The value of a human life

Here’s the New York Post:

Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans. The fundamental reason our government exists is to protect our people and our territory. Everything else is a grace note. And the words we never should hear in regard to North Korea’s nuclear threats are “We should’ve done something.”

Instead, we should do something. Pyongyang’s Sunday test of a hydrogen bomb of devastating power begs for decisive action. Must we wait until Americans die?

A pre-emptive strike against Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs would be a terrible thing, demanding a vast military effort (if done properly) and leaving broad destruction in its wake. But that terrible option increasingly appears to be the least bad option. The question is whether we’ll delay action until it’s too late to save American lives.

Notice that they ignore the South Koreans.  I wonder how they value South Korean lives?  Perhaps 13 cents on the dollar?

Here’s Elton John, er, I mean Trump:

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.

It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future.

Just to be clear:

1.  I have no idea what the optimal policy toward N. Korea is.

2. I think Trump makes both tails more likely (nuclear exchange and N. Korea capitulation), but the most likely outcome remains more of the same. The “problem” is that the tail risks may rise from say 1% to 2% under Trump.  That’s still low, but one of those tails is a very bad outcome, should it occur.

I hope readers now have a better understanding of what I meant last year when I claimed that Trump’s reckless personality raised the risk of nuclear war from something like 1% to something like 2%.

PS.  Trump started off his talk with some comments that were of zero interest to the UN audience, and included his usual lies.

Fortunately, the United States has done very well since Election Day last November 8th. The stock market is at an all-time high — a record. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 16 years, and because of our regulatory and other reforms, we have more people working in the United States today than ever before. Companies are moving back, creating job growth the likes of which our country has not seen in a very long time. And it has just been announced that we will be spending almost $700 billion on our military and defense.

Job growth has slowed since Trump took office.  And do you recall what Trump said about the booming stock market when Obama was President?

PPS.  Are a million dead N. Koreans better than one dead American?  If not, why not? Please show your work.

PPPS:  Trump also said:

We know it kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies.

How should we value the welfare of that sweet Japanese girl against the lives of 13-year old N. Korean girls.  How about South Korean girls?  How about undocumented workers in America like Melania?  How about Hillary?  How about Trump?  Again, I prefer that commenters provide precise numerical answers.  After all, the NYPost says this is all very simple.



40 Responses to “The value of a human life”

  1. Gravatar of JG JG
    19. September 2017 at 13:59

    According to Scott’s utilitarian view, it is morally acceptable to murder one child in order to save two. It is morally acceptable to kill 1,000,000 N. Koreans to save 999,999 Americans.

    Utilitarianism permits evil and Scott believe in utilitarianism.

    and culpability plays no role in utilitarianism because the so called good is dependent only on the final outcome.

  2. Gravatar of JG JG
    19. September 2017 at 14:00

    Unfortunately, my math is screwed up. the 1,000,000 N. Koreans should read 998,000.

  3. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI H_WASSHOI
    19. September 2017 at 14:54

    I suspect monetary policy watchers can translate the President Trump’s diplomatic protocol expression into the international standard one

  4. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    19. September 2017 at 14:56

    I’m close to 100% with Ralph Peters on this one. A really brave comment. North Korea is enslaved by a Stalinist regime that maintains concentration camps for decades. There’s no excuse for the politics of the last decades, it’s just shameful.

    I’m always baffled that the US never attacks the most vicious regimes of the world. Just carry out a deadly airstrike when they stage their huge party convention. They are stupid enough to gather at one place again and again, it’s basically an invitation. Take the whole ruling Stalinist regime out in one strike and then see what happens. It cannot get any worse. And while your at it pay a visit to Venezuela and Iran as well.

    That’s how you deal with these terror regimes in an utilitarian way. It’s the only way really. Give Trump a hint, maybe he got the guts to call the shots.

  5. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    19. September 2017 at 15:06

    I hope readers now have a better understanding of what I meant last year when I claimed that Trump’s reckless personality raised the risk of nuclear war from something like 1% to something like 2%.

    Relative to Barack Obama, maybe. But Barack Obama wasn’t running in 2016, so you couldn’t make that argument.

  6. Gravatar of jg jg
    19. September 2017 at 15:38

    One more time – there are no numerical answers some acts are good or evil in and of themselves. The quantity make such acts either better or worse, but do not determine right or wrong. Why does scott, an atheist, insist on debating moral issues when atheism by its essence cannot determine objective right or wrong. This is why his question absurd on its fAce – it is essentially asking what is the formula that makes some good out of evil.

  7. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    19. September 2017 at 16:03

    I claimed that Trump’s reckless personality raised the risk of nuclear war from something like 1% to something like 2%.

    I’m not sure if this is really a serious utilitarian concern of yours or just an egoistic personal concern à la „Oh no, I could die in a nuclear attack“, masked as utilitarian concern / virtue signalling.

  8. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    19. September 2017 at 16:30

    Why would you need the artificial construct of “god” to determine what’s right and wrong. You simply don’t. And by the way: You are an atheist regarding all gods that humanity has ever believed in ever. It can’t be that hard to go one little god further.

  9. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    19. September 2017 at 17:42

    Christian List,

    “I’m always baffled that the US never attacks the most vicious regimes of the world.”

    It does. Iraq was the latest example. Attacked just for belief, values, principles of democratization etc. But, I thought according to the Trumpster the US doesn’t want to be the policeman of the world any longer, everyone to fend for themselves and their prized “sovereignty” or whatever. There is some merit in the thought of course, again, “Iraq” is the keyword here. I’d rather have the US stay at home unless they or their allies are attacked.

  10. Gravatar of Hua Wei Hua Wei
    19. September 2017 at 17:43

    “I’m close to 100% with Ralph Peters on this one. A really brave comment. North Korea is enslaved by a Stalinist regime that maintains concentration camps for decades. There’s no excuse for the politics of the last decades, it’s just shameful.”

    I see, we have to destroy the North Koreans to save them – Trump talked about destrying the country, I doubt he was talking about bombing North Korea with magic powder and make the regime collapse peacefully.

    “I’m always baffled that the US never attacks the most vicious regimes of the world.”

    Because, nine times out of them, they are our allies. Ask Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and lots of African dictatorships if you have any doubt about it.

    “Why does scott, an atheist, insist on debating moral issues when atheism by its essence cannot determine objective right or wrong. ”
    Fortunately, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda are out there ready to practice “good in and of themselves” acts. Who are we to say they got the wrong god and the wrong acts? They are as sure as any Southern Baptist that they are right. Apparently debating morality can only be done by people who are agree about which god and sect are the true ones (and they will debate if the pope is awesome or fabulous) or by people who talk through one another because they believe all the others follow the wrong gods.

  11. Gravatar of Alec Fahrin Alec Fahrin
    19. September 2017 at 19:47

    No one seems to either get Sumner’s point or his argument.

    Is one American life worth a million North Korean civilians’ lives?
    Even the most irrational person would say no. If our society’s ran purely on what was “right” and not on what was most efficient, we’d have fallen apart centuries ago.
    Nonetheless, what is the value of a human life, as Sumner asks?
    There has to be some number attached to that value. Furthermore, there must be some number of American lives that are worth a certain greater number of North Korean lives.
    Anyone willing to make a guess? Maybe the NSC hasn’t even considered it, but I doubt that. It’s crucial to any Korea policy debate.

    Did you learn nothing from 2003? You are using the exact argument that the necons made to justify a blatantly illegal and idiotic invasion of Iraq. Just because neconservatism is President Trump’s new flavour of the month doesn’t mean you should shill for a foreign policy that has failed repeatedly.
    What happened to the Trump of 2015?

  12. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    19. September 2017 at 19:55

    Perhaps the U.S. should withdraw from the Far East, militarily.

    A defense pact among Japan, Taiwan, S. Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and perhaps Thailand makes sense. Maybe the Philippines.

    The nations mentioned have nuclear capability, and can easily create a submarine force that could launch. Hunter-killer subs could eliminate China’s ability to import or export. The US is not needed.

    This would dissuade both N. Korea and China for imperialistic actions.

    And the US would not get nuked for sticking its nose into regional conflicts.

    BTW the Seoul stock market is up 21.5% YOY. They do not seem overly concerned about N Korea. Seoul property prices hitting record highs.

    Is all this Korea stuff and GOP chest-thumping about bigger military budgets, really just about contracts to GOP financial backers?

    Frankly, I do not want to fry over S Korea. They have more people and much larger economy and much more technical sophistication than N Korea.

    Surely, they can handle themselves.

  13. Gravatar of BC BC
    19. September 2017 at 20:26

    If Kim Jong-Un threatened to kill 1M North Koreans (or South Koreans or Japanese) unless our government killed 1000 Americans, then I would think the moral thing would be for our government to refuse. That doesn’t mean that we “value” 1k Americans more than 1M North Koreans though. Conversely, if we could invade North Korea to capture and kill 1M North Korean civilians and harvest their organs to save even 10M Americans’ lives, that would also be immoral, even under Trump’s “America First” criterion (I would hope). But, that doesn’t mean we value 1 North Korean life more than 10 American lives. Rather, a consequentialist utilitarianism that treats all cases of 1M North Korean deaths as having the same utility loss is deeply flawed. One must distinguish between actively killing someone, passively failing to save someone, and actively taking some other action and someone being killed (note the passive voice) as collateral damage of that action.

    It’s also helpful to think in terms of natural rights. As President, Trump is responsible for preventing infringements of Americans’ natural rights, including the right to life. If Kim presents a threat to those rights, say by developing a nuclear ICBM, then Trump has a duty to try to prevent that, including through a pre-emptive strike if necessary, even if collateral damage includes North Korean, South Korean, or Japanese deaths, say due to Kim using North Koreans as human shields, ordering North Korean soldiers into hopeless battles instead of surrendering, or attacking South Korea or Japan. In some ways, that choice is similar to the first hypothetical above, where Kim threatens to kill 1M North Koreans unless Trump is willing to put some number of Americans at risk of nuclear attack. We have a duty to try to minimize collateral damage, but failure to eliminate all collateral damage is not an infringement of natural rights. On the other hand, capturing and killing North Koreans to harvest their organs is an infringement of their natural rights and would be immoral no matter how many American lives could be saved. Americans have a natural right to not be threatened by Kim, but not a natural right to someone else’s organs. It’s very difficult to resolve these moral questions if one denies that natural rights exist.

  14. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    19. September 2017 at 20:38

    OT but fascinating.

    Hong Kong already has the world’s most expensive housing relative to incomes. Average house/condo running now at about 20 times average income.

    Hon Kong runs large trade deficits,

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    19. September 2017 at 22:10

    Christian, You said:

    “I’m close to 100% with Ralph Peters on this one. A really brave comment.”

    Yes, it’s really brave to sit in a comfy office and advocate killing 1000 hungry people that you have never met, so that you (one person) can live. Give him a Purple Heart.

    Alec, You said:

    “No one seems to either get Sumner’s point or his argument.”

    Or maybe they simply don’t want to respond. It was Peters that put this in numerical terms, not me. I simply asked for a lower bound. How few American lives are more important than a million N. Koreans. He raised the issue, not me. Is it 999 lives? 500? 150? 45? Inquiring minds would like to know. Interesting that no one has the guts to answer my question. But I suppose I’m not surprised.

    BC, You said:

    “If Kim presents a threat to those rights, say by developing a nuclear ICBM, then Trump has a duty to try to prevent that, including through a pre-emptive strike if necessary, even if collateral damage includes North Korean, South Korean, or Japanese deaths,”

    I thought no one could be worse than Trump—but I think I’d prefer him to a President BC.

    Ben, Oh, so now CA deficits don’t matter, it’s trade deficits? Hong Kong runs big CA surpluses. So do Singapore, South Korea and China, other places with expensive housing markets.

  16. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    19. September 2017 at 23:52

    Almost everyone posting in this thread is completely nuts, and MF hasn’t even shown up yet.

  17. Gravatar of BC BC
    20. September 2017 at 05:12

    Scott, so if Kim threatened to attack South Korea or Japan unless we killed x Americans, what would your lower bound on x be for you to do it?

    For those that would hold us responsible for the South Koreans and Japanese that *Kim* kills in response to a strike on North Korea, would you say that it was a mistake to *not* have pre-emptively prevented Kim from developing nuclear weapons in the past? If not, why not? After all, many more South Koreans and Japanese are at risk now than before Kim acquired nukes. Why was the right thing in the past to not risk American soldiers’ lives to prevent the risk of nuclear attack on South Korea and Japan but the right thing now to risk American civilians’ lives (by not preventing Kim from developing a nuclear ICBM) to prevent the risk of nuclear attack on South Korea and Japan?

  18. Gravatar of Ryan Ryan
    20. September 2017 at 05:51

    Past inaction regarding N. Korea has been very expensive. If you want to produce a utilitarian argument for leaving N. Korea alone you need to consider the damage it will continue to do.

    I feel that the main constraint against action is simply that performing a first strike against N. Korea could have disastrous diplomatic consequences for the US.

    China would be extremely unhappy, and in the off chance N. Korea manages to get a nuke into S. Korea or Japan the entire world will be against the US.

    I feel like Summer’s original post is just sophistication. Nobody is basing their decisions on the relative value of a nation’s lives.

  19. Gravatar of Joe Leider Joe Leider
    20. September 2017 at 08:04

    Since no one is actually answering the question, maybe I could give it a shot. Mind you, I don’t necessarily agree with the calculation I’m about to make, but to do a cold-hearted analysis sometimes you need to make cold-hearted assumptions.

    You ask for the comparative value of a life, so naturally I turn to money as a metric. For those who would argue with this, I would say my life is indeed worth a lot less than Bill Gates’ life. Bill Gates has had a hand in software that has probably saved at least thousands of lives where I have not.

    So, on with the calculating. Per capita GDP in the United States = $57,466.79 vs. 583.00 USD in North Korea (just google searches, not sure if this is at PPP). That would suggest 1 American life = approximately 99 North Korean lives.

    If you wanted an American life to be worth more relatively, then perhaps one could use per capita national wealth instead?

    On the other hand, if you look at POTENTIAL per capita income or national wealth, I imagine the calculation would yield pretty close to 1 American life = 1 North Korean life, especially in the very long term.

  20. Gravatar of Justin Dailey Justin Dailey
    20. September 2017 at 08:11

    Ralph Peters writes as if war is inevitable. But war is not only not inevitable, it is not even probable. Kim Jong Un knows that he will surely be destroyed in an all-our war with the United States. Therefore, to attack North Korea is to cause with certainty the catastrophe that we claim to fear.

    An advantage of monarchy is that Kim’s government dies with Kim, and we can be certain that not all future Kims will be carbon copies of their predecessors. Eventually, some Kim descendant isn’t going to want to have some lackluster hermit kingdom.

    We should prepare for conflict in case it does occur, but we should certainly avoid initiating it, even if only through provocation.

  21. Gravatar of FXKLM FXKLM
    20. September 2017 at 08:24

    There are valid reasons to value North Korean lives less than American lives. If you consider life expectancy (so the expected number of years lost as a result of dying now) and quality of life, I do think it’s fair to say that the average North Korean loses less in death than the average American. Not a comment on althe intrinsic moral worth of North Koreans or the appropriateness of an American government valuing American lives more highly.

    But even setting aside those concerns, you have to admit that governments can and should value the lives of their own citizens more than the rest of the world. I don’t think anyone expects any government to slash their healthcare spending to the point where a marginal dollar spent locally has the same benefit as a marginal dollar spent on Doctors Without Borders. That kind of utilitarianism is impractical.

    Also, if any of those North Korean deaths helped lead to a regime change, a million North Korean deaths may well be worth it. Tough to say who has the moral right to make that decision though.

  22. Gravatar of Justin Dailey Justin Dailey
    20. September 2017 at 08:38

    1. I think the optimal policy is to do nothing but look at methods to effectively counter North Korea’s military capabilities should they attack, and to be very clear that the United States has no interest in attacking North Korea. That should include being willing to sign a formal peace treaty to end the Korean War.

    2. I agree, but I think the tails are smaller, and that Trump’s impact is smaller but also only evident on the downside. I don’t see Trump as making Kim’s capitulation meaningfully more likely.

    My answer to your PPS: All human lives have equal moral value and may not be intentionally killed by the governing authorities unless they commit particularly vile crimes or take up arms against us. We should consider North Korean civilians in particular as having the same moral status as American civilians. To kill one North Korean civilian to save one American civilian, under that logic, would be the wrong thing to do. Likewise, unless North Korea initiates war against us, we shouldn’t wish to kill any North Korean soldiers.

  23. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    20. September 2017 at 08:46

    Better a million dead North Koreans than a thousand dead Americans. 

    Okay I totally misread that. I didn’t think someone could mean this seriously. My mistake, I’m sorry.


    Again, I prefer that commenters provide precise numerical answers. 

    That’s rather easy. The value is 1:1. An innocent human life (of the same age) is worth as much as another innocent human life (of the same age). Nationality should not matter at all. That would be a form of racism.


    the US doesn’t want to be the policeman of the world any longer

    But the world needs a policeman.

    I’d rather have the US stay at home unless they or their allies are attacked.

    I never got that logic. We are all living on the same planet. It’s basically the same logic that Ralph Peters applies: North Koreans are not our allies, they are not Americans, so their lives are basically worth nothing. So let this Stalinist regime torture them for all eternity, why should we care? I just don’t get it. We need to care and we need to act.

    It does. Iraq was the latest example.

    1) I never got that logic either. 95% of all people are always picking only those examples of US invasions that didn’t work. That’s just a very strong sample bias.

    2) I never asked for an invasion, I said carry out one very deadly airstrike when this Stalinist regime does their stupid gatherings, kill them all in one strike, and then see what happens. Be prepared for everything of course, but I think this is worth a shot. I understand that the US didn’t assassinate Hitler (airstrike technology wasn’t good enough at that time). But now the technology exists and they still won’t do it and that’s what I don’t really understand.

    I might even go so far and say that as soon you got the technology and the power, you have the moral obligation to act. In this case not acting can be considered as immoral.

  24. Gravatar of Scott Freelander Scott Freelander
    20. September 2017 at 09:27

    From my view in the cheap seats, containment seems the only option here. It more or less worked during the cold war. There’s no reason to believe it won’t work now.

    The most dangerous potential flash point might involve a confrontation over a naval blockade, as we seek to stifle their proliferation efforts.

  25. Gravatar of John Thacker John Thacker
    20. September 2017 at 10:34

    Trump: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”

    Bill Clinton: “I know of no one who seriously believes that the United States and the Republic of Korea would be defeated in a war of aggression by North Korea if they were to attack. And I made it as clear as I could that if they were to do that, they would pay a price so great that the nation would probably not survive as it is known today.”

    My own view is that the previous Administration reneging on the deal with Qaddafi did more to raise the tail risk of war with the DPRK than the Presidential rhetoric, though I do agree that Trump’s personality itself is more of a risk than his rhetoric.

  26. Gravatar of Adam Adam
    20. September 2017 at 10:38

    I think the tail risk has increased more than that, but totally agree that the “math” the Post suggests is not just wrong it’s appalling.

  27. Gravatar of Bernard Guerrero Bernard Guerrero
    20. September 2017 at 12:13

    Why should I place equal values on NK and US lives? I do not live in NK, events in NK (even the fairly horrible stuff that’s been going on for decades there) tend to have much lower impacts on me than events in the US, my existence and prosperity and that of my family are tied very strongly to the continuance of the US socio-political-economic system as it exists, whereas disruptions to the NK system could be expected to run from neutral to positive depending on the time horizon.

    Granted, action to remove any possible threat emanating from NK is neither cost-free nor risk-free. It would likely be strongly disruptive to SK, which does have more bearing on my situation, and would cost blood and treasure besides. But any calculation made on the basis of naïve utilitarianism is suspect.

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. September 2017 at 12:17

    Bernard, Either answer the question or don’t comment here. I’m not interested in your views on utilitarianism, I want to know you views on Peters’ claim.

  29. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. September 2017 at 12:18

    FXKLM, That’s not helpful–please answer the question.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    20. September 2017 at 12:20

    Joe, Thanks for providing an answer, although I don’t really see what income has to do with anything. Why not value people in terms of height, weight, or number of freckles? What’s special about income?

    (I’d use utility, FWIW.)

  31. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    20. September 2017 at 17:04

    Weekly virtue signalling posts?

  32. Gravatar of FXKLM FXKLM
    21. September 2017 at 07:06

    It’s a genuinely difficult question. I don’t think anyone can really put a number on that ratio. But your implication that the ratio is 1:1 is not plausible either. No government in the world operates that way, and taken literally it’s absurd. What would a government healthcare policy look like if it placed an equal value on all human lives across the world?

    My answer to your question is that it can’t be answered. Sorry if that’s unhelpful, but the sad reality is that some questions have no answer. But let me put a direct question to you. You implied that it’s wrong to place an unequal value on the lives of people in different countries. Is that your view? For what it’s worth, I’m actually much closer to that view than the average American. I do believe that private charity in America should tilt much more toward helping the global poor than the domestic poor. I get the emotional appeal for the argument that American and North Korean lives should be valued equally. As rhetoric, I get the appeal. As an actual guide to policy, it’s wildly unrealistic.

  33. Gravatar of Justin Dailey Justin Dailey
    21. September 2017 at 09:31

    –“What would a government healthcare policy look like if it placed an equal value on all human lives across the world?”–

    We need to remember the principle of subsidiarity. While all human lives have equal value, the sovereign of a particular nation is only responsible for the well being of the residents of that particular nation.

    While residents of Chicago and Gary have equal worth as human beings, the Chicago Police are not responsible for providing police services to Gary and vice versa. Each city may offer to help the other city in extreme cases (say, Gary might send some officers to Chicago if multiple terror attacks occur there at once), but otherwise, they are responsible for their own policing.

  34. Gravatar of Bernard Guerrero Bernard Guerrero
    21. September 2017 at 12:06

    Okay, Scott, I’ll respond to the claim directly.

    A) I note that the crude death-rate in NK is, based on 2014 numbers, about 9.3/1000 per year. NK’s population at the moment is roughly 25MM individuals, as best we can tell. So approximately 232K individual North Koreans will die this year of all causes, at all age groups and among all demographic classes.

    And not a single one of those lives, with the exception of some high-ranking officials whose executions I may have read about, registered on me in any appreciable way. I sent no condolences, I know nobody there to send them to. To be fair, nobody there sent me any death notices, either. There was no appreciable economic impact on me, at least not that I can measure in any consistent way. I have never contributed towards a charity working in NK, at least that I know of, so regardless of efficacy there was apparently something that I valued more highly than ameliorating suffering in NK.

    B) There is some general value attachable to a completely or nearly anonymous life, insofar as if I hear of a terrible accident (say, a mine collapse) in NK or any other place, I say to myself something along the lines of “those poor folks” or “that must be horrifying”. But as a general rule something like that is happening somewhere in the world every day, and at no point has any such story emanating from NK drawn forth from me a special reaction, like a donation, volunteered time, etc. So I can conclude that the value I place on any generic, anonymous North Korean life is some small but positive value, such that hearing about such a life ending (as so many do every day) makes me feel a little bad, but generally not enough to stop whatever I happen to be doing.

    C) On the US or even the SK side, the numbers will tend to be larger. From an anonymous life standpoint, there are any number of Americans and quite a few SK citizens that have some positive impact on my life, either by supplying goods or services or entertainment or even data. A positive value could be assigned to each by comparing per-capita production and then looking at how much of that value flows towards me, either directly or via my loved ones, friends, etc, or even as taxed value that helps pay for services I prefer to see continued. It will still be a small number, but on either an aggregate or individual basis it will be far larger than the NK number.

    Of course, I also value specific humans a great deal more, based on personal connections of either the emotional or economic variety. Most of these happen to be American, but there happen to be a few SK citizens in there as well. If necessary, we could try and spread that value out over whole populations, but this seems pointless given that they are very specific in nature.

    D) So far, it looks on average like a slam dunk in favor of US or SK lives. Non-NK >> NK. But that could lead to absurdities. If given a hypothetical large trade-off, say, 1MM random NK lives for 1 random American, I have good reasons for not wanting to take the 1 American. After all, given the way social systems work, if a precedent with that big a ratio gets established, you are quite liable to find yourself on the losing side of the equation sooner or later. It’s somewhat arbitrary, but if I look at Gulf 1, the ratio of Iraqi to coalition casualties was approximately 100-1. That seems like a reasonable cap. So I’ll say I’d trade off randomly selected NK lives for a pool of randomly selected SK and US lives at 100 to 1, assuming some useful policy goal can be enumerated that would make shedding any blood worthwhile (see B above.)

  35. Gravatar of Major.Freedom Major.Freedom
    22. September 2017 at 09:11

    The “neat” (read that with sarcasm) thing about utilitarianism, and this is by design by its originators, is that it was always meant to serve as an excuse to destroy or at least harm the lives of innocent individuals so that other individuals can gain at their expense. Those who are to gain are, of course, those with political power and ther friends.

    This ideology of utilitarianism includes slaughtering innocent people in cold blood, just a few you know, OK maybe more than a few, all so that a special group, say the majority, or those who have the most voting influence, or those who are financing utilitarian propaganda, can gain (in the short term) and not have to feel the stress of living with other human beings they don’t like.

    Sumner at some level knows this, which is why a number of replies here about utilitarianism are being met with pooh poohing and claims that the right answers are not forthcoming. Don’t go down the path of utilitarianism to come up with a magic number of people to be murdered, that was not expected and this blog will not have any of it. Utilitarianism should only be mentioned when it is consistent with the ex ante to utilitarianism views expressed here. Otherwise, you’ll be demanding consistency, a necessary component in justice, and who needs justice when there are narratives to spend time on for political ends?

    Notice the absolute silence since the bombshell evidence came to light that the Trump Tower and Trump’s campaign were spied on by Obama and his cronies, all to get that loser Clinton elected?

    Now we’re being fed the lie that $100,000 in Facebook ads from MUH RUSSIA was the fsctor that swung the election to Trump’s favor in the face of over $1 billion spent by Clinton’s team.

    The mental defects McCain and Graham, both supposed Republicans, are now pushing to ban RT from being broadcast in the US. These idiots believe in censorship, just like the alt-left.

    It is creepy to watch utilitarianism necessarily leading people to talk about murdering other people they’ve never met and don’t even know, with such cold and anti-individual happiness considerations in mind. So twisted, and I am happy to have no part of it.

    For the question being asked, I will say that the wrong question is being asked. The question of “what is the value of a human life?” is the wrong question, and misleading. Value is not anything other than specific, unique individual human valuations. There is no cosmic, objective valuator separate from this. A human’s life is the basis from which value is created and has meaning. Valuation is an individual human action. It presumes human life, it doesn’t justify it. The question must therefore be referring to either one individual’s valuation of another individual’s life, in which case we need to ask who exactly we’re talking about, or the individual’s valuation of their own life, which as mentioned is the wrong question because to even ask what oneself is worth, presumes a life asking the question.

    Unintentionally yet expectedly, both the newspaper article, and utilitarianism, are appealing to the valuations of politicians and military personnel, not those for drone targeting.

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    22. September 2017 at 10:33

    FXKLM, I didn’t offer my view. I was interested in seeing if anyone was willing to defend Peters’ view. So far no one is, even though my comment section includes reactionaries racists and alt-righters. I find that interesting.

    Bernard, Finally an answer. One hundred to one is a nice round number too. So Peters is wrong, it’s better to have 1000 dead Americans than 1,000,000 dead NKs. I’m glad we agree on that.

  37. Gravatar of Bernard Guerrero Bernard Guerrero
    22. September 2017 at 13:01

    Like I said, it’s pretty damned arbitrary.

    1) Maybe more importantly, it’s contingent. No such clean trade-off is available to a policy maker, except at the extremes.

    2) It does not address the potential gains and costs of policies themselves. Say I can KO NK’s nuclear capabilities at the cost of 1000 NK missile technicians and troops via a concentrated cruise missile/bombing campaign to decapitate launchers and the upper command echelons. Further stipulate that I can mitigate the conventional threat to Seoul because I have contacts with the generals commanding the artillery units in question, and they’ll disobey orders in return for cushy jobs and immunity in a hypothetical post-war unified Korea. (This is unrealistic, but bear with me.)

    In this case, I can mitigate some low risk but extremely high cost possibilities like NK popping off a nuke either by accident or on purpose, and end the chronic instability caused by the regime’s existence by killing 1000 NK troops, possibly even at no loss to US or SK pilots. Why shouldn’t I do this, even though it violates our arbitrary cap? It works even on a utilitarian level, never mind national or personal interest.

  38. Gravatar of FXKLM FXKLM
    22. September 2017 at 14:51

    You didn’t ask if people would defend a 1,000:1 ratio. You asked us to give a specific number for the morally acceptable answer. I’ll say 1,000:1 is wrong, but you said my response was “unhelpful” because I said it’s impossible to pick a number. Do you agree with me that it’s impossible to cite a number (in which case I don’t know why your response was so hostile)? Or do you think it’s possible to pick a ratio?

    If a question can’t be answered, I don’t think it’s unhelpful to explore why it’s unanswerable.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. September 2017 at 20:26

    FXKLM, Well you say that 1 to 1 is wrong, which is fine, but is 2 to 1 also wrong? How about 5 to 1?

    I don’t see you could be confident that 1 to 1 is wrong, without having at least some view on the issue, even if just an estimate.

  40. Gravatar of Jeff Jeff
    25. September 2017 at 07:48

    The interesting thing to me is that Peters doesn’t understand that the right answer to his question Must we wait until Americans die? is probably Yes, at least if we’re talking military action. For all he knows, the North Korean regime could be overthrown by a less threatening one at any moment. It makes sense to wait and not go to war until it becomes absolutely necessary. Like after the other guy starts it.

    The way I see this playing out is that China eventually realizes that nuclear weapons in the hands of the current North Korean regime will lead to a rearmed nuclear Japan, and a nuclear South Korea as well. This is worse for China than the current situation where they really only have to worry about the US nuclear arsenal. Whatever you think of Trump, better his finger on the button than some of the people who’ve ruled in Korea or Japan in living memory.

    So China will eventually intercede in a way that gets Kim out of power, maybe by taking some kind of figurehead role. And North Korea will eventually free up it’s economy as people there get more and more disgusted over the way they’re falling further and further behind the rest of the world.

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