Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Should we celebrate bin Laden's death?

Osama bin Laden was murdered while resisting detainment by the U.S. armed forces. Of course, when President Obama authorized the "raid" on bin Laden's hideout he knew that bin Laden would be killed with high probability. If not, the U.S. would kill him by the death penalty.

Opponents of the death penalty are responding with some sense of outrage. You see it on Facebook and Twitter where "murder is never the answer even for Bin Laden" is the slogan by chanted.

I don't understand that.

First, isn't it good to murder people responsible for 3,000 deaths? Isn't it more likely that a political leader will sentence 3,000 people to death if he thinks that the worst that will happen is that he will be sent to a nice jail in old age, rather than be killed? (The incentive effects are more complicated, but I just want death penalty opponents to acknowledge that the death penalty may save lives. In fact, if you ask most people for their prior on this question, most people implicitly believe the death penalty saves lives.)

Second, murdering bin Laden made a lot of people, esp. in the US very happy. Twitter lit up in celebration and fans at stadiums across the country cheered. The net utility, any way you measure it, was probably positive when you consider that bin Laden was a miserable old man, likely to die soon anyway, so the utility loss from the murder was low, while the benefits were small but for hundreds of millions of people.

Now, I should stop. I know a lot of people will reply "but that is exactly why the utilitarian calculus is wrong. It's actually a famous example." The famous example is that, suppose an innocent man were going to be killed so that a rowdy mob will gain utility. Suppose they gain more utility than he loses. Here the mob has 300,000,000 members in it, give or take, and the innocent man isn't innocent, but its similar. But that's the catch: utilitarianism isn't wrong.

We kill innocent people so that lots of people can gain small sums of utility on a daily basis. Consider highway safety. If we lowered the speed limit it would force people to drive slower and thus there would be fewer fatal crashes. But we choose not to lower the speed limit because we would rather have a few people die than have everyone commute for an extra 10 minutes every day. When two economists, Orley Asherfelter and Michael Greenstone, quantified the dollar value we place on a human life, it was something like $500,000. Now let's consider the Osama case. We are willing to let an innocent American die in a car crash so we can each get to work faster and we'd be willing to collectively pay $500,000 for the privilege. That is completely moral. But if I could collect a dollar from half of Americas (surely I could) to murder Osama, showing that his death is worth at least $150,000,000 or 300x as much, and knowing the cost of his death is not as bad because he isn't innocent and he is old and will die soon anyway, it's immoral.

In summary:

Moral: killing an innocent child on the highways so everyone has as shorter commute
Immoral: killing a mass murdered to generate 300x as much joy

Whose theory of ethics doesn't make sense?

And to answer the question in the title: The best response to any situation is to make the best of it. You can't change the fact that he's dead and sucking the joy out of the event for others or sulking in misery isn't helping anyone.

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