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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.

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 other first or they perish. But in the modern world it is unethical to ignore the welfare of strangers. We should act in a way that maximises the welfare of humanity.

As an example of this ideal, Singer mentions Zell Kravinsky, an American who has made a large fortune in Philadelphia real estate. Instead of wallowing in the sty of filthy lucre, he has given most of it away. He has but one suit, which he bought for $20 at a thrift shop. He even donated one of his kidneys to a stranger, ignoring his wife’s objection that one of his children might need it some day. “The sacrosanct commitment to the family is the rationalisation for all manner of greed and selfishness,” he told her.

Singer wants people to pledge a percentage of their income to help people in extreme poverty in developing countries to halve world poverty. He gives 25%, but the rest of us can start at 1%.

Note that this is quite different from traditional philanthropy. A fundamental principle for Singer, as a utilitarian, is that all lives, wherever they are, have equal value. This is why he is irritated by philanthropists who support art galleries and new swimming pools at old universities.

In a recent article in the New York Times, for instance, he calculated that a donation to prevent trachoma in Africa is at least 10 times more valuable than supporting an art gallery extension. All of our altruistic impulses should be subjected to this sort of rigorous welfare analysis, he says.

This may seem remote from bioethical issues like euthanasia and IVF but it is, in fact, political dynamite. One of the sticking points of President Obama’s healthcare legislation was allegations that it would force hospitals to ration treatment according to utilitarian measures like “quality-adjusted life years” and a patient’s instrumental value to society. Republicans even tried to scare voters with talk about “death panels” – doctors who decreed whether patients would receive treatment based on health value for treatment dollars.

This is a very complex issue for which there is no tidy ethical answer. But the ongoing search for MH370 gives an insight into the shortcomings of the utilitarian calculus: the idea that “charity begins at home” is simply too deeply rooted in human nature.

It is simply unimaginable for China to ignore anguished relatives and donate the search budget to pot-bellied children in Niger. China’s new President, Xi Jinping, knows that his government’s image and even its stability may depend on being compassionate to the folks at home.

That may be the strongest reason for ignoring the need to vaccinate “statistical children” and continuing the search.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an online bioethics newsletter.