Macromorality is Hard

By macromorality I of course mean what is moral for society as a whole.  I think most people have a fairly well honed moral compass when it comes to personal interactions, but as with so many things we have a much harder time understanding things at the level of millions and billions of human beings.   It’s just another example of our society evolving far beyond the confines the human species evolved in.  We are preprogrammed for small group dynamics, for our-group dynamics.

One thing that brought this topic to mind was a discussion about animal testing.  I often see body signs (a.k.a. t-shirts) proposing we ban animal testing.  I am sure the wearers of said shirts believe themselves proponents of a good and noble cause.  But it could just as well be that these people are enthusiastically evil.  Have they ever actually sat down and analyzed the moral calculus of banning animal testing?

I think we can all agree that a human life is worth more than that of an animal.  But how do we weight such things?  Is a human life worth the lives of 10 mice?  Should dolphins be worth than mice?  It’s a tricky question made trickier by context.  Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow recalls an experiment where people were asked to donate money to protect dolphins from mines or prevent skin cancer in farmers.  When presented separately the dolphins garnered more donations than the farmers, but presented together people obviously donated more to the farmers since they are humans.  However, we don’t really think about this very hard in any context and yet it is crucial to this issue.

However, I can fairly confidently assert that a ban on animal testing is unambiguously evil.  As much as organizations proposing the ban argue otherwise, there are no better alternatives to animal testing.  The two alternatives are cell cultures and simulations, but the former lacks any information about effects in an entire living organism.  And if we knew enough about human biology for accurate simulations we wouldn’t need animal testing, but we obviously don’t as scientists still use animals extensively.  I severely doubt they would do so if more effective instruments were available.

Also I can make a more quantitative argument.  There are 7 billion people on Earth.  The incidence rate of colorectal cancer is 5%.  That is, of the current population of humanity, 350 million people will develop this form of cancer.  Of those, 1/3 will die from it.  Thus, if an animal life is worth less than a human life by any amount, then using 100 million animals to study colorectal cancer is morally permissible.  This ignores quality of life improvements and impacts on knowledge for fighting other cancers, etc.  Furthermore, this is a one time cost.  Hopefully, humanity continues for generations to come and each of those will also benefit from curing this cancer.  As it is estimates are about a 100 million animals are used for ALL research in a year.

Now I certainly propose reducing the amount of animal testing we do and improving their conditions, but until knowledge of human biology improves enough, some amount of animal testing will be a part of the moral equilibrium.  What that equilibrium is requires us as a society to determine the worth of the lives of various species.  Unfortunately, we can’t even agree how much a human life is worth.  Nearly every U.S. agency uses a different value for the monetary value of a human life.  Should we adjust for how many years of life a person expects to have?  In that case colorectal patients are usually older and thus aren’t worth as many animals.

You see, macromorality is hard and uncomfortable.  Assigning values to lives is something we would never do at a personal level.  All of our heroes in media never run a cost/benefit analysis.  Spiderman is presented with the dilemma of whether to save his girlfriend Mary Jane or a bus full of people (and eventually saves both), but in terms of macromorality this is not a dilemma, the bus full of people is worth way more morality units (or negative kiloNazis).  If Spiderman saved only Mary Jane he would be committing an unambiguously evil act.  This is much like the Ticking Time Bomb Problem.

Another tricky macromoral problem is how to treat other groups of people that aren’t in our group.  The most pressing example is international relations.  What moral reason is there to put the needs of citizens within my arbitrary national border ahead of those in another country?  Human psychology has certainly programmed us to think in terms of us vs. them, but I have never seen a morally conscionable defense of such a practice.  But lets say we agree this is how it should be, what are they worth in terms of U.S. citizens?  .6  for U.S. Dolphin, .5 for Asiatic person, .4 for Asian dolphin, .2 for smelly French person?

Of course very few people would admit that such an exchange rate exists (though many famous people have made insensitive comments about how life is cheap in Asia or Africa or *insert country we dislike*).  Yet any time we offshore our pollution or fail to cut back on greenhouse gases or put garbage in the ocean or any of the myriad things we do that effect the entire planet, we are putting the interests of our citizens over those of another country.  Global warming affects everyone at least equally, but likely poor countries even more and that is where most of the population of the world resides.  Yet, per capita, developed nations contribute the most towards this trend of an increasingly warm planet.  Republicans that oppose attempts to limit greenhouse gases by saying they don’t increase global warming are at least voicing a morally sound conviction.  Those that talk about hurting our economy are truly evil, suggesting that our short term prosperity is worth more than billions of people elsewhere and elsewhen.

In my next post I hope to discuss the morality of meritocracy and how this beguiling idea that seemingly makes sense is in fact deeply immoral.


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