In case you haven’t seen the story, it comes out that in its campaign to kill bin Laden, the CIA concocted a fake vaccination program (in several locations in Pakistan) all in order to get blood samples of his sons for DNA testing. Just in case the implications of this aren’t clear, some posts here.
To cut a long story short, there are huge public health problems in undermining public support of vaccination, especially in a country where there are already claims that vaccination is a scam by the West. In this case it was. As one post said, “I fear that disclosure of the CIA’s vaccine ruse actually will turn out to kill more people than bin Laden ever did”.
But all that stuff is about fact. It was the emotional response that I found interesting. As soon as I saw the story on the Guardian I thought it was appalling and vile — and perhaps you do too. I posted the Guardian story on Facebook saying: “Wow, human scumbaggery knows no limits. Pure unadulterated evil.” My friend Carolyn (who does some fab event rentals in the Kansas City area if you require such services!) thought it was a bit much and that it was more careless than deliberate. Rather than debate the nitty gritty, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the reason for the strong reaction.
Other than the direct harm that this likely resulted in, there’s the emotional affect that services like vaccine bring. If you’re not specifically anti-vaccine you’ll probably have a mildly positive attachment to them. If you know a bit more about how much of a role they play in public health and how many people die from vaccine-preventible diseases each year (from the WHO, over 1,000,000 deaths per year — and that’s only children under 5), your attachment might increase. If you’re a skeptic and are also aware of the anti-vaccine movement and how its lies have resulted in deaths in countries where vaccines are readily available, your emotional attachment would be even stronger.
With all that affect, the misuse of something seen as precious is likely to elicit a strong reaction. Note that this doesn’t need to have caused harm — even if the CIA conducted this campaign only on bin Laden to lure him out I’d still feel very uneasy. This suggests to me that ideas about purity and honour play a role in the reaction over and above the utilitarian damage.
But there’s another dimension to this. Joshua Knobe is the leading proponent of a new field called experimental philosophy. It aims to inform philosophical discussion (which typically relies on the intuitions of philosophers) with research about similar intuitions among the general public. One iconic result that’s been obtained is the Knobe Effect. Consider these 2 scenarios, presented to 2 randomly selected groups. They’re identical except the first is about harming and the second about helping.
- “The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also harm the environment.’ The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about harming the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The programme is carried out, profits are made and the environment is harmed.” Do you think the CEO intentionally harmed the environment?
- “The CEO of a company is sitting in his office when his Vice President of R&D comes in and says, ‘We are thinking of starting a new programme. It will help us increase profits, but it will also help the environment.’ The CEO responds that he doesn’t care about helping the environment and just wants to make as much profit as possible. The programme is carried out, profits are made and the environment is helped.” Do you think the CEO intentionally helped the environment?
The difference is very large. For scenario 1, 82% said yes. For scenario 2, 23% said yes. Humans appear to have a very strong asymmetry in their moral beliefs. When you carelessly cause something bad to happen, our brain tends to assign full responsibility and moral blame. But for the reverse, the action is not seen as good but rather as neutral.
Perhaps this is how it should be. It’s an issue that will take some thought, perhaps this is our brains being well-adapted as opposed to being broken. But it’s good to be aware of this effect regardless of how outraged you are at the CIA. Still, what a bunch of assholes…