Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How Useful Are You?

Most folks probably have seen the lifeboat logic exercise, where you imagine that you're on a sinking ship and you have to grab 10 things to bring in your lifeboat that will be most useful to your survival.

When I was in junior high school, my class did a twisted version that involved choosing people, rather than things. This was the scenario: A global nuclear war has just wiped out the human race, except for a few survivors who are crammed into a fallout shelter. There isn't enough food for all of them to survive until the radiation levels drop enough to venture outside, so you have to choose the 10 people who will be the most useful for building a new human society. Do you put a small child outside to die? A young adult with few useful skills? An elderly person who is in poor health but has many skills? A homosexual? Et cetera.

In hindsight, I suppose that exercise might have been intended to make the students think more critically about society's prejudiced views on the relative value of different types of people. But at the time, I took it very literally and thought the goal of the exercise was to develop logical criteria for deciding what kinds of people could be thrown away.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who took that line of thinking too seriously. Texas' euthanasia law (signed by George W. Bush when he was governor) allows hospitals to withhold life-sustaining treatment from severely disabled patients (often including newborn babies) as a cost-saving measure, over the objection of parents or guardians, if a medical committee certifies that the patient's condition is not expected to improve. Committees like that have become a popular way of passing the moral buck; it's today's equivalent of the "just following orders" defense of the Nuremberg trials. As blogged by Attila the Mom, a committee approved treating a six-year-old developmentally disabled girl with hormones to permanently stop her growth, so that she would be more easily manageable as she became older, as well as a hysterectomy so that her parents would not have to be bothered with the nuisance of her menstrual cycles. I guess the parents decided that if they couldn't have a "normal" daughter, they'd rather have a spayed and miniaturized pet. I'm giving the Dr. Mengele Award for Adventures in Medical Ethics to the doctors responsible for that atrocity.

What does it mean to say that a person is, or is not, useful to society? In the days when people lived in small communities of hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers, there might have been a reasonable survival-of-the-tribe argument to be made for measuring a person's usefulness in terms of how much food or other goods he or she could produce. Tribes that cared for their elderly and disabled members sometimes were at a disadvantage in their chances of group survival, compared to other tribes that abandoned the elderly and disabled in the wilderness.

Our modern world, however, is far too complex and far too wealthy for such primitive and simplistic calculations to hold true. There are billions of workers in the 21st century global economy, and very few of them are producing food or other goods essential to human survival. In fact, we have such a massive oversupply of food-producing capacity that the United States routinely pays subsidies to farmers who keep some of their land out of production, so that crop prices do not fall suddenly and put small farmers at risk of bankruptcy (that's the official reason, anyway, but it's really a political patronage deal with the agribusiness corporations).

One thing is for sure: When our greedy, conscience-impaired legislators allow doctors to kill disabled people to avoid spending public funds for their care (or, in some cases, insurance companies' money), nobody else's life is being saved—or even noticeably improved—by that decision. All that happens is that the insurance companies' CEOs get bigger bonuses and stock options, and the politicians end up with a bit more slop in the feeding trough for their cronies. (A reminder to my American readers: Make sure you vote today and throw the SOBs out.)

Today's economic system goes far beyond the simple necessities of survival. It's mainly about allocating large surpluses of unnecessary goods and services among a pampered population of spoiled brats who sit on their soft fat butts in their offices all day and whine about how deprived they are because the mortgage payments on their McMansion are so high that they can't afford a new behemoth SUV this year. Granted, not everyone is that lucky, but even the poorest folks in a modern industrialized society are unimaginably wealthy by the standards of our not-so-distant ancestors.

Ninety percent of the American economy now consists of services, rather than farming or manufacturing. In this environment, rapid changes in technology are allowing many people to hold jobs despite their previous lack of skills, while simultaneously making other people's jobs obsolete. For example, Temple Grandin's livestock management expertise is in much demand now, but as soon as we start mass-producing meat in factories (some researchers already have grown meat experimentally in the lab) her skills will be totally useless. So when we talk about a person being able to produce something of value to society, that's not a fixed benchmark based on innate ability; it's always relative to a particular time period and a particular set of technological tools.

Wealth is even less meaningful as an indicator of what a person contributes to society. How useful is a rich playboy who inherits a bloated trust fund and never works a day in his life? What about a person who becomes wealthy by selling weapons of mass destruction? Or by taking over corporations, stripping them of assets, and putting their workers out in the street? Or by producing rap songs that glorify violence and abuse of women?

I find it particularly ironic that many of those who advocate eugenics are ivory-tower intellectuals employed by public universities. They suck their salaries from the tax trough. They create nothing but hot air and hate. They've never produced any food, clothing, or anything of actual value. They don't know a combine from a corn silo. If you plonked them down in a log cabin somewhere, they'd starve within days. And if we really had to rebuild society after a nuclear war and were short on food, I'd boot their sorry asses out of the fallout shelter in a heartbeat. Hasta la vista, baby. We don't need you and your ugly ideas in our world.



  • And people who assisted each other regardless of disability probably had social advantages too. Assisting disabled people who would not otherwise survive has been documented as occurring since prehistoric times.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 2:10 PM  

  • Yes, I'm sure they did. Their main advantage probably would have been in the development of technology. Those who became disabled at an older age could share their wisdom with the younger members of the tribe. Those who were born with disabilities that prevented them from hunting and farming could spend their days studying the world around them and discovering how things worked.

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:57 PM  

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