Reply to Reply to Orphans to Randy Cohen

January 9, 2007 at 4:18 pm Leave a comment

Via James D. Miller who is qouting from Crooked Timber

Crooked Timber said:

““real virtue lies not in heroically saving poor orphans from burning
buildings but in steadfastly working for a world where orphans are not
poor and buildings have decent fire codes.””

James said:

“I disagree. Heroically saving poor orphans from burning buildings
requires one to pay a large personal cost. In contrast, it’s easy to
advocate against poverty or for decent fire codes. Plus, stronger
building codes increase the cost of housing and so may increase
homelessness among orphans. Orphans are probably better off living in
dangerous buildings than on the street. Stronger fire codes, therefore,
can actually hurt orphans.”

But stronger codes only mean a higher initial cost, the fact that a building up to code is likely to last longer means that the higher initial cost could be spread out over many years. Of course the real world isn’t perfect (a scandal in Japan a few years back revealed that cheap apartments not up to code managed to last through numerous earthquakes next to up to code buildings), but the principle does seem sound. If a family rents an apartment in a building that’s up to code, then that family is likely to have regular permanent shelter (and hence save more) and the landlord is likely to make more becuase the landlord is less likely to have to rebuild or pay higher insurance fees. Hence while less regulation might mean more cheap housing becuase of cheap buildings, it’s possible that over a peroid of time better regulated and well built buildings would actually turn out to be the better value becuase they could survive fires, natural disasters, etc. I might add that the folks that built a well built up to code building that could survive a fire etc. would also need to deploy their capital elsewhere once recouped, meaning that property developers would need to take their earning and invest them elsewhere further allevating poverty or perhaps letting them build even more buildings.

Although the point that actually saving someone from a fire might require a higher risk for the individual doing it, if it actually makes one more ethical than the city planners trying to keep buildings from burning in the first place is another issue entirely. While the rescuer of the orphans might be encuring a high risk to themselves, that’s not really the issue. The issue is, does the individual in question realize that part of what put these people at risk was their environment? Does the individual choose to let that dangerous environment persist and then take on great risk to save a few orphans every once in awhile? What Cohen seems to be implying is that virtue is more than just our own personal actions, but the realization that we have the power to shape our own environments in such a way to make them more humane and impervious to the need for individual action to begin with. I’ll leave the second question open, I’m not an ethicist and Cohen’s comment was probably made more to make us aware of the importance of context and not so much to chatise those brave souls that do drag the near dead from buildings every once in awhile.

Blogger is down to maintanence hence not added to comments section.

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links for 2007-01-08 Brhadaranyaka Upanisad

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