Thursday, January 15, 2004

Rights, risk, and living forever

Tyler Cowan at the Volokh Conspiracy wrote yesterday:
There is an arbitrariness in defining the relevant class of risky events. In my lifetime as a driver, I stand some (fairly low) chance of killing an innocent pedestrian. Few people would argue that I should be prohibited from driving. Assume, however, that science prolongs (fit) human life forever, at least unless you are struck down by a car. My chance of killing an innocent pedestrian then would approach certainty, given that I plan to continue driving throughout an eternal life. In fact I could be expected to kill very many pedestrians. Should I then be prohibited from driving? When we make a prohibition decision, should we measure the risk of a single act of driving, or the risk of driving throughout a lifetime? Measuring the bundled risk appears to imply absurd consequences, such as banning driving for people with sufficiently long lives.
It's an interesting thought experiment, but it doesn't much resonate with me. When we say that it's permissible, in the real world, to undertake the risk of killing an innocent person and drive a car, we're making a judgment about costs and benefits. We're saying that the benefit gained by permitting this person to drive a car (convenience for him, benefit to economy, etc) outweighs the cost (risk of killing an innocent, plus air pollution and whatever else you want to factor in). For a person with a longer life-span, the benefit increases proportionately to the risk. Think of it this way: break up a life-span (normal, long, or infinite) into bite-size chunks -- years will work fine -- and let the question for each year be, should we permit this person to drive this year? There's no reason to think that the answer will change from year to year (assuming that Tyler's 300-year-olds are better drivers than today's average 80-year-old), so if it's right to let people drive now, then it would be under Tyler's thought experiment as well. Tyler has another comment in his post which confuses me:
Of course some people will view this dilemma as an argument against the idea of rights, and in favor of utilitarianism.
Presumably, Tyler thinks that utilitarians don't believe in rights. But of course they do -- the world is a better, happier place when people have rights. The only way I can make sense of this is if he thinks that rights are conceptually required to be absolute. Of course a utilitarian would say that in some extreme circumstances, rights should be violated -- I'm a utilitarian who thinks it's morally justified to prevent a woman from having in abortion if doing so is the only way to save a million children from being raped and eaten. But I think a lot of non-utilitarians would agree with me on that one.

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