Bioethics Blogs

Statistical Victims and the Value of Security

As illustrated by several recent events, Mexico suffers from a lack of security.  The country holds the world record in kidnappings, with an estimated number of 123,470 people kidnapped just in 2013. In August 2014, the official number of missing people was 22,320.  Citizens are fed up and are demanding security, perhaps the most basic good a government should provide.  I’ll here discuss what appears to me to be one philosophical mistake about the value of security for people.  It’s useful to observe and avoid this mistake, since it pertains to wide range of practically important choices (which I’ll mention at the end).

Mexico’s lack of security is unquestionably a bad thing.  First, and most directly, it involves risk of serious harm, such has being robbed, kidnapped, raped, or killed.  Second, it causes people to experience fear and anxiety, which are themselves bad, and which in turn result in losses of good things that otherwise would have been enjoyed (according to one report, “[as] a result of the wave of violence in [Mexico], 44% of citizens have stopped going out at night, 25% have stopped taking cabs, and 21% have avoided going out for lunch or dinner”).

I’ll focus on the first, more direct way in which lacking security is bad (set aside the issues about fear and anxiety).  Suppose a roaming gang in some area exposes each member of the local population of 10,000,000 people to a 1-in-1,000,000 chance of serious harm (death).  When confronted with the choice between funding security to stop the gang and instead funding a rescue crew to save little Bart Simpson who has fallen into a well, people tend to favor the identified child in the well over the gang’s “statistical victims.”  This tendency has been studied empirically, and many regard it as yet another bias that human psychology succumbs to.  But as Normal Daniels argues, there is room for reasonable disagreement over whether it is justifiable to give priority to identified victims over statistical ones.  I won’t attempt to resolve this philosophical disagreement here, but I will outline one natural line of support for the view that we should prioritize identified victims (that I’ve encountered a few times).  Here’s how it goes:

  • Stage One:  While it is true that if you were in fact killed this would constitute a serious harm, it’s not true that if you were exposed to a 1-in-1,000,000 chance of being killed you’d thereby suffer a serious harm.  It is plausible that exposure to this risk counts as a small, though perhaps not trivially small, harm.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.