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The Sin of Inaction
I always thought the active-passive distinction in philosphy and law was a cop out. We are just as responsible for the millions who die from our inaction as we are for murder. If you are consciously not donating to a hunger fund with the understanding that the inevitable consequence is that an additional person will die of hunger, it is tantamount to first degree murder.
There is an active choice to be part of coal deaths. Every time we turn on a light switch, we actively increase the coal output that kills tens of thousands per year or more. So each flick is increasing the likelihood of death. It is therefore self-deception to suggest that moving in the direction of safety is a sinless course. It is just murder too common to prosecute.
So if we can all agree that we are a civilization of murderers, then we can get on to real questions like is it better to kill people with atmospheric nuclear explosions to colonize the solar system or kill each other through inaction.
Sticking with spending $15 billion/year on chemical rockets instead of half on nuclear rockets and half on defibrillators is killing hundreds of thousands.
I would give my life to colonize the planets. Our focus on saving every life is penny wise and pound foolish.
Do people avoid having children so that all their cells can die a natural death? Envision all humanity as cells of a greater organism, the global species. Envision that it is time to have a child species on another planet. Isn't that worth the death of millions or hundreds of millions if new billions will spring into existence? I am asking for dozens possibly killed offset by savings thousands of others that would otherwise be killed.
I don't expect to fundamentally change dinosaur thinking. "I will not kill anyone to save the species from the asteroid that has our species' name on it." But be aware of the systematic cost of the capricous risk aversion we impose in the name of morality.Posted by Sam Dinkin at April 21, 2005 09:05 AM
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Bomb Me To The Moon
Excerpt: Via Transterrestrial Musings, there's an interesting article revisiting Project Orion, what happened to it, how it might differ if done now, and what are the tradeoffs.
Tracked: April 21, 2005 10:24 AM
While I agree with your general point about there being no risk-free choices, I can't buy an analogy that compares conscious entities (human beings) to unconscious (as far as we know) cells. You seem to be using a utilitarian principle, but it's conflated with some kind of collectivist philosophy as well. I think you need to think it through a little more and untangle it.Posted by Rand Simberg at April 21, 2005 09:19 AM
Right. I'll reuminate on this a while.
Argument 1: utility.
Argument 2: altruism to the species (or nation or ethnicity or ... or family).Posted by Sam Dinkin at April 21, 2005 09:36 AM
Take it for granted that you are, Sam, correct wrt Orion.
It is not going to happen. A path not taken. A dead parrot.
We both want inexpensive lift to orbit. It simply must happen another way. Surely this is something that the species can be clever about.Posted by Brian Dunbar at April 21, 2005 11:36 AM
I disagree on equating inaction with action. The problem is that of surety of knowledge. We can easily construct scenarios where inaction literally is first degree murder. First, there's the matter of knowledge and surety. Sure you can construct scenarios where inaction literally is an act of first degree murder. But most cases of inaction have a great deal of uncertainty around them. How do we address inaction in ourselves? What is the best way (any other being equivalent to acting to harm someone to some degree) to live?
Second, chosing to act to harm someone is a more aggressive action than harming someone through inaction. Among other things, there's more opportunity to harm through action than inaction. Punishing harmful action is also more clear-cut and effective than punishing harmful inaction. Someone can always find a more subtle way to avoid saving someone's life, but deliberately killing someone crosses a line that's pretty clear and definite.
I'm a strong proponent of nuclear power and I've argued about choices of risk before, active and inactive. But I haven't seen a good argument for Orion, and the risks are considerable. What is the mission that only Orion can complete? Or, if there are other choices, why is it the best choice?
Asteriod defense? Of course, a major strike is extremely unlikely in the next few decades, but assuming we want to build an asteroid defense NOW, wouldn't an asteroid defense program be a better choice? That is: Put serious money into searching for asteroids that are potentially dangerous, send out a number of probes to directly study asteroids, then develop the means to alter the the orbits of asteroids. I seriously doubt that Orion is the best way to accomplish that.
Develop space infrastructure? Wouldn't promoting commercial launch and space resource usage be a better choice than nuking battleships into space? Orion may be possible, technically (though I suspect it may be harder and far more expensive than some people think), but it is hard to understand how it could be economically sustainable. It seems to be the sort of thing you might do in an emergency, not as part of a development program meant to last decades.
As for risks: Aside from the amount of radioactive material being put into the atmosphere in a successful launch, for an ongoing Orion program, there are also the risks associated with the much increased production and transport of nuclear devices, and the risk of diversion and accident. Unlike the nuclear weapons program, these devices would be used on a regular basis, so the transport volume would be far higher.Posted by VR at April 21, 2005 03:06 PM
I think that orion would be a great way to use
Well, you can always use it in nuclear power plants.Posted by VR at April 21, 2005 03:44 PM
Karl: If we have coal in the atmosphere it has a certain amount of thorium and uranium. You can quibble about whether it is 10,000 or 100,000, but it is still excess deaths.
Heart attacks are more measurable. The US kills a hundred thousand or more through inaction by not deploying defibrillators just as surely as by shooting bullets in World War 2. Sleep well knowing that you are not responsible. Buy your own defibrillator if you don't want someone to die at your home and make you reconsider your laissez-faire attitude.
VR: saying there is a better way via private chemical rockets is well and good if that is the alternative. Right now there is neither. $15 billion in subsidies at $3,000/lb could get 5,000,000 pounds to orbit. Either way, let's go.
I am in a hurry to colonize the Moon and Mars. How about a big Noah's ark like in _Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow_? Chemical or nuclear, take your pick.
Nuclear while politically untenable is the better choice economically if it can be developed. The price per pound gets to the cost of ships versus airplanes at high mass. With the right combination of policies, users could scrub coal plants for radioactive output and reduce the net radiation in the atmosphere.
Security would indeed be an issue as it will be with breeder reactors if we don't develop lunar solar power lickety split.Posted by Sam Dinkin at April 21, 2005 06:36 PM
I'm not at all sure that Orion would work anyway. Potential issues like spalling of the pusher plater aren't dead issues.
But Orion probably kills people- up to 10 per launch.
We know from research that people view risks that are imposed on them without their consent very negatively; and such risks that are imposed on them for other peoples gain are viewed even more negatively.
That's why the chemical Alar was such a big thing- it mostly benefited the apple manufacturers, and carried a risk to the consumer. The risk was truly minute of course, but that's not the way it way perceived.
Similarly 10 deaths in the whole world is immeasurably low. And the deaths from radiation, mercury and other pollution from coal power is comparatively massive. To say nothing of the tens of thousands of miners that die. But atleast the miners are well paid; and the electricity benefits the consumers.
From a strategic point of view for starting an Orion program, you could theoretically argue that suitable funding from the launch budget into a suitably inclusive health program might reduce cancer deaths enough, that Orion is reasonable. In other words, "10 people died but we saved 1000 people from dying!" Would anyone buy that? You could try...
One thing I do know- there are great perils in premature optimisation. If Orion enabled humans to reach extraterrestial resources that enable humans to stop using Orion drives for launch, then it would probably be worth it. Personally I believe that it probably would do this.
Prematurely optimising by minimising launch pollution may (have) kill(ed) this avenue for ever.
technical error in space review article on Orion
"This is a late ’50s design that has actually had its economics improve over time. The weight of 800 nuclear bombs has gone way down. For the eight terajoule (two kiloton) explosions required for the 4500-ton version that can carry 20 people to the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn in the same trip, instead of the 900 tons of nuclear bombs at almost one ton each, there would need to be probably only 50 tons’ worth of bombs since artillery shells were subsequently developed that weighed much, much, less than what could be conceived in the late ’50s." -- from the Space Review article on Orion
The 900 ton mass of the Orion ship devoted to bomb drivers does not refer to the mass of the nuclear bombs alone, but the mass of the bombs combined with the reaction mass added to each bomb. The mass of the bombs by themselves is only a small fraction of the 900 tons mass. Thus the plan to "refuel" during the Orion mission to Saturn by collecting reaction mass from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus.
American nuclear bomb technology was quite advanced during the era of the Orion project . It was during the same time that the small tactical nuclear warheads were developed for such weapons as the ASROC anti-submarine rocket, SUBROC submarine launched rocket, Genie air to air rocket, and Davy Crockett infantry gun.Posted by Brad at April 21, 2005 08:26 PM
Karl: If we have coal in the atmosphere it has a certain amount of thorium and uranium. You can quibble about whether it is 10,000 or 100,000, but it is still excess deaths.
Turning on a light contributes infinitesimally to the stastical likelihood of someone, somewhere, developing cancer.
Not turning on the light reduces revenues for the electric company, contributing to the possibility of layoffs, with the corresponding chance of depression and alcoholism among the unemployed meter-readers, leading some of them to an early grave.
Yeah, it's a hell of stretch, but no more than your example.
Heart attacks are more measurable. The US kills a hundred thousand or more through inaction by not deploying defibrillators just as surely as by shooting bullets in World War 2.
Shooting someone with a bullet kills them. Directly. Action, consequence.
Defibrillators, in case you haven't noticed, cost money. Money that could be spent on cancer research or on powersats to replace those dirty coal-burners. That opportunity cost - the loss of whatever else you might have spent the money on - could well "kill" more people than the defibrillators save.
The two are not even remotely the same. In one situation, you've chose an action that increases the statistical death rate by some infinitesimal amount. In the other, you've chosen to kill someone.
Same goes for your hunger campaign example. There's plenty of food in the world; there are already mechanisms to get food aid to where it is needed. When people are starving, it's not because the crops have failed, it's because someone's stolen the food.
Envision that it is time to have a child species on another planet. Isn't that worth the death of millions or hundreds of millions if new billions will spring into existence?
No. Particularly since we can do it without killing anyone. Life is risk, a calculated risk whenever we can calculate it. We try to minimise that risk while maximising potential gains. What we don't do is throw people away, and that's what you're proposing.Posted by Pixy Misa at April 21, 2005 10:41 PM
"Wouldn't promoting commercial launch and space resource usage be a better choice than nuking battleships into space?"
Why does it have to be one or the other?
One day we're going to have to embrace nuclear power. It's too efficient to ignore. Arguments about minute death rates are just stupid.Posted by at April 22, 2005 12:35 AM
Quote by VR: "What is the mission that only Orion can complete? Or, if there are other choices, why is it the best choice?"
Well if we can make it to the moon with conventional systems then Orion would be a great system to further venture out with.
Quote from Pixy Misa: "Particularly since we can do it without killing anyone. Life is risk, a calculated risk whenever we can calculate it. We try to minimise that risk while maximising potential gains. What we don't do is throw people away"
Well its hard to do anything without killing somebody. Besides, what if it just a bunch of stupid people.
Which makes me think if its really murder through inaction when one is just plain ignorant of the facts. After all, if the Pope craps in the woods and there is nobody around to smell it, does he need toilet paper from a tree that fell and made no sound, or something.Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at April 22, 2005 11:16 AM
re: "I will not kill anyone to save the species from the asteroid that has our species' name on it."
I have the same regret about supporting "containment." I'm sure one of the 80 to 100 million that marx / lenin killed and the billions unproductively enslaved would have rescued us, for the mere cost of a few thousands of our lives spent Hussein-ing the USSR's leadership and party - anytime before they became a competent nuclear power (sometime in the late 60s). Granted, we might have had to kill 1000 to 1 to accomplish this (as in Japan).
I suspect there's no escaping our sins of omission. The piper is always paid.Posted by Ari Tai at April 22, 2005 06:22 PM
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