“Tough” moral choices: Save the farmers or save the children?

A few years ago Harvard University launched an e-learning initiative in order to make the knowledge of Harvard accessible to a global audience. The most successful professor in this program has been philosophy professor Michael Sandel. His lectures, freely accessible over the Internet, have become enormously popular in Asia. He has appeared on television in Japan numerous times, and at a lecture series at Tokyo University there were scalpers selling tickets to get in.

In his lectures, Professor Sandel focuses on moral paradoxes, and he encourages students to comment and on dilemmas that cannot be solved according to rigid moral rules. For example, you are the driver of a runaway trolley car heading down a track toward a crew of five workers who are on the track. You can switch the trolley to another track where there is only one worker. In another scenario, you are on a bridge above the track watching helplessly as the train speeds toward the five workers. Beside you is a very large man leaning over the railing. You could push him over, making him land on the track and derail the trolley car. As in the first scenario, this would sacrifice one life to save five. In another scenario, a surgeon in an emergency room is faced with five patients who each have different organs failing. In the next room is a healthy patient who came in for a checkup. It occurs to the doctor that the healthy patient could be sacrificed. Five of his organs could be used to save five lives.

As Professor Sandel discusses these three scenarios, he lets students provide the answers and keeps his own views to himself. However, as he guides the discussion, it is obvious that he has led the audience to the realization that moral decisions have to be suited to the context rather than with strict adherence to rigid rules laid down before the unique circumstance was encountered. In the first scenario, most people say that the driver would be justified in choosing to kill one rather than five, but in the other two almost no one favors sacrificing one life to save five.

The curious thing about Professor Sandel’s work is that he is more famous in Asia than in America. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times noted in an article about Sandel “the hunger of young people [in Asia] to engage in moral reasoning and debates.” This appetite may exist in the young because the ruling generation has such a atrophied ability in these areas.

In one show that aired recently on Japan’s NHK, Professor Sandel led a panel in a discussion of the question of how the victims of the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi should be compensated. It turned out to be a rather shallow discussion of the obvious issues. Professor Sandel, the celebrity panelists and student participants from China, Japan and the USA were all able to hit on a few obvious ideas of where the money could come from. Students from China felt that the rich should voluntarily contribute to a fund. Others stated the obvious, that TEPCO (the utility) should pay, but it was quickly apparent that doing so would bankrupt the corporation several times over. So rates would have to increase, but is this fair? Perhaps everyone will have to pay through higher taxes. This was about as far as the discussion went.

No one really thought outside the box and asked whether any individual was criminally liable for action or inaction that led to the accident, or made it worse afterwards. No one discussed the role of insurance companies, or the idea that all electrical utilities in Japan could pool resources to compensate for accidents by a single utility. A stronger central government could get the heads of Japan’s top twenty corporations in one room and tell them there is going to be a one-time tax on their cash reserves to cover the enormous cost of this national tragedy. Or Japan could recognize that the disaster is too big for any single country to deal with, and also recognize that the global nuclear industry bears some responsibility. Japan, and the victims in a class action lawsuit, would be justified in making compensation claims outside Japan – regardless of whatever pre-existing deal there was to let General Electric off the hook for liability. Andrew Horvat researched the history of Japan’s entry into nuclear energy, and he describes how scientists were ignored while planners caved in to politics and trade pressure from the U.S. While there were better options such as heavy water reactors designed in Canada (natural rather than enriched uranium, low risk of meltdown), TEPCO went with the General Electric Mark 1 reactor, with its enriched uranium and faulty venting and containment systems that have been known about in the industry since the 1970s.

It is disappointing to see that Professor Sandel couldn’t have led the discussion toward these more provocative views. Here’s another moral dilemma for Professor Sandel to offer to the Japanese for discussion:

A major nuclear accident has just dumped a tremendous amount of nuclear fallout on 2,000 square kilometers of farmland, forest and urban areas (total size of Fukushima Prefecture: 13,000 square kilometers). The size of the area might be much larger, and the extent of the damage and the health effects will take a long time to determine with certainty. Scientific experts have wide disagreements about how dangerous the situation is. Estimates range from the most optimistic, which say countermeasures will cause more harm than the radiation, to the most pessimistic, which say that there will great human suffering and large health costs. There could be birth defects, immune diseases, developmental disorders, widespread increased morbidity (obesity, allergies, diabetes, hormonal disorders) and higher rates of cancer. Contamination in the food and water supply could spread the catastrophe to a much wider area.

If you are the government, you have to decide if it is better to save lives or to save livelihoods. Should you neglect the people in order to save the economy? It seems to be similar to the paradox of a counter-insurgency in which an army has to destroy a village in order to save it.

If the government chooses the precautionary principle this requires the admission that the whole region has to be abandoned. Evacuate everyone and get farmers to stop growing food for the market. Face the reality of the situation, and pay a big cost now in order to avoid the possibility of an enormous public health tragedy in the future.

An examination of government actions since March 2011 shows which way this question has been decided, and it also shows why the Japanese nation is in such desperate need of help from foreign experts in moral philosophy.
Since the nuclear catastrophe, government efforts have leaned heavily on throwing a lifeline to farmers and other economic interests in Fukushima prefecture. Professor Yukio Hayakawa is one of the few to renounce the notion that farmers are the victims that need to be supported by being allowed to sell contaminated food. School children have been fed local products in school lunches, often against their parents’ wishes, and food from Fukushima has been sold nationwide. It is true that much of the produce is not contaminated, but the government failed so badly in setting up an effective screening system that now the public rightfully mistrusts anything with the Fukushima label on it. The public also rightly suspects that because farmers were allowed to grow food, even when it is condemned at harvest it still exists. It is likely to flow into a black market of falsely labelled products. Food labeling scandals are a familiar part of the corrupt distribution system in Japan.

The government is also preparing to spend billions of dollars on decontamination and rehabilitation efforts that will most likely prove to be futile. Recently, people have found that areas that had been decontaminated are now recontaminated with fallout carried by the wind off of forested slopes. Cedar pollen next spring is expected to bring more. And huge amounts of spent nuclear fuel and melted cores are going to be unsecured for years to come. The situation has not been brought under control, no matter how the government decides to define “cold shutdown” in this case.

No relocation funds have been offered to families who want to leave with their children. The government is stuck in the same state of denial as the nuclear plant operators in the first days of the meltdowns. Within hours of losing backup power, it was obvious even to informed amateurs that full meltdowns would occur and the Daiichi site would never generate electricity again. Yet TEPCO management made the situation worse by refraining from emergency measures that would damage the reactors, even though their underlings could tell them they were already a lost cause. They were still under the delusion that the plant could be saved.

Seven months after the disaster, the national and prefectural governments are stuck in the same kind of denial about the destroyed regions of Fukushima. They still believe the contaminated areas can be saved, and they are willing to put citizens lives at risk to make this bet. Time may prove that everything I am saying here is wrong. Perhaps young children really can withstand 20-100 mSv of exposure annually, as well as high levels of internal radiation. Time will tell. But who would take the chance with his own child? There is enough evidence from sixty years of research on the question to suggest that these levels are much too dangerous. Even if an evacuation order proved in the future to have been unnecessary, one could never say that it was a mistake. It would be the wisest and most cautious decision made at the time with the information available. No shame. No regrets.

The population of Fukushima Prefecture is only 1.7% of the Japanese population, and there are some western parts of it are not contaminated. Compared to the enormous costs of reconstruction and decontamination being contemplated now, it would be cheaper and safer to close up every contaminated village and city (including the capital, Fukushima City, which, with numerous Chernobyl-level hot spots, is arguably uninhabitable for children and thus doomed to depopulation even if adults stay). 

If Japan can't handle this internal refugee problem, it can turn to G8 allies like Canada that already take in 250,000 immigrants and refugees annually. This is difficult to contemplate for a First World country like Japan, but completely feasible from an economic perspective when one considers the much larger cost of a hopeless attempt to save these communities. Recently, the government lifted an evacuation order on towns in the 20-30km zone around Fukushima Daiichi, but, as an article in The Economist reports, no one wants to return. They are stating the truth that the government cannot face up to. Even if it were safe to live in these places, the stigma and uncertainty attached to them has condemned them to a rapid decline.

This can be said not only of the small towns near the plant but of Fukushima City also. The residents of this city, representing 0.3% of the population of Japan, could easily be relocated. Let it be the world's second ghost city after Pripyat. Walk away from it and leave the buildings standing, like the dome in Hiroshima, as a museum and monument to the hazards of nuclear agewhich is, of course, precisely what the nuclear industry and its government backers do not want to create. In the future people may visit as tourists, or come to shoot dystopian science fiction movies, and they may marvel that fellow citizens ever contemplated letting the victims continue to live in their irradiated city. If we thought we couldn't afford to evacuate a small city like Fukushima, what would we do for Tokyo? These ruins could stand as a sobering reminder of what would follow a meltdown near a large city, or the atomic bombing of a modern metropolis. Remember that Fukushima was lucky – about 75% of the fallout went southeast over the Pacific.

Unfortunately, the judgment of Japanese leadership has failed. There is a powerful psychological denial in the face of a national trauma. The Japanese government is like an overly sentimental parent who can't consent to an amputation to save a child's life. But sentiment is not the only factor. In fact, the main influence on decisions may be cold-blooded calculation. Bankers don't want to write off mortgages, the Finance Ministry doesn't want to bail out bankers, and the bureaucracy is falling back on an old habit – turning the compensation effort into an engineering task and economic stimulus package of public works projects.

Thus it is the presence of Professor Sandel on Japanese television that makes me think that the cause of so many poor decisions is a truly diminished capacity for moral reasoning among the citizens who have put their heads in the sand, and the governing elite who cannot admit to the horrific costs of past mistakes nor see the best way forward. People seriously believe, and are being told by their government, that citizens of Osaka have a moral obligation to eat the food produced in Fukushima. Yes, it’s complicated, the ruin of farmland is one of the saddest aspects of the tragedy, but if you think it's a tough moral decision, your moral faculties need a workout. A person with intact moral capacity would quickly realize that the needs of the many take precedence over the needs of the few. The farmers can be compensated or given land elsewhere if there is truly a will to help them. It is a shame that the Japanese nation is not capable of imagining better solutions to this crisis.

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