How many Dalits equal one Hindu?
What do you do when there aren't enough beds or ventilators in the hospital and you have to decide whose life isn't worth saving?
A train is going full speed down a railway line. A kilometre or so down, an elderly Hindu Brahmin is stuck on the tracks after falling down and snagging his dhoti on a rivet. He lies there helpless and unable to move as the train barrels towards him. As luck would have it, you are standing not very far away, next to a turnout where a second railway track branches away. If you pulled the lever, the oncoming train would be diverted to the second track and the Hindu Brahmin would be saved.
Right then, you notice that four jobless migrant workers are sitting smoking cigarettes on the second track. They would certainly be run over by the train if you were to divert it.
What would you do? Sacrifice one life to save four others? Or sacrifice four 'bums' to save one Brahmin? Whether you act or do nothing, there's going to be death.
The question's original version, famous as the 'trolley problem', was asked by moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson, who was exploring the ethics of sacrificing one person to save many. Google's software engineers thought about the trolley problem a lot while designing their driverless car. They had to figure out how to programme the car to make a choice between two inevitable, unavoidable accidents, both involving loss of life. For instance, if the car swerved to avoid an old lady crossing the road, it would run over two young beggars.
What should the driverless car do, forced to use its algorithm to decide whose life has greater value, a senior citizen whose days are nearly over but whose grandchildren adore her or two two pavement-dwelling beggars who contribute nothing to society — but who could perhaps be reformed into productive citizens?
If you had been driving that car (and had not been Salman Khan) what would you have done?
As I grow older, it seems to me that one of our leading hypocrisies is claiming to believe that all humans are created equal. You're shaking your head but perhaps you're protesting too much. Take that Jharkhand housemaid who sweeps your floor and does your dishes. This evening, could she be your guest for dinner, sitting at the same table with your family and being served by you? Even she might recoil at the thought. It has been deeply ingrained into her that she is less than you. But if, horrors, that were actually true, then how many housemaids do you think would equal one memsahib?
Would a Bengali consider a Jat security guard as equal to a revered Bengali poet? How many Bihari construction workers would an Iyer consider the equivalent of a single god-moulded Tamizhan? If your plane would go down unless a single passenger were jettisoned, how would you decide whose life mattered least?
These sound like silly questions but human history is full of these calculations, done secretly, in the shadows.
Around 1808, American lawmakers concluded after days of debate that one black would be counted as three-fifths of a white. The higher a state's population the more representatives it was allowed to have in the House of Representatives. White slave owners wanted their slaves to be counted so that they could show a larger population — but how could a non-voting, lowly black slave be counted as a complete human being, equal to his owner? The three-fifths compromise said that five slaves equalled three slave-owners.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought front and centre the question of whose lives are not worth saving when hospitals struggle with limited capacity in beds and ICUs but demand is surging exponentially. A certain number will not get their beds or ventilators and go home to die gasping. But who should be turned away?
The young, thought more likely to survive?
The elderly, whom our culture says should be respected?
Those without underlying conditions?
Should Hindus get automatic preference over Muslims?
Is an Ambani worth saving more than his sweeper?
The most egregious example of overvaluing some lives over others came from Bill Clinton's government during the genocide in Rwanda. America had looked the other way throughout, choosing to distract the world with air-filled discussions about how many deaths exactly constituted a genocide. But finally, with 2,000 Rwandan refugees dying daily from hunger and cholera, 4,000 US troops were dispatched — only for humanitarian purposes, it was quickly clarified, not for peacekeeping or confronting killers.
Romeo Dallaire, the valiant Canadian major general who commanded UN peacekeepers, received a call from an unknown American official in Washington. At the Pentagon, Dallaire was told, they had finished their ethnographic calculations and reached an accurate estimate of the value of American life.
"An individual American soldier," the official said, "is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead. Make sure not even one of our boys
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at email@example.com
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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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