Imagine you had 10 million dollars to spend to save the life of one person whose name you knew or 10,000 whose name you didn’t? How would you spend it? What would you think of a government policy that chose to save the 1 person rather than the 10,000? I would think pretty badly of such a government, but that’s exactly what happens in some popular new movies. And the expectation of the filmmakers (and my own take on audience reaction) is that the audience cheers.
First, The Martian (spoiler alert) where America spends tens of millions and diverts the entirety of the space program to bring back one man left behind on Mars. Second, the new movie 33, which I have not seen yet but is based on a true story involving the successful attempt to save 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine collapse at a huge financial cost.
Indeed this story of the miners was how we introduced a book I co-edited with Norman Daniels and Nir Eyal: Identified Versus Statistical Lives (Oxford University Press 2015), introduction available for free here.
The movies are accurate insofar as governments indeed tend to spend much more on saving the lives of identified individuals than the same number (or indeed many more) statistical lives — those who exist but are relatively undifferentiated. Think about how many lives in the developing world, or indeed in America, the money spent to bring back Matt Damon’s character could have saved instead.
As we discuss in the book, social science research shows just identifying individuals in a very minimal way (e.g., by assigning them an arbitrary tag like “Person number 2”) is enough to cause us to favor them in distribution.
The authors in the book divide on whether they think it is ever ethical to favor identified over similarly situated statistical lives, though I have to confess I am on the side of treating the two equally.Perhaps you think the Martian is not a pure case of favoring identified lives qua identified lives if you think that Matt Damon’s character is owed a duty to reciprocate for his service and risk. Perhaps, though even if you favor such reciprocation, no doubt some subset of the statistical lives could make similar claims for assistance, and even if they couldn’t at some point what ever “service/reciprocity” bonus is overcome with the huge amount of lives one could save
Of course this is Hollywood not bioethics, but while watching The Martian I did wonder how much our tendency to favor identified lives really is connected to what makes films compelling. Narrative is a part of human culture going back to almost the beginning; heroes and villains are what we are drawn to. Which makes me wonder, do these films reflect our biases towards identified lives or are they part of the cultural forces that shape it? If we had more films about governments spending to cure infectious diarrhea in the developing the world and saving millions of lives, would our attitudes to these dilemmas be different?