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The Cody Blog: Does Death Always Kill Morality?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Does Death Always Kill Morality?

Math Murders
By JIM HOLT New York Times
Published: March 12, 2006
Counting the dead is a paradoxical business. Suppose I told you that around 150 million people have died over the last century in wars, genocides, man-made famines and other atrocities. This number might evoke in you a certain horror. But it is, of course, only a wild guess. Its very vagueness lends it an air of unreality. Yet what purpose would be served by making it more precise? Where mass death is concerned, the moral significance of scale seems to be one of those things that our brains aren't equipped to handle. A single life may have infinite value, but the difference between a million deaths and a million and one strikes us as negligible....

....Raw death numbers may not be a reliable index of evil, but they still have value as a guide to action. That, at least, is the common-sense view. It is also part of the ethical theory known as utilitarianism, which holds that sacrificing x lives to save y lives is always justified as long as y is greater than x. This utilitarian principle is often invoked, for example, in defense of President Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed between 120,000 and 250,000 Japanese civilians, on the assumption that the death toll would have been worse had the war been prolonged.

Yet some thinkers (like the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe) have questioned whether, morally speaking, numbers really count. In a choice between saving 5 lives and saving 10, they ask, why should we be dutybound to act in behalf of the greater number? Because, you say, it would be worse for 10 people to die than for 5 people. They reply: Worse for whom? Arithmetic misleads us into thinking that deaths aggregate the way numbers do. Yet in reality there are only individuals suffering. In a dilemma where the deaths of one group of people or another is unavoidable, why should someone have to die merely by reason of being in the smaller group?...

Lots of difficult morality questions in this well written article. No easy answers.

When I quit my first job on Wall Street back in 1998, I went backpacking around Eastern Europe to see capitalism rising and to write a novel. I wrote the novel mainly as training since I wanted to become a writer. I'd not been published back then and though I sent query letters to about a hundred agents and publishers, I got nothing but rejections. My parents and a few friends read the novel, and I hope they have a copy of it somewhere, because I don't anymore. I need to rewrite the thing anyway though, and I am going to do so probably next decade.

Apropros my comments about giving away the plotline before consumption, I suppose I should tell you to stop reading here if you really think you'll remember to read the book and what the plot is in ten years.

Anyway, the book is about Solomon Reay, a man searching for his morality and his conflicted feelings about altruism vs. selfishness as a fundamental premise in his moral code. The conflict comes to a head when his daughter is held captive by a man sent to kill the protagonist. The killer starts shooting a Hassidic family that happens to have stumbled onto the scene and Solomon realizes that he can try to save the family by tackling the shooter and risking his daughter's life. The plan fails and the shooter kills Solomon's daughter and then the gun goes off and kills the shooter as Solomon tackles him.

Though he resolves the mystery of who wanted him dead and why, the story ends with Solomon going crazy. He ends up being eaten alive by ants in an abandoned cemetary in rural Texas.

No easy answers.


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