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Preparation, Response, Numbers and Fairness

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Philosophers love emergencies. We excel in more or less morbid thought experiments involving burning buildings, sinking ships, and people trapped in caves. Not to mention runaway trolleys careering down imaginary tracks towards innocent victims. And environmental ethicists ponder the state of the world after an apocalypse with only one person surviving (Sylvan 2009).

Some commentators deride this ‘casuistry of emergencies’ (Wiggins 1987); others engage in it explicitly and unhesitatingly (Bedau 1997). At the same time, in the wake of a number of terrifying events during the last decade or so – among them 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia and the recent Haitian earthquake – we have seen a huge increase in interest from governments and the public alike in disaster preparation and management.

Given this, it is somewhat surprising that there are not more books entitled ‘Ethics for Disaster’ or something to that effect. Naomi Zack's (2009) work is a therefore most welcome and timely contribution.

Timely as it is, it should also be considered pioneering work, and this means that there still is a lot of philosophical work waiting to be done. The topic is also very broad. Therefore, there are parts of the book in which Zack is more pointing out directions rather than thoroughly examining existing and possible positions on the ethics of disasters and what they might imply.

In this paper, I will begin this task by offering some critical comments on Zack's arguments in her book. In particular, my discussion will be focused on Zack's criticism of the principle of Saving the Greatest Number (SGN). I will argue that her critique is misguided and that the alternative she proposes is fraught with severe difficulties of its own. Zack begins her discussion by carefully distinguishing between planning for preparation and planning for response. (She furthermore notes the distinction between planning in preparation and planning in response – no less important.) Her main point in doing this is that once we are in a disaster, things that would be deemed unacceptable if proper planning had occurred suddenly appear to be acceptable.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2011

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