May 1, 2020


THE "IF IT SAVES JUST ONE LIFE" FALLACY (Antony Davies & James R. Harrigan, 4/29/20, ISI)

In January 2013, President Barack Obama said, "If there's even one thing we can do to reduce this [gun] violence, if there's even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try." A month later he tweeted, "If we save even one life from gun violence, it's worth it." His Vice President, Joe Biden, backed up Obama, saying, "As the President said, if your actions result in only saving one life, they're worth taking."

Politicians use such lines because they stir emotions. An argument intended to manipulate can stand on emotion. But an argument intended to persuade must stand on fact and reason. And politicians typically argue from emotion when facts and reason don't cooperate.

When we turn our attention to deaths by a range of causes, the emptiness of the "if it saves just one life" argument becomes very clear very quickly. Consider the "senseless violence" that occurs on American roads every year. We should do whatever we can if it saves just one life, no?

Let's see.

In late July 2012, a pickup truck packed with twenty-three people veered off a Texas highway and crashed into two trees.

Nine people were injured in the crash, but they were the lucky ones. The other fourteen occupants of the truck were killed. In the aftermath, bodies lay everywhere. Among the dead were two children. Alcohol was not involved, and there was no evidence of another vehicle at the scene. The weather at the time of the crash was dry and clear.

So why was the call for legislation not swift and immediate after such a terrible event? Because people knew that these sorts of things happen from time to time, and there is little, if anything, that legislation can do to change that.

But that's not exactly true, is it? We could address automotive deaths at any time if we were truly committed to doing so. One piece of legislation could virtually guarantee that no one would ever die on American roads again. All we would have to do is to reduce the speed limit on every road in the country to five miles per hour. That would save more than just one life.

The lethality of drivers is one of the major reason we'll displace them with automation as quickly as possible, but we've already adopted licensing, speed limits, seat belts, airbags, crash tests, child safety seats, etc. to try and save those lives at the margin. 

Posted by at May 1, 2020 9:53 AM