I was reminded of this by an interesting recent post by Peter Levine, on how to respond to the terror risk. Levine writes:
[A]s a nation, we are entitled to care more about the 2,700 killed on 9/11 than about the roughly similar number of deaths to tonsil cancer in 2001. Pure utilitarianism would tell us that 9/11 happened in the past; thus it's irrational to do anything about it, other than to try to prevent a similar disaster in the future. And it's irrational to put resources into preventing a terrorist attack if we could prevent more deaths by putting the same money and energy into seat belts or cancer prevention. However, the attack on 9/11 was a story of hatred against the United States, premeditated murder, acute suffering, and heroic response. Unless we can pay special attention to moving stories, there is no reason to care about life itself.
Is that true? Such a communitarian perspective is a bit foreign to me, though there does seem something attractive about it (which I may explore more in a future post).
Of course the liberal individualist's response is clear: it is not the role of government to spin moving stories from our lives. Each individual's life is precious in itself, imbued with pre-political interests and meaning, and the role of politics is to advance these pre-existing interests insofar as they're compatible with those of other citizens. A traffic-related death is no less tragic than that of a terrorist's victim. To focus efforts on the latter, merely because we find the story more "moving", is to unethically elevate our aesthetic values above the intrinsic value of the real human lives that are at stake here.
I guess the key dispute is whether our individual lives have such value (qua individual), or whether meaning can only arise out of collective pursuits, or by one's role in a "higher" narrative. What do you think?