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The Bioethics of the Search for MH370

By Michael Cook

The search for the missing Malaysian aircraft raises an ethical dilemma over the bias we place on “identifiable” lives over “statistical” lives.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

After so many false leads and dashed hopes, Professor Glenn Cohen of Harvard University’s Law School has questioned whether the search for the lost Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was worthwhile.

Cohen was being deliberately provocative, but since the cost of the search will probably run into hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s a utilitarian question worth pondering. After a bit of number-crunching he estimates that US$100 million (a conservative estimate of the cost) could save 52,192 life years if the same amount were spent on vaccinating children.

No governments have asked this question; they are single-minded in their determination to find the plane and learn the fate of the 239 passengers and crew. Is it ethical to spend millions on a task that will save no lives?

The world’s best-known utilitarian bioethicist, Peter Singer, would say no. The search is an example of our bias towards identifiable lives over “statistical lives” – people about whom we know nothing and have never seen.

This is an issue to which he has devoted much thought and research. Not long ago he even wrote The Life You Save to persuade people to give to charities that effectively help the poor in distant countries.

Our tendency to help those nearest and dearest to us, Singer observes, is an consequence of evolution. In a primitive society, families help each...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.