Responding to a letter to the editor of my local newspaper in south-central-coastal California (we're a big state)
SUBJECT: "What 'death rate' is acceptable?" Ventura County Star 20 Feb. 2021
Writing about opening schools in the time of the CoViD-19 pandemic, George Maguire of Ventura notes that he has "never heard of what death rate” is acceptable and asks if "someone" can write in and tell teachers and students what death rate is acceptable," adding that "That data is available somewhere" (February 20).
I’m writing in to compliment Mr. Maguire on raising the old and important question I’ll call "acceptable casualties" and to note that relevant data are available for CoViD-19 and school re-opening but such questions are never just factual. To start, "Acceptable to whom?" and then on to "What values are to be applied?" with one big area, "What is the value of human life?"
Here’s an example from the past that illustrates the point. From Wikipedia (and my memory): "The National Maximum Speed Limit was a provision of the […] 1974 Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act that effectively prohibited speed limits higher than 55 miles per hour. It was drafted in response to oil price spikes and supply disruptions during the 1973 oil crisis and remained the law until 1995." The data get complicated, but a case could be and was made that "there was a decrease in [traffic] fatalities of about 3,000 to 5,000 lives in 1974, and about 2,000 to 4,000 lives saved annually thereafter through 1983 because of slower and more uniform traffic speeds since the law took effect."
The final repeal of the law in 1995 was very popular.
Now, let’s say the net savings in human life was a tenth of the estimates, some 300 lives a year: Would 300 additional dead people (and injured and maimed) be "acceptable casualties" for the additional convenience and efficiency of higher speed limits? Would the mere risk of avoidable deaths (injuries, maiming) be acceptable? Ethical decisions either way required making a conscious judgment, and among the Americans ethical enough to think it through — at least with Americans who accepted the conclusion of greater safety — a good number thought the casualties acceptable.
Or we can look at drug legalization, such as the end of alcohol Prohibition in 1933, and the obvious costs of easier access to alcohol beverages, along with obvious benefits. Of those who think about it at all, most of us think ending capital "P" Prohibition was a good idea, and many would legalize other recreational drugs, with any increase in deaths (addiction, violence) acceptable when weighed against other gains.
It is necessary for practical ethics and politics to think humans special among all the life on Earth, and good to believe that "Every human life is sacred and of infinite value" — but actual ethical decisions in real-world politics often require doing bloody arithmetic, and infinities don’t work there.
We need a mature conversation on the gains and losses of opening schools to various degrees and in various ways, including what sometimes competing groups can agree would be "acceptable casualties" from doing so.