Starting with the Sewol accident a year ago, there have been many accidents that have occurred in Korea in the past year.
For one thing, there have been a couple of subway accidents. There was also an accident in a K-pop concert where sixteen people lost their lives. There were also a string of accidents at Hyundai in the past year. And of course, there has been the seemingly increasing number of sinkholes around Lotte Tower. Of course, there are many more examples that I could not list all of them here.
With each new accident reported in the news, there is plenty of hand-wringing in the news media. For instance, this op-ed from The Korea Times claimed “incompetence, irresponsibility and a lack of safety awareness” can be blamed for the Sewol accident. The earlier article about the subway accidents blamed outsourcing of safety inspections.
I am sure that those same culprits can be blamed for almost every other accident that occurs in Korea.
There are a lot more examples of hand-wringing that can be found on social media where the chastising is more sarcastic.
Of course, corporations have been blamed for the accidents, also. Specifically, many people have blamed businesses’ “ppali ppali culture” as well as “businesses that put money and profits ahead of human lives and safety.”
However, what none of these moirologists ever specifies is how much fewer accidents there have to be for them to be satisfied. Must the number of accidents be halved, or at least reduced by a third? How much should businesses spend on safety precautions before they are satisfied that businesses are not putting profits ahead of people? Or will they not be satisfied until there isn’t a single accident that ever occurs anywhere within Korea’s borders, including its maritime borders?
More importantly, do people truly believe that Koreans really lack safety awareness? If they do truly believe that, then I have to wonder just how arrogant and self-righteous one has to be to actually think that to be true.
It is true that we do not often think of our own mortality. Can you imagine if each person in the world actually spent a significant amount of time thinking about their own inevitable ends each day?
So we choose to put the Grim Reaper at the back of our minds and until that fateful day comes, we continue to choose to live because we must. And while we live, we have to make choices. And sometimes, those choices come down to choosing between safety and convenience.
Despite all the moralizing and hand-wringing that people take part in, the fact of the matter is that safety does not always trump convenience. If it did, no one would ever do anything. Jaywalking, eating food sold by a street vendor, climbing a mountain, swimming in a lake, getting inside a taxi cab – each of those things carries certain amounts of risk.
At every waking moment, each of us has to make trade-offs. Do we sacrifice some safety to get more convenience, or do we sacrifice some convenience to get more safety?
However, those are private choices that each of us has to make for our own selves. And no one should presume that their preferred balance between safety and convenience is or ought to be the preferred balance for everyone else.
But what about those children who died on that ferry? They didn’t choose to put their lives in danger. There was no trade-off between safety and convenience. They implicitly trusted that the ferry they boarded was going to be safe. The ship’s captain, some of the crew, Chonghaejin Marine Company, and the coast guard failed them all.
That is, indeed, true. When it comes to third-parties who suffer from the choices that others have made for them, there is no satisfying answer. There is no “gotcha” argument or a clever turn of phrase that people can give that will satisfy everyone. The best that we can say is that better decision-making ought to be practiced and incentivized.
However, we must never kid ourselves and delude ourselves into believing that human life is somehow priceless. The truth of the matter is that no human life is worth an infinite value. Life is all about trade-offs. And at the end of the day, we have to decide how much money, how much comfort, or how much anything we are willing to sacrifice to save one additional life.
For example, if there were a way to make sure that no ferry would ever sink again, but it would cost a billion dollars to do it, would anyone actually spend a billion dollars on each ferry to ensure such an outcome? No, no one would do such a thing. Such a decision would soak up resources that are needed for other things.
If not a billion dollars, then how about a hundred thousand dollars? Or a thousand dollars? No one can answer this question and say that it ought to be the same answer that everyone else ought to give.
Contemptible as it may be, economic factors have to be taken into account and we must remember that economic factors set a limit on what is feasible to do. It is easy to say that no amount of money should ever be valued more than the life of another human being. It sounds nice, but, like most rhetoric, it is empty of thought. Moral intuitions, even the most well-intended kinds, can lead people astray; and it is absolutely necessary to subject moral judgments to a reality check.