Utilitarianism rules

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In the later part of the eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham began to formulate a body of philosophical writing that’s become known as utilitarianism. This proved to be a major contribution to philosophy and can’t be summed up in a few sentences. However, one of the basic principles is a way of calculating when a particular course of action is justified. It’s called the principle of greatest happiness and believes action is justified when it causes the greatest “happiness” to the largest number of people. Curiously, it was picked up by Star Trek in Spock’s famous saying, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. So when applied to the design of safety equipment for use in modern vehicles, there’s a balance to be struck.

As a society, we all want the roads to be as safe as possible. Every year, several hundred thousand people are injured in traffic accidents. Every one of the people hurt or killed belongs to a family. There’s individual pain, and this spreads through family and friends as shared grief and distress. If at all possible, we want to reduce the number of injuries. So lawmakers could intensify the law enforcement effort against drunk driving and the use of hand-held technology to produce distracted driving. But this would upset the majority of drivers who don’t want their lifestyles disrupted. It would also produce howls of outrage from the owners of bars and restaurants whose businesses might fail if people could no longer drive home after drinking. Taxi drivers, however, might appreciate the additional business. So everything has to be balanced in deciding how aggressively to police the roads. In many areas, it’s left to the mayors and state officials to set the policy:

Takata Corp is one of the three leading manufacturers of airbags. As you will appreciate, since they have been fitted as standard to every vehicle, thousands have avoided injury. So on balance, many have benefited. But now this corporation has ordered a recall of their airbags following two deaths caused by malfunctioning bags. So let’s be clear what has gone wrong. The airbags are inflated by the explosive release of gas. Note the use of real explosives as in a small bomb in every airbag. If there are any problems in the manufacture, triggering the airbag can result in a real explosion with fragments flying into the upper body of driver or passenger. Two people have died. The problem has been tracked to Takata’s factory in Moses Lake, Washington. There was a lapse in quality control and the chemicals used to make the explosives were allowed to become damp. Over time, this makes the chemical combination unstable and real explosions occur.

So there we have it. Politically, governments around the world now require airbags fitted as standard and rely on manufacturers to make them safe. But even if one or two people die, you still get the maximum happiness from the thousands who are saved from serious injury every year. That balancing is what makes politics so interesting. If too many start to die, the lawmakers can always rewrite the regulations.

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