Thursday, April 08, 2004

SF Chronicle tackles the tough questions

Emily brought my attention to a fascinating column in the San Francisco Chronicle today. I thought I'd wait and write a thorough response, but then I realized how busy I am today, so I'll just quote a couple excerpts and give the link:
...the would-be suicide jumper who tied up traffic on the Bay Bridge and surrounding freeways for 13 1/2 hours last Friday. The opinions fall into two camps. One says you do whatever it takes for however long it takes to prevent the suicide. Saving a life is worth more than the inconvenience and costly ramifications of a traffic jam, even one that brings a wide slice of the Bay Area to a standstill. To believe otherwise, this camp says, is to abandon a core societal belief in the value of a person's life. The other side says there ought to be a time limit for negotiating with a jumper -- say an hour or two -- then the authorities should remove him. The resistant jumper might be hurt or even fall to his death in the process, but since he put himself in such a dangerous position, he is ultimately responsible for the result. The rest of us should not be held hostage, the argument goes, to a narcissist -- even a mentally ill narcissist -- who wants to be the center of attention for 13 hours. Farhad Ajir is surely not the last suicidal person who will find himself or herself paralyzed with fear, doubt or confusion at the edge of the Bay Bridge. So how do we figure out the ethical and social calculus to resolve the debate about handling such situations in the future? We could add up the hours lost by the thousands of people caught in traffic that day and compare it to the hours of the jumper's life that would go unlived if he plunged to his death. The hours are likely to be roughly equal, but the impact of loss obviously is not equal. The loss of one life is incalculably greater than the loss of several hours in the individual lives of thousands of people.
It's pretty cool to see these excellent, important, and difficult philosophical questions being tackled in mainstream media. I don't agree with much of the analysis (and I think both that the quoted suggestion makes no sense at all, and that the argument offered against it is false), but it certainly manages to focus on the right questions. (Now that I think about it, this issue connects pretty directly with the issue I posted on last night in Fake Barn Country.)

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