between wasting people's time--even on a massive scale--and depriving people of life.  This rather obvious difference suggests that there is something profoundly mistaken about a utilitarian calculus that treats moments of life simply as potentially productive units, such that wasting them is equivalent to extinguishing them.


Sam Rickless said...

The problem is that the claim that the loss of time involved in shoe removal and replacement being the equivalent of 14 lives is ambiguous. It could mean (i) that the harm produced by the aggregated time loss is identical to the harm involved in 14 people losing their lives very prematurely, or (ii) that the aggregated time is identical to 14 average life spans. Proposition (ii) is unproblematic, which is what gives the ambiguous claim its aura of plausibility. Proposition (i) is just plain false, which is what makes the ambiguous claim misleading, given that the claim is clearly designed to lead us to accept (i) rather than (ii). Proposition (i) is false because harm is harm *to* persons (or sentient beings). Given that the relevant 14 people don't exist, there is no harm *to* 14 people equivalent to the total harm experienced by millions of people at airports. I don't think that this is a body blow to utilitarians, though, because the more sophisticated among them will accept that all harms are harms *to* individuals.

Ori Herstein said...

I wonder to what extent spending the minute taking off shoes at the airport is “wasted” time. Clearly most people, if asked, would rather not spend the minute taking their shoes off and putting them back on. It is an annoyance. Yet, I think there are some benefits to individuals derived from these security checks, which perhaps goes unnoticed:

• Making people feel safer;
• Making people feel they are part of the security effort: their mild discomfort is their contribution to the war on terrorism;
• A sense of community is fostered: “we are all in this together.”
• Many little valuable human interactions occur between people in these security lines;
• People take more care not to wear socks with holes;
• Airports become a little less anonymous through this odd ritual of partial public undressing;
• Debates form in bestselling books;
• Comedians have new material for jokes;
• More jobs of security personnel;
• Bloggers and philosophers have new examples through which to express their ideas;
• And so on and so on.

All of that for just a minute! So is it really a wasted minute? What else would we do with that extra minute? Sit waiting to board the plane? Leave home a minute later? Where is the waste?

Sam Rickless said...

I love your optimism, Ori. So refreshing....

But...Did I tell you about the time when I got stuck in a long and packed security line with a child behind me who without a doubt had H1N1? Or the time when I almost left my computer and boarding pass out for anyone to pick up because I was so preoccupied with (i) taking my shoes and belt off and putting them in the conveyor belt, (ii) making sure that my kids were doing the same, (iii) making sure that my cell phone and change were not in my pockets, (iv) making sure that the little baggies with shampoo were removed from our carry-on bags, and (v) worrying about making the people behind me miss their plane? When one person travels with very little, it's no big deal. When families travel, the level of stress is considerable. I wish I could feel safer at the end of it all, but it's very hard for me to estimate just how much safer we all are.

Michael C. Dorf said...

First, I'll address Ori's points, meant at least partly in jest, no doubt. In the column, I do cite peace of mind as a benefit of security measures, even if they lack efficacy. I like his additions to the list. I would also note how much time each of us wastes (or at least how much time I waste) on complete nonsense every day--and that's not even counting blogging!

Second, I agree with Sam about how the example trades on the ambiguity between (i) and (ii). I also agree that, as stated, the critique of that ambiguity does not by itself undo utilitarianism. But it suggests to me an example that is at least troubling for utilitarians.

Suppose a stun gun capable of putting someone in a state of suspended animation for exactly one minute, after which the victim awakens completely unharmed, except that his life expectancy is not extended, so he really has "lost" that minute. Is firing the stun gun at someone as much of a harm to that person as shooting and killing (with a regular gun) someone who would have died a minute later? In order to say no, a utilitarian must say something like the moments at the end of life are more valuable (because more rare), but this runs contrary to bromides like "youth is wasted on the young" and to my observations about how much value people near the ends of their lives place on their lives, moment to moment. To my mind, the two shootings are equally harmful from the perspective of the victims (or the suspension is worse), but the second is a more wrongful act in itself--a deliberate killing rather than a deliberate "suspending." But that's a deontological distinction, not a utilitarian one.

GabSoFab said...

Thanks for the very interesting post, Mike. I love how you get right to the triviality of existing in a capitalistic, utilitarian-based society: produce, produce, produce [even if it's nonsense]; and if you don't, just die!

Paul Scott said...

For what it is worth, I would gladly give up my last minute of life to the government in exchange for the government no longer hassling me at the airport. For similar "deals" I could probably be persuaded to give up more - not sure how much more. Probably less than a day, but maybe not. I'd have evaluate each trade, but the 1 minute in exchange for no more waiting in airport security lines is a complete no-brainer (it would take more than just the shoe thing).

Sam Rickless said...

For what it's worth, Mike, I completely agree with your analysis of your "stun gun" case. A real challenge for consequentialists generally. Thanks.

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