Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Village of the damned: real world trolley problem

(Originally posted by Jason in 4/2012)

Until now, I had been somewhat dismissive towards "unrealistic" thought experiments like the trolley problem. It turned out I was wrong. I had been wrong the whole time.
Panama: Village of the damned (per Aljazeera English)
They are not unrealistic -- at least not all of them. They just don't happen around us, in our daily life. Had I not been interested in issues regarding indigenous people, I would never notice what's going on in Panama, or a similar situation regarding Belo Monte Dam in Brazil.
For now, let's give the decision maker the maximal benefit of doubt. Say it is indeed for the good of many, not a whole bunch of shady business of corruption. Let's also assume that indigenous people do not unconditionally own their land, river, and forest (to be honest, a fairly strong assumption already). Even then, the issue is not a few people affecting "the rights of the rest of the people", as minister Jorge Ricardo Fabrega trying to portrait, or "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", as one commentator put it. It's simply not true that everyone is affected equally in this case. The indigenous people would permanently lose their habitat, along with their way of life. Unlike the modern people who can live essentially anywhere as long as they have money and speak the language, relocating indigenous people alone could be difficult and relocating their culture could be outright impossible: that would be the degree of harm on the few. The degree of benefit on the many would be more plentiful and cheaper energy (again, assuming that the benefit does transfer to the general public). What would be the implications? Would it be more like premature baby getting proper neonatal care, or more like people enjoying air conditioner 24/7 in the summer, instead of fan? Moreover, if the panamanians know the human cost behind the cheap electricity, would they still want it along with the guilt?
I do not exclude the possibility that after proper cost-benefit analysis, dam construction is indeed the right thing to do. But even in that case, it's obvious that the indigenous people should be heavily compensated/accommodated. In this case, I don't quite mind indigenous people talking about dios/deus (Spanish/Portuguese for god). What really makes me wince is when that minister says it's about "rights". Too many people are flinging all kinds of rhetorics,  while too few people have the proper framework to think about these issues.

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