The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, August 30, 2005
IN DEFENSE OF PRIMITIVE INTUITIONS: Posting at the Marginal Revolution blog, Alex Tabarrok
Tyler asks (I paraphrase) "Would you kill your good friend for the lives of a million cats? What about a billion cats?" He answers, No, but says "Yet I still wish to count cats for something positive."

My answer is not only Yes it is that we do this routinely today. The introduction of "your good friend"...engages our primitive intuitions and feelings and that is why Tyler's answer goes awry. But consider, last year Americans spent more than 34 billion dollars on their pets. That money could have saved human lives had it gone to starving Africans.
But that's a different question, isn't it? The question involved "your good friend," not "someone you don't know" or even "millions of people you don't know." I understand that the law shouldn't privilege my family and friends over a bunch of strangers, but in my personal life I'm going to do that all the time. That's part of the definition of a friend, and of a loving family.

There's an old moral puzzle about a man who's about to shoot a dozen innocent bystanders; you can pick him off yourself, but there's a risk you'll hit his equally innocent hostage. I always hated that puzzle, because the most important piece of data was missing: Do I know the hostage? Anyone who claims that shouldn't matter is either a liar or a monster.

I wouldn't kill my good friend for the lives of a million cats. I think I would kill my cat for the lives of a million people, but then, that's easy for me to say; I don't actually have a cat. It's always easier to murder an abstraction.

posted by Jesse 9:29 AM
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