Future of Humanity Research Fellow Owen Cotton-Barratt, Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University and Nicholas G. Evans from the University of Pennsylvania have published a new paper; “Underprotection of Unpredictable Statistical Lives Compared to Predictable Ones.”

The paper argues that society may under-invest in protecting lives from large but low-probability catastrophes, relative to smaller but more frequent occurrences. It explores the reasons why society is likely to take more care of lives that are threatened by multiple small and independent events, than threatened by single low-likelihood catastrophes.

It suggests that reasons for this include the statistical challenge of estimating low probabilities, and the existence of rational incentives to treat small probability risks as if the probabilities were even lower than they are. It argues that there is no ethical reason to give less care to these lives. It concludes that underprotection of these lives is a form of market failure that may need to be corrected by altering regulation or other social policies.

The paper’s abstract reads:

“Existing ethical discussion considers the differences in care for identified versus statistical lives. However, there has been little attention to the different degrees of care that are taken for different kinds of statistical lives. Here we argue that for a given number of statistical lives at stake, there will sometimes be different, and usually greater, care taken to protect predictable statistical lives, in which the number of lives that will be lost can be predicted fairly accurately, than for unpredictable statistical lives, where the lives are at stake because of a low-probability event, such that most likely no one will be affected by the decision but with low probability some lives will be at stake. One reason for this difference is the statistical challenge of estimating low probabilities, and in particular the tendency of common approaches to underestimate these probabilities. Another is the existence of rational incentives to treat unpredictable risks as if the probabilities were lower than they are. Some of these factors apply outside the pure economic context, to institutions, individuals, and governments. We argue that there is no ethical reason to treat unpredictable statistical lives differently from predictable statistical lives. Moreover, lives that are unpredictable from the perspective of an individual agent may become predictable when aggregated to the level of a societal decision. Underprotection of unpredictable statistical lives is a form of market failure insurance, or other social policies.”

The paper was first published on the 9 July 2016 by Risk Analysis. Further information can be accessed here.  

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