Trade-offs are inescapable

Published 2:34 pm Thursday, August 30, 2007

A whole nation following the tragedy of a mine cave-in in Utah was struck by the further tragedy of another cave-in at the same mine, killing men who had gone underground to try to rescue the miners trapped there.

The second tragedy was avoidable — but only if we were willing to talk about human life in terms of trade-offs. But our society has become too squeamish to do that.

As day after day went by, with no sign whatever that the trapped miners were still alive and with dwindling chances each day of their remaining alive, even if they had somehow survived the cave-in, at some point it makes no sense to risk more lives to try to save them.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“But what if it was your brother or your father down there?” some would say. “Would you want to stop looking if there was any chance at all that he might still be alive?”

The short answer is: What if it was your brother or your father who had to risk his life in a rescue attempt underground?

Trade-offs are inescapable in every aspect of life but anyone who talks about trade-offs when life is at stake is likely to be denounced as someone lacking in compassion, if not cruel.

Squeamishness is too often confused with humanity, but the consequence of squeamishness can be needless suffering and needless deaths.

Many a cold-blooded murderer has had his life spared because people squeamish about executions imagine that it is more moral or humane to lock him up for life — or until he escapes or is pardoned someday when an even more squeamish governor is elected.

Additional people murdered by convicted murderers are part of the grim price paid for that squeamishness.

They can be murdered while in prison or on the outside, perhaps during one of those “furloughs” for prisoners so fashionable among those who flatter themselves as being more advanced thinkers than the rest of us.

The price of their vanity can be deaths more terrible than the executions they regard as too cruel to carry out.

Some of the victims of our squeamishness die unnoticed because their deaths are not considered to be as newsworthy as the deaths of victims of mine cave-ins or of murder.

Thousands of people die every year waiting for organ transplants that never come, and some of these deaths come at the end of months or years of debilitation and suffering.

In some countries, it is legal to purchase organs to be transplanted. Some people spend upwards of $100,000 to go to those countries for a transplant operation when they cannot get a kidney or a liver or other organ here.

Why is the selling of an organ illegal here? Because so many people are so squeamish about such a transaction.

Many of these squeamish people are in good health and will probably never need an organ transplant. But others who are not so fortunate must suffer and die because these physically healthy people would feel squeamish about organs being bought and sold.

No doubt people who are poor are more likely to sell a kidney than people who are rich, so opposition to such sales can be wrapped in the rhetoric of “social justice.”

But what is just about denying some people an opportunity to get out of poverty and denying other people an opportunity to get out of debilitation and suffering that can only end in death?

Not all organ sales would have to be from living people, just as most organ transplants today are not from living people.

People could sell the right to have their organs removed after death or sell the rights to the organs of dead family members, if they chose.

Nothing is easier than to conjure up horrible scenarios that could result from sales of organs. But the very reason we have laws in the first place is because horrible things could happen otherwise in every aspect of life.

More organs to transplant are needed, and people tend to supply more of anything when they are paid more — and especially when they are paid something instead of being paid nothing.

But, here as elsewhere, we must first overcome squeamishness. And the first step is to stop confusing it with being humane.

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is