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All Lives are Created Equal

December 21, 2012

The biggest philosophical disconnect between libertarians and non-libertarians is the belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God. Lew Rockwell points out that most people cheered when 26 innocent children were burned alive at Waco. People either cheer or don’t care when innocent Iraqi, Yemeni, and Pakistani children are killed by the U.S. military, which happens every single day. People don’t particularly care when millions of children in poor countries die of malaria and diarrhea. When 20 white middle-class children from Connecticut get shot, holy mother of mercy everyone flips out. Universalist morals are really rare, I’ve come to realize. The idea that killing of any innocent child is wrong just isn’t a common belief. That innocent child must be a member of “our” in-group in order to matter. The idea that each loss of innocent life deserves equal priority just draws blank stares from most people. On one hand, this is just a “I’m holier than thou” post, which is really BS. Self righteousness is not the point of social science. Improving society is. Giving people a chance to live life according to their own dreams is. Saving lives is.

Salience bias is hard to argue against. It is terrible to see children cut down so young, with so much ahead of them, in such a brutal way. The common reaction is how do “we” stop this event from happening again. More gun control, more secure schools, more mental illness screening, are all offered as options. But it’s hard to see if any of those would have helped. Adam Lanza stole the gun he used. You don’t need an assault rifle to kill children – any gun will do. He already had a personal psychologist. Furthermore, blaming autism isn’t helpful because there is no correlation between autism and planned violence. Demonizing children with mental illnesses more likely to alienate them further. On the other hand, if your goal is to save any 20 children from death, the task is much, much easier. Wire some money to a struggling mother in the 3rd world. Donate some money to cure malaria. Buy a car with a better safety features. When confronted with tragedy, the first reaction is to figure out how to fix that tragedy. Unfortunately, that is a difficult task in some situations. There’s a lot of tragedy in the world, and you can help fix some of it.

Update: A loyal reader points out that one reason people care more about shootings than malaria is that it could happen to them. It’s entirely rational to care more about risks that affect you than risks that affect others.

Further reading:
More on availability bias.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2012 1:05 pm

    Obviously, in group/out group contributes to the reaction.

    However, I think that part of the reaction, at least for me, comes from the senselessness of the act. While I may not agree with the process behind the deaths of children at Waco or in the Middle East, I can at least recognize the thought processes that eventually led to them. However, though I could probably have had a conversation with the shooter (i.e., he could have passed the Turing test), I cannot fathom how he came to act the way he did. That bothers me tremendously.

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