Suppose an engineering
firm came up tomorrow with an amazing new form of transportation. People
would step into a booth, dial a location, and then be taken apart atom
by atom and transmitted over wires to the desired location where they would
be re-assembled. After thoroughly testing the new device for safety, the
firm has concluded that the overwhelming majority of trips would be utterly
without incident - one could easily emerge from a lifetime of use without
Unfortunately, in a very tiny percentage of trips, things would go wrong and the traveller would never re-materialise. Injuries, from minor contusions to paralysis, would also occasionally occur. The total: probably not much more per year than 50,000 deaths and 2 million or so injuries - concentrated, for some odd reason, not among the weak and infirm, but among healthy young adults. There would also be considerable death and illness because of atmospheric pollution. Should we install a system with costs like that?
We have, of course. It's known as the private passenger automobile. We often say that there is nothing more important than the value of human life - indeed, a code of ethics for engineers requires them to hold the safety of the public PARAMOUNT. Yet, obviously, we don't really believe this; getting around in cars is far more important than human life: as a society we willingly sacrifice 50,000 lives per year for the privilege.
It is, of course, quite possible to move people without killing them. Engineers have also developed devices for doing that. Large commercial airlines have gone entire years without fatalities: passengers killed on railroads in a year can often be numbered on the fingers of one hand: the New York subway system, regularly maligned for filth, inefficiency, noise and other indignities, moves millions of people every day and sometimes goes DECADES without a fatality.
War, an important rival to the car as an invented means for slaughter, in some respects is surrounded by less hypocrisy. People who plan and conduct wars know that lives will be lost, and they often forthrightly, if grimly, build these considerations into their calculations: they estimate how many casualties it will take to capture an objective and consider whether the objective is worth it. The car, by contrast, is far less frequently put in that framework: the obvious is too rarely asked: is having the car worth the cost?
It may seem strange to put war and the car in the same class, but the moral distinction between them may not be as great as it seems.
For example, war might seem to be worse because the probability of being killed in a war is higher than the probability of being killed in a car crash. This distinction is not terribly useful, because it is quite possible to have wars in which the chance of being killed is very low. Indeed the probabilities are often within hailing distance: by one calculation, driving a car and being in the army in Vietnam reduced an American's life expectancy on the same order of magnitude.
Another popular distinction between war and the car stresses that the automobile system is voluntary - no one is forced to drive a car whereas wars rely on conscription. But many armies ( the British in most of WW1 ) rely entirely on volunteers, and some 20% of those killed in traffic accidents are pedestrians, and it is scarcely realistic to suggest that anyone has a choice about whether to be a pedestrian.
War is most often seen to be morally inferior to other forms of destruction because death is part of its very INTENT. By contrast, no one intends anyone be killed by automobiles. The distinction is an important one, and it accounts, along with the low probability of injury in a single trip, for the benign acceptance of the automobile system. But suppose there existed 2 ways to spend £10 billion: one would prevent a war that would kill 1,000 people ( by intent ); the other would prevent 50,000 accidental deaths. Would it be sensible to prefer the former?
Furthermore, it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that the death and injury automobiles cause is entirely unintentional. They happen because, as a society, we have systematically chosen to encourage the automobile over less dangerous means of transportation. A reduction of the speed limit for cars to 10mph in the United States would, if enforced, save 500,000 lives by the turn of the century; to oppose such a law is to pay the price willingly to get there faster by automobile. But if we are willing to pay this cost, we should also explicitly acknowledge it. Although the engineers' code of conduct requires them to hold the safety of the public paramount, neither they nor the country's leaders really believe this; getting around in cars is obviously far more important than human life.
The purpose here, of course, is not to argue that wars are good and the automobile bad, but to suggest that both should be subject to the same kind of cost-benefit analysis. We might well conclude that few wars have been worth their cost, even as we view 50,000 lives and 2 million injuries per year (plus pollution) as a small price to pay for the blessings of the automobile - the pleasure, the convenience, the personal mobility, the economic benefit, the aesthetic pleasure, the macho gratification.
As a society, we regularly
and inescapably adopt policies, in which human lives are part of the price,
yet we often casually and opaquely gloss over the issue of the full cost.
*This is an edited version of the appendix to a 1989 book called "Retreat From Doomsday", by an American John Mueller, the basis of which is the obsolescence of war between developed countries.
*In its first century, the automobile has resulted in more deaths than the First World War.
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