No One Should Confuse Emotions With Good Ideas

There was a Facebook meme going around a few days ago in which many supporters of current health care bills set their statuses to read:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, join us in posting this as your status for the rest of the day.

This got me thinking about exactly what is meant by statements of the form: “No one should X.” Three very different things came immediately to mind.

  1. X makes me sad, and I would like there to be much less of it.
  2. There is a current proposed policy aimed at reducing X, and I have carefully analyzed it and have concluded that its benefits clearly outweigh its costs, and therefore anybody who agrees with (1) should also support this policy.
  3. Absolutely eliminating X is a moral imperative. As long as X occurs, nobody’s life, liberty, or property are safe from being exploited in the drive to reduce X. Considerations of costs and consequences must not stop us from continuing our actions to eliminate X.

I think there are many things (like people dying for lack of funds) for which (1) is true for most of us. But (1) does not imply (2), and it certainly doesn’t imply (3). (3) is awful.

And, interestingly, unless you agree with (3), I think you really believe that “No one should X” is literally false. You really believe that, if we cannot reduce X without causing more harm than the good we’re doing, “Some people should X” because any actions that reduce X are actions that we shouldn’t take. Any achievable world where X is further reduced or eliminated is a world we should not pursue.

I think spreading the messages like “No one should X” are really attempts to confuse (1) with (2), and perhaps imply in a fuzzy way (3) might be true enough to rally support for the policy in (2).

But, if a policy aimed at reducing X violates important rights and imposes more costs than benefits, then we should oppose such a policy. At some point, after X has been reduced a lot, we will find that the only X-reducing policies on offer are those that will do more harm than good, and what we should do is oppose those policies and accept that we should live with some X for the time being.

X happens.

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