Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Corruption is worse than terrorism

Chetan Bhagat, writing from India, asserts that corruption is worse than terrorism:

Corruption is worse than terrorism. Terrorists blow up existing infrastructure such as roads, airports and power plants. Corruption prevents such infrastructure from being made in the first place. Terrorists take innocent lives. Corrupt politicians prevent hospitals from being built, which means innocent lives that could be saved are not.
The rest of the letter is worth reading for its perspective on corruption in India, but I wanted to focus on this particular excerpt because it mirrors a dispute that occurs in our own country also. This dispute essentially boils down to "utilitarianism vs. moralism". From the utilitarian perspective, our efforts should be focused on those issues that have the greatest impact on our welfare; in contrast, moralism insists on focusing on the individuals who are most evil. This creates a tension between giving our attention to evils that are mild but ubiquitous (driven by the petty sins that are common in humans) and giving our attention to the evils that are extreme but rare (driven by the exceptional sins of a few individuals). From the utilitarian perspective, terrorism is a relatively small threat, definitely not deserving of the great efforts we have gone to in order to reduce it (not to mention the suffering we have caused). However, from the moralist perspective, there really isn't anything worse than intentionally killing civilians.

I often wonder how to reconcile these two impulses. Maybe the "moralist" focus on evil actually has a utilitarian basis, arising from the great variation in the damage done by people with ill intent. While terrorists only kill a few hundred people a year worldwide, there's a slight chance that they could kill several million next year. It is easy to focus on these worst case scenarios when we talk about terrorism, but I suspect that these are nothing more than rationalizations for the venting of our anger. We don't need evil intentions to create catastrophes -- we have created numerous disasters just by our ubiquitous indifference to the harm that we are doing. The prime example of this is the collateral damage that the USA has caused in our "wars on terrorism", which was easy to predict beforehand.

Ultimately, I am discouraged from finding a justification for moralism because it is increasing clear that the moralists are themselves immoral. Using "collateral damage" as an example: it is immoral to knowingly cause a person's death, even if that was no the desired outcome. These moralists often cloak their crimes in rhetoric of "personal responsibility", but there is no personal responsibility when a person causes actual harm in the hopes of reducing the potential harm that someone else may cause. Each person is responsible for the harm that they cause, and talking about another person's irresponsibility does not provide any excuse for one's own actions.

And so we come full circle, and we ask "how do we achieve the greatest good with the resources that we have?" To do so, we seek good wherever we can find it. We face down evil if that is necessary, but otherwise, we allow the evil ones to wallow in their own filth. As long as we create faster than they can destroy, we will win.

No comments: