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Session I: The Problem in Context

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Published on May 1, 2012

7th Annual Program in Ethics and Health Conference: Identified vs. Statistical Lives - Ethics and Public Policy

Session Chair: Norman Daniels, Ph.D.
Mary B. Saltonstall Professor and Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard School of Public Health

Susan Dentzer, M.A. (hon) Editor-in-Chief, Health Affairs

Thomas C. Schelling, Ph.D.
Distinguished University Professor, Department of Economics, University of Maryland

David Cutler, Ph.D.
Otto Eckstein Professor of Applied Economics, Department of Economics, and Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Dan W. Brock, Ph.D.
Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics, Harvard Medical School

This conference focuses on how decision makers and the public tend to feel more strongly obligated to assist "identified" people at risk than to assist "statistical" ones, and the implications for public policy. To illustrate, when a group of Chilean miners were stranded following a 2010 mine accident, the rescue mission garnered worldwide support and millions of dollars, but the public had not felt a similar need to invest in mine safety measures that would have saved more statistical lives. What factors trigger or explain this difference in attitude and behavior? How is it manifested when we think about global health problems, such as treatment and prevention (and "treatment as prevention") for HIV/AIDS? Does the law express such bias? Is there any ethical justification for this bias, for example, as a matter of obligation toward each and every individual? Is it, alternatively, a moral error, rooted in well-known cognitive biases?

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