There’s an awful lot going on in southwestern Manitoba right now. The spring flood is the worst in centuries, and the government made a very interesting decision this week. They decided to break a strategic hole in a dike to let flood waters through, relieving water pressure on the land upstream from the breach. This would inevitably flood hundreds of homes, but would save thousands more from flooding, if it worked.
Leaving aside the fact that since this whole scenario is unprecedented, they had at best an educated guess on where the water would go once the dike was breached, it must have been a terribly difficult decision to make. It is a slightly watered down (pun intended) version of the classic runaway train problem in ethics. Imagine a train is rushing out of control down a mountain, heading straight for a group of people. Imagine, you could save them by throwing a switch, but to do so would be to send the train hurtling toward an individual person. What do you do? Do you sacrifice one to save many?
In a classic utilitarian decision, the government decided to flood a few to save many. At first blush, it seems as good a way as any to make a tough decision from which someone will always be screwed. Sucks for those who get wet, but they will be compensated, so it all works out in the end.
But a calculation of the greatest good for the greatest number is not always the best option. Philosophers and ethicists call these consequentialist arguments because the “right” answer depends on the consequences – the ultimate cost versus benefit when all eventualities are factored in. We can say it’s right if the overall good outweighs the harm. The problem with a consequentialist argument is that is is all but impossible to identify, let alone weigh, the possible consequences.
The decision-makers needed to consider the livelihoods lost, and the potential of flood-related deaths, should homeowners decide to stay and protect their homes. What if the water washes pollution and chemicals across the land, making it unusable for agriculture? What of the cost to individual people and families in lost wages, stress- and flood-related injuries? What if the water rises quickly enough that the sandbag dikes around the houses in the flood zone fail? The cost of repairing the houses is part of it, but finding homes for families, pets and livestock, filling in gaps left should local businesses fail, all need to be considered when calculating “costs”. Not all are monetary.
Even if we could identify all of the possible consequences, how to weigh those consequences will always be a point of contention, because losses can be terribly intangible, and certainly difficult to quantify. To complete an authentic cost-benefit analysis, the costs must be calculable. The cost of drywall or lost wages is; the loss of a treasured photograph or pet is not.
And if we are willing to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, how do those who are being sacrificed come to terms with the fact that they were simply a means to an end? I’m not sure it would make me feel any better to know that the 8 feet of water in my basement helped others stay dry. Call me selfish, but it would be a bitter pill to swallow. Even if we could calculate that cost as outweighed by the relief and gratitude of those saved, it would be tempered by the survivor’s guilt from those upstream, I expect.
So if we can’t use the “greatest good for the greatest number” argument, how can we make tough decisions? Do we simply fulfill certain duties (like the duty to protect all people from flood waters at any cost)? Maybe the answer was to sandbag everything and just let nature take its course. It is so much less stressful to make a decision based on an educated guess than a hope and a prayer. At least then they could say, “Well, we did our jobs. We fulfilled our obligations. Sorry!”
The problem with these issues is that there is no good answer. No matter what choice is made, someone will be unhappy. The government used a utilitarian calculation to make their decision because their currency is votes, and while they will likely lose the votes of those downstream, the many protected would result in a net gain.
They were, of course, hoping the flood would be controllable, and that the water would not inundate homes in its path. That remains to be seen. If they have done the math right, they will maintain control and the downstream buildings will remain dry. If not, they will have a hell of a mess on their hands. Regardless of the outcome, there will have to be a post-mortem to identify the lessons learned.
I’m not saying I disagree with the breach, in fact my gut tells me it was probably the right thing to do. That doesn’t make it any more palatable though. I’m pretty sure there is not enough money in the world to make me want those jobs this week.