Say a person is stuck inside a cave that's collapsed, and the cost to get them out would be $100,000. Would most western governments pay this to get them out? Almost certainly. How about $1,000,000? Probably. And $10,000,000? Maybe not.

Is there a limit at which it would be ethically acceptable to not help the person out, simply because of cost?

If it exists, is this limit any lower when an accident hasn't occurred? Say the government knew that if they didn't spend $1,000,000 or more on a certain traffic intersection, the death toll would increase by one. Is there a limit at this point at which the economic costs overweigh the ethics of it leading to a death?

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    A little point of reference: The Chile Mine collapse rescue work cost $20 million for 33 workers. Would the same have happened if it were only one? – DarkLightA Jan 15 '13 at 20:32
  • Only if there a point where it's ethically acceptable to let a person die, right? (Can you unpack this a bit further?) – Joseph Weissman Jan 15 '13 at 20:49
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    I guess I'm just not sure it's the most urgent or constructive way to frame the problem. Could you tell us a little bit more about why this might have become important or interesting to you? What might you have found out so far? What are you expecting in an answer? – Joseph Weissman Jan 15 '13 at 21:22
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    Well, but that's not the question. The government would most probably not spend the 1,000,000 on foreign aid instead, and the celebrities can't be made accountable for the accident and therefore theor money has nothing to do with it. At all. – iphigenie Jan 16 '13 at 0:23
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    Questions of ethics without reference to any particular ethical doctrine are outside the scope of this site. We are looking for academic-style questions with definite answers rather than questions which elicit lengthy discussion and answers without any particular focus. Your question is interesting, but is better suited for chat. :) – stoicfury Jan 16 '13 at 6:52

Sure. At some point the cost of saving a person could cost so much that it could endager the lives of other people. Imagine a government that needed to pay for a water purification system and the cost of saving someone in a specific emergency situation would effectively remove their water purification capability, and that would undoubtably endanger many lives. In such a case it could be argued that it is ethically right to not spend the money to save the one person.

Lives are weighed when money isn't an object, in cases where the danger to the rescuers becomes very great the rescue can be called off, effectively condemning the person in need of rescue to death. If money becomes a true factor in the weighing of life and lives, as disturbing as it seems, someone will be forced into a hard decision. But the fact that money is involved in the weighing of lives doesn't in and of itself make the decision immoral.

  • how very utilitarian of you... – That Guy Jul 11 '14 at 17:35

I think you meant "on purely Monetary grounds", since Economy would peg money and people as just another two resources and then ask what the agent prefers.

If the agent is Human, and you weigh money and human lives against each other, you get a lot of angry responses along the lines of "human lives are invaluable."

It is of course true that human lives isn't generally an object of trade, but consider this:

  • Option A: Spend 100$ on medicine for a disease that will kill 1 person.
  • Option B: Spend 100$ on medicine for a disease that will kill 10 people.

Quite clearly the right choice in this situation is B. This is called consequentialism, and basically answers most of these dilemmas:

  • If the money can be used to save more lives that it cost acquiring, it is worth it.
  • except not at all, what if option B is "spend 1100$ to save 10 people" versus A: "spend 100$ to save only 1 person" (can't purchase more than once). Things don't behave linearly, and this makes reasoning incredibly difficult, especially when you try to introduce probability of death or probability of saving which is what happens in all situations. – Artem Kaznatcheev Jan 18 '13 at 3:10
  • @ArtemKaznatcheev Yes, I know, human ethics are really, really complicated. OP asked whether there exists a situation where money decide survival, not wether all situations have that property. – Karl Damgaard Asmussen Jan 20 '13 at 19:55

You don't just spend money, you also have to make money. If Chile paid $20 million to save 33 people, they have to get that money back. Tax payers need to work to produce $20 million of taxes. People working have accidents, and sometimes people die.

You can just run statistics in your country how much was produced in taxes, and how many people died in work related accidents. Divide the numbers, and you'll find that to produce x million in taxes, one random person will die. At that point, paying more than x million dollars to save a life is not ethical anymore.

The other problem is that usually you have only limited amounts of money available. Let's say you have a hospital in a poor country with one million dollars to spend in a year. When the million dollars is gone, you can't buy medication, can't use power that you can't pay for, can't have personnel that you can't pay. On the first day of the year someone comes into your hospital whose treatment will cost one million dollars. If you save his life, you can't help anyone else for the whole year. Now tell me what's ethical.


I think this question is not answerable because the government lacks the feedback necessary to come to the appropriate decision.

Let's consider a slightly different context where the question may be answerable. Suppose that a mine owner has his miners and technicians and people like that in a mine. If the mine collapses he loses most of his employees and he spent years training them and getting them to work well as a team and that sort of thing. There is a possibility the mine could collapse and if the miners aren't rescued he has to find new employees and go through the whole process again. So he might decide that this would be a disaster and that he should insure against it so that if the mine collapses the insurance company will pay to dig out his men. And maybe it will cost $10 million for each man or whatever.

And let's suppose the insurance company provides the coverage. The insurance company has to pay the bills by getting people to give it money because giving the money is better than not doing so. The customers know their money will be used to pay for accidents and that sort of thing. So there is a clear sense in which the insurance company customers consent to pay for whatever the insurance company decides to cover. And there is a check on the company deciding to cover silly things. If the company agrees to pay a man $1 million if he nicks his pinky, it won't last long.

If the company refuses to pay out to rescue the miners then it may be guilty of fraud and some of its staff may face prosecution or fines or something like that. In addition, an insurance company that doesn't pay out when people think it should may lose customers. Customers want the company to pay out when it should because they want to get the money they are insured for under the circumstances stipulated in their contract.

A government is in a very different position from the insurance company. If your decide you don't like something the government is doing and that you would prefer to pay a different group of people to do the same stuff, or pay nobody for the relevant service, you will not get far. The government will take tax money without asking for your consent and if you try to resist you might be imprisoned or killed. You could vote against a government that does something stupid but your vote is only one among millions. You could argue the government shouldn't do something but you would have to persuade something like a plurality of the population to throw out the current government. At that point you get a new government over which you had about the same amount of control as the old, i.e. - negligible control. Since governments have very little in the way of feedback, it's a mistake to expect them to reach the right answer on sophisticated and subtle moral issues. Should the government save some miners? I don't know, and neither does the government.

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