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The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 14, 1998

Other Applied Ethics

Frank Fair
Pages 29-33

Trading Lives
Consequentialism, Deontology, and Inevitable Trade-offs

Recently, unrestrained consequentialism has been defended against the charge that it leads to unacceptable trade-offs by showing a tradeoff accepted by many of us is not justified by any of the usual nonconsequenlist arguments. The particular trade-off involves raising the speed limit on the Interstate Highway System. As a society, we seemingly accept a trade-off of lives for convenience. This defense of consequentialism may be a tu quoque, but it does challenge nonconsequentialists to adequately justify a multitude of social decisions. Work by the deontologist Frances Kamm, conjoined with a perspective deployed by several economists on the relation between social costs and lives lost, is relevant. It provides a starting point by justifying decisions which involve trading lives only for other lives. But the perspective also recognizes that using resources in excess of some figure (perhaps as low as $7.5 million) to save a life causes us to forego other live-saving activities, thus causing a net loss of life. Setting a speed limit as low as 35 miles per hour might indeed save some lives, but the loss of productivity due to the increased time spent in travel would cost an even greater number of lives. Therefore, many trade-offs do not simply involve trading lives for some lesser value (e.g., convenience), but are justified as allowing some to die in order to save a greater number.

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