Saturday, February 9, 2013

“Was it worth it?”

The other day, the Sunday New York Times ran an especially absurd headline (and I specify Sunday since that edition takes more the long view, rather than being rushed by breaking news, and hence copy editors -- if they any longer exist -- have more time to cull such absurdities):

As Self-Immolations Approach 100, Some Tibetans Are Asking, Is It Worth It?

It reads like a Monty Python skit -- You picture a chorus of peasants bellowing in unison, “O yes, totally!”   What renders it so darkly comical is that those who actually paid the ultimate sacrifice  are not available to be polled.

Yet let us dwell on this.  We are reminded of the notorious remark by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a 60 Minutes interview in 1996, in answer to a question pointing to reports of half a million Iraqi children having died as a result of U.S. sanctions (“that's more children than died in Hiroshima”):  She said: "We think the price is worth it,"  and was roundly skewered for this.   But the sly interviewer had put the words into her mouth, by the formulation of her question (“Is the price worth it?”).  The ‘question’ thus formulated  is akin to that interrogatory classic, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
It is a paradox:  so stated, the defense of the Iraq sanctions seems heartless and outrageous;  yet this does not entail that the policy itself was evil or misguided.  (If you think it does, then you should be equally incensed at our harsh sanctions against Iran, which have been in place for years, with few people paying attention -- indeed, with the Republicans pretending that the current administration has been negligently doing nothing.)

So what are we to make of this?  There is a real issue here, beyond the matter of insidious reporters and gormless headline-writers.   The dilemma arises ever and everywhere, in political life.  A measure is proposed that will advance the nation’s goals or benefit society as a whole -- but always, somebody’s ox is going to be gored.    Every policy has its costs and benefits, so that “Is it worth it?” is -- logically, and rhetoric aside -- perfectly valid.  Yet the moment it is framed in that way, if you support the policy, you seem unfeeling towards the owner of the gored ox.   And if those gored fall into the class of Designated Tearjerkers, no rational solution is democratically possible.

Thus, some rational policy questions would include the following.   To respond to them publically is politically impossible;  I feel sure I shall be accounted heartless, merely for posing them (with no bias whatsoever as to possible answers):

Is it “worth it” to provide millions in taxpayer-funded lifetime medical care for (i) a brain-dead patient; (2) a homeless lunatic;  (3) a lifer in Federal prison;  (4) your unemployed or elderly neighbor next door.   Who, relative to your own neighbors, might be you yourself.

Is it “worth it” to require extremely costly and time-consuming airport security for every flight, on the off-chance that you might forestall a terrorist from blowing up the plane.  (Consider two classes of cases:  (i) You yourself are on that plane.  (ii) Donald Trump, your boss, and your mother-in-law are on that plane;  you yourself took the train.)

A woman wishes to abort her fetus.  Is it “worth it”?

The problem is, there is no accepted eudaemonic calculus , no characteristica universalis, that -- even supposing that the public were uniformly so selfless as to bow to its conclusions, whatever they might turn out to be -- no set of weighted values that applies (“Calculemus!”) uniformly and across-the-board, to all (or even any)  such cases.   The problem is a moral one, but in some respects even an algebraic problem.

Lexical footnote: 
The antiseptic-technocratic equivalent of the demotic “Was it worth it”  is the notion of acceptable risk :  generally calculated by those who are not themselves in immediate danger.

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