If it saves even one life

The Guardian report that Volvo are planning to cap the top speed of their vehicles across the range to 112 mph. I don’t drive a Volvo, but I presume my car, like most cars, can probably hit 150 mph or so. I presume because I’ve never tried. In fact, I find it bemusing that we sell cars with such a top speed. I’ve never driven at 112 mph, so what business I’ve got hitting 150 mph is anybody’s guess. If I were to buy a Volvo, a cap of 112 mph really wouldn’t affect my driving habits in any way whatsoever.

But it was the reasoning behind the move that interested me:

Speeding remained one of the main contributors to road deaths, Volvo said, along with drug and drink intoxication and mobile phone use.

Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo’s president and chief executive, said: “While a speed limitation is not a cure-all, it’s worth doing if we can even save one life. We want to start a conversation about whether carmakers have the right or maybe even an obligation to install technology in cars that changes their driver’s behaviour.”

The Guardian

Now, leaving aside the question of whether capping top speeds to 112 mph will have any effect on driver behaviour, it was the following statement that caught my attention: it’s worth doing if we can even save one life.

I have heard that reasoning in a dozen different scenarios and my reaction is always the same. Is it really worth it if it saves one life? I mean, I could think of hundreds of ways we could save more lives than we do. For example, remove all electrical items and turn off all electrical power to every home in the country. No more home electrocutions. Or drain every reservoir, stream, river and lake in the country so as to avoid drowning. Bound to save some lives that way. In fact, Volvo could go the whole hog and stop producing cars altogether – no danger of death then.

But, of course, in all those scenarios we (rightly) push back that it simply isn’t practicable. Even if the measures would save one life, there are limitations that we do not think are worth doing for the sake of one. There are risks we are prepared to run because the benefit/danger ratio is wide enough that it makes the risk entirely worth taking. The chances of death are slim and the benefits vast enough to make it worth our while risking any potential danger in order to enjoy the benefit. That is why we do, indeed, still have cars on the road, electricity in houses, running water piped into our homes and all the rest. All these things carry some risk but the benefits vastly outstrip them and the chances of those risks coming to pass are small enough to make them worth taking.

But this is the go-to argument of any restriction these days. Isn’t it worth it to save even one life? Well, to be honest, often the answer to that question is quite evidently, ‘no it isn’t!’ What is so irritating about it as an argument is that it isn’t really an argument at all. It is more an a priori assertion. This will save a life and thus it is worth it. Worse, it then casts anyone who demurs as a lover of death and one who is happy to see people killed for the sake of mere convenience or personal pleasure. You are no longer the voice of what is practicable but one cheering on death and destruction.

This is what is so toxic surrounding any discussion on sexuality and transgender issues. The argument is always advanced in terms of increasing awareness, reducing bullying and saving lives. Any who demur – regardless of how well reasoned their arguments or serious their concerns about unintended consequences – are simply cast as those advocating bullying, who are glad to induce mental disorders and who are as good as egging on those who would commit suicide. You are either on the side of love and tolerance or you’re a bigot who wants people to kill themselves.

‘If it saves even one life, shouldn’t we support this sort of thing?’ the argument goes. Except that it takes no account whatsoever that the solutions proposed don’t necessary deal with other root problems that may similarly lead to death. Nor does it take any account of the problems other than death the proposed solutions may carry. In the bid to save one life, this reasoning does nothing to account for the impact on the thousands of other lives that will be affected by the proposal. Something may save one life, but that one isn’t the only life hanging in the balance or affected by these things. Equally, it may save that life for now but induce other problems that, once again, put that life back in jeopardy.

But what about this line of reasoning in the church? If it saves just one life, has it all been worth it? Many would tell you, ‘yes.’ If only we grasped the value of a soul, they aver, we would see that ploughing on with an utterly fruitless form of evangelism for decades was certainly worth it because, through it, one guy became a Christian. Even though it appears that outreach activity did, indeed, only save one life that has deemed the thousands of man-hours and money pumped in hand over fist entirely worthwhile.

How can one argue against that? To suggest that wasn’t worth it is to say that you don’t think that one person rightly belongs to the kingdom. You would rather have pulled the plug and not seen that person saved. You don’t weigh the value of a soul properly. You can’t have sung ‘O teach me what it meaneth’ and meanteth it.

But what if those thousands of pounds and years worth of man-hours could have been put to better use? What if, instead of pressing on in the same old fruitless forms of evangelism that saw one soul saved, you might have done something else that would have seen two, three, half a dozen or more people saved? In fact, what if pressing on the same old fruitless evangelism that saw one soul saved, actively impeded the incoming of dozens of other people?

Sometimes things simply aren’t worth it. Sometimes we have to ask whether the impediment is practicable and whether the other issues it might cause really are worth it. Even if something we are choosing to do might see one soul saved, we have to ask hard questions about whether it is the best use of the time, energy and resources the Lord has given us to steward. Even if we might save one life, we have to ask seriously whether we might save an even greater number another way.