Friday, July 9, 2010


Robin Hanson says "Among humans, we mourn teen deaths the most, and baby and elderly deaths the least; we know that teen deaths represent the greatest loss of past investment and future gains." I agree with that intellectually, but I think he is severely projecting if he thinks this is a common belief or the gut reaction.

There are all kinds of situations that make it clear, rationally, that the members of society that both have been fully invested in (educated) and who have the most time and potential to be useful to society (smart, hard-working 20 year olds) are the ones that should first be saved, from a utilitarian perspective. When resources are scarce, that choice is obvious. If a boat crashes on a desert island, young adult males are clearly the indispensable ones. Many Chinese parents, bound by poverty and the one-child law, selectively abort girls because they are less able to support them in their old age. When forced to think of things in unemotional, disassociated terms, such as "who would you save if you could keep 100 people from dying in worldwide nuclear war", it's obvious that knowledge and reproductive capability, with long expected remaining lifespan, are important criterion.

Yet in the real world, emotion trumps rationality. Crimes against small children are considered much more tragic (we have a strong gut reaction towards crimes against helpless, innocent victims) than war violence among 20 year old soldiers. On the Titanic, women and children had priority in the lifeboats. Kidnapped children dominate the news vastly more than kidnapped college students in Brazil. We definitely do not mourn deaths of teenagers more than of kindergardeners. But we should, all else equal.

Ok I guess there wasn't much of a point to that rambling, but it really caught me by surprise to read a concept, which I have long believed but thought was a fringe-ish idea, stated as a mundane social norm. I mean, if you're going to murder someone, it's better to kill a baby or elderly person than an innocent young adult. Infanticide isn't that big a deal compared to a lot of other types of violence, but you can't really get away with saying things like that, and that's precisely because it's not the average human reaction.

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