Life has a price.
We accept this every day, and we build our society and habits around that value.
We know, for example, that if we stopped making cars that drive at over 30 km/h, we would save a certain number of people per year. If we took this step, road fatalities would be greatly reduced, almost eliminated. However, we have determined that the value to society of being able to move from place to place within a certain amount of time, is greater than the added value of the lost lives.
It seems, perhaps, inhumane to turn lives into figures; to do math with human life. This essay is not intended to be a defense of such a practice — but to expose it as a common practice, something we accept without thinking.
A slightly simpler example: vaccines.
One of the things that we as a society — and especially the more educated strata of society — have a hard time admitting is that people who are anti-vaccination are not completely insane.
Although the official position is that vaccines are 100% safe, anyone with a scientific background and who is not a charlatan knows that 100% does not exist in science.
Let’s say that vaccines are 99.9% safe. Let us apply them, then, to the 2.91 million children who were born in Brazil in 2017. We are left with no less than 29 100 children with problems resulting from vaccination. Some with minor problems, traumatic but temporary adverse reactions; others with problems that will mark them for the rest of their lives. And for a small percentage — death.
This is the tragedy of percentages: a mere tenth of a percent, applied to a population large enough, becomes a nightmare.
Vaccines are, nevertheless, of essential value for society.
Because? Why do we vaccinate children en masse, knowing — in the case of Brazil — that we are condemning almost 30,000 children to a nefarious fate?
Because here — unlike with the case of automobiles — the math is much simpler, it is the mathematics of lives versus lives. The unavoidable fact is that, if we did not deploy the vaccines, far more than 30,000 children would suffer irreparable damage once attacked by serious illnesses.
We are sacrificing a minority (in the case of a very populous country like Brazil, a large minority) for the sake of the whole.
That’s why I feel a bit bad when I see people on social media making fun of those who oppose vaccines. It is not that they are not wrong — vaccines are of indisputable utility — but I recognise, even if they themselves do not recognise it, that they are rising against something that’s very difficult to swallow: human sacrifice.
Our society is a society driven by human sacrifice. Everything we do, all the technologies we produce, have a cost in lives.
Sometimes — as is the case with vaccines — the math seems more ethical; we sacrifice some lives to save many more. At other times, as in the automobile example, the mathematics are more obtuse; there is no direct correlation between increased driving speed and lives saved, only lives lost.
Taking a higher perspective, we may see that if we did not have the capacity for mobility that we currently have, human society could have much worse living conditions than it does today, and perhaps that would translate into greater morbidity. I do not know; it is an open study for someone to carry out, if possible.
Our collective intuition is that having access to cars that allow us to travel at certain speeds is worth the price we pay in annual accidental deaths. It is a sacrifice that we accept.
But we don’t think about it too much because it is uncomfortable to think of human sacrifice in the 21st century.
Here’s the dilemma: as long as we can’t accept and talk about it, we can’t open the door to making the practice more charitable.
We have to accept that we practice these sacrifices to start talking about how to compensate the victims and the victims’ families who bear the costs of our decisions as a society.
Admitting and accepting the collective sacrifices of lives on which our society is based is neither cold nor inhuman; on the contrary, it is what will lead us to a more ethical and humane future.