The other day I pontificated on the subject of a lung cancer vaccine, but I don’t think I did a very good job of expressing what I was thinking. I came off a little coldhearted, almost seeming to suggest that those who are afflicted with lung cancer might deserve it, which isn’t what I intended to say.
So I’m going to try again, hopefully doing a better job this time. I’ve decided to use earthquakes as an analogy, because they’re less emotionally charged; they’re forces of nature (a lot like cancer); and, like cancer, they’re apt to strike in even the least-expected areas.
I’ve written capsule summaries of three possible ways of looking at responses to earthquakes from the point of view of one who might argue that living in a quake-prone area is foolish (the discompassionate view); that earthquake victims are human and need help when caught (the compassionate view); and that free-market and natural selection forces are already doing everything necessary to cope with earthquakes and their victims (the invisible-handian view). I’m sure I’ve introduced biases in these perspectives, but I’ve tried not to.
Lastly, I have attempted to address the points in all these views, offering what I think might be a useful response to the reality of earthquakes, their victims, and human nature (the synthetic view).
The Discompassionate View
There are plenty of cases I can think of where the concept of compassion could be argued to be out of place — that is, places where we might say, well, he deserved it.
Imagine, for instance, how foolish I’d have to be to build my house on the San Andreas fault. We know the fault is there; we know where it is; and we know that one day a lot of the ground around it is going to buckle, possibly all at once, possibly as a long series of less-violent (relatively speaking) events. I’d have to be a complete idiot to live on the fault line (which is pretty convenient for me, since I don’t).
Okay, now suppose that my house — constructed, foolishly, on the fault — falls right into the three-hundred-foot deep chasm that opens beneath it one fine afternoon. I’m not home when it happens; maybe I’m off at IdiotCon ’07 or something. I come home to find myself sans house in San Andreas.
How much right do I have to ask for help?
The Compassionate View
Ahh … but what of the hundreds of thousands of people who do live on the fault line? Are they all there by choice? Is every person in LA and San Francisco a moron? Think about it. For the most part, they live fairly earthquake-free days. There have only been three or so really major events in the last century; that puts the day’s odds — any day’s odds — of being caught in a major disaster pretty low.*
Besides, not everyone who is there is necessarily a wholly free agent. Some might be constrained by very real financial problems; they literally cannot afford to move. Some may have health requirements; maybe the salt air of the bay is good for their lungs, or the views are good for their minds. Some might have secured excellent work, being well-paid to do something they love; or perhaps they’re plotting a course to their definition of success, one that requires them to work and live in the fault zone, at least for a certain amount of time.
Some are children, living with their parents, and can’t move even if they want to.
And then, one day, sure enough the fault buckles. Strata heave, then drop, moving a total of six feet vertically — and a lot of damage is done in less than thirty seconds, to thousands of buildings and hundreds of thousands of lives.
The inevitable has taken place, both to those who should have known better, and to those who couldn’t have known better; as well as to the many who probably did know better — but for whatever reason, were unable (or unwilling) to pull up stakes and leave.
How much right do I have to ignore their pleas for help?
The Invisible-Handian View
Earthquakes, as with many other things, happen in a fashion that is at once consistent but unpredictable. We can be proximally certain that faultlines will eventually yield seismic events; the likelihood of an earthquake happening goes down as one gets farther and farther away from the fault.
Actuaries are aware of this; it’s what they’re paid to do. Thus earthquake insurance is available and may be purchased to cover damages to property, houses and so on. Many of the civil defense authorities in earthquake-prone areas are well-trained to handle seismic emergencies, and it’s appropriate to expect the same of the population.
Those who choose not to educate themselves on the dangers of earthquakes, those who choose not to prepare themselves for even minimal emergencies, are likely to be selected out of the gene and/or population pool fairly rapidly; between conventional market forces and the selective nature of nature, equilibrium will eventually be reached. (It could be argued that it has been reached, just on a longer scale — centuries — than one we normally perceive — years.)
There’s no need, in short, for us to do anything particular to handle earthquake risks. The action-reaction nature of life is already handling it for us.
How much right do I have to impose more government, more regulation or some similar social pressure on anyone?
The Synthetic View
Insurance-purchasing requires foresight; emergency response is reactive. Relying exclusively on market forces, while an effective reactive posture to take, is possibly a bit cold-blooded. While it’s valid to object that force or regulation are not often desirable, it’s probably irrational to argue that they’re always bad, or will always lead to more force and more regulation. The reductio ad absurdum of this argument is that parenthood always results in tyranny — an obviously false conclusion which calls into doubt the premise of the “force = evil” claim.
The other, more subtle problem with reliance on market forces or natural selection is that such reliance overlooks volition, which is a hallmark of animal behavior; and in particular it overlooks the ability to possess foresight, to plan ahead, to stock away food in summer against lean times in winter — in short, relying exclusively on reactive processes strips away the single greatest evolutionary advantage ever granted to an animal in the history of life on Earth: The ability to predict the future.
Not in the psychic woo-woo sense; in the very real, practical sense we all use all the time, for instance by putting a few bucks into IRAs. Or by buying earthquake insurance.
Contrarily, there is something to be said for the pragmatism of the natural-selection view; by eliminating the stupid or the thoughtless from the gene and meme pool, we increase the overall intelligence of our species — but at a cost to our compassion. It’s pretty easy, when you’re not a victim of an earthquake, to feel superior to the fools who were caught in one; it’s much less easy to be accepting of fate if you happen to be the one with a building falling down on your head.
Since I don’t live where quakes strike, I could argue that I am not required to help those who are victims — but where I live is likely to be as much a matter of chance as it is of will.
Had I been born in the bay area, for instance, I might never have moved away; and it’s distincly possible that I would have been caught in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco (I moved to Tucson in the summer of ’89 from a small Arizona town in order to attend the UofA; had I lived in SF, I probably would not have moved at all, choosing to attend college there instead).
Put another way, there is a tendency in all of us to believe that what we do, how we believe, the lives we lead and where we live are all matters of eminent reason, when in fact a lot of what we do is rationalize our lives after the fact, mistaking contingency for choice.
That said, and knowing that disaster can and does strike along known geological lines, is it sensible for me to just let things be as they are, to swallow the expense and mourn the human suffering when quakes strike? Why, if an ounce of prevention can save pounds of money and sorrow?
So — earthquake relocation programs? No. Ignore the problem and let the foolhardy and those trapped in circumstance die? No. Ignore the foolhardiness and rescue, again and again, those caught in their own shortsightedness? No.
And yes, to all three.
Perhaps we could begin by disincentivizing construction in quake-prone areas, possibly by eliminating tax breaks for building projects. Insurance rates are already high; raising them further doesn’t make much sense, and would be the kind of artificial tweaking of the market that might backfire in unpredictable ways.
Then there’s the possibility of reducing loan interest rates for homebuyers who are relocating from quake-prone regions, just in the name of helping them make the decision to move.
(Hey, I didn’t say these would all be the greatest ideas, now did I?)
Meanwhile we could look into further raising public awareness, not just of the dangers of quakes and the advisability of moving; but how to handle a quake, how to be safer — just as the EBS has regular tests of their broadcast equipment, just as many towns in the midwest have tornado-siren tests, maybe there could be earthquake drills.
And, of course, the rest of us could do to learn how to be a little more empathetic toward those who are caught, despite all our careful planning and slow, deliberate depopulation of quake-prone zones.
Will we ever see an end to people living where earthquakes can strike? No. Will we ever be entirely prepared for disaster? No. Will we ever be completely compassionate for and caring toward others? No. In a population as diverse as the human one, some things are simply impossible. So there really isn’t a single, easy solution.
Well, there could be, if engineering manages a miracle (of sorts). But even if someone were to develop an architecture that was capable of surviving magnitude 8 quakes, I would still believe it just as foolish to build and live in quake-prone areas, just as I believe — even if a cancer vaccine is developed — that it is foolish to use tobacco in any form.
That’s all I was trying to say the other day when I commented on the lung cancer vaccine. I see its benefits — my concern is that it might enable smokers to continue making poor choices, which is something I think we should be on guard against.
* I know this overlooks the increasing tension on the faultline. For the sake of argument I’m pretending that there is no such gradual daily increase in tension, because for this argument it’s not relevant.
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