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The Titan Submersible and the Rule of Rescue
A lesson on the limit of cost-benefit
This week the United States has fixated on the story of a missing submersible. For those that have been living under a rock, here are the basic facts. A company named OpenGate Expeditions operates a small submersible named the Titan that takes tourists down to the site of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. For $250,000, you can spend over two hours in a tiny tube dropping down to the sea floor, see the Titanic, and then spend a few hours rising to the surface. On Sunday, June 18, contact was lost with the Titan as it dove toward the Titanic wreck. In the days after, rescue vessels from several countries tried to locate the vessel before it ran out of oxygen.
There were three likely scenarios as to what happened to the Titan. The first was that it malfunctioned and sank to the seafloor, which would prompt a difficult rescue mission. The second was that it successfully rose to the surface, but had a communications malfunction and is currently bobbing somewhere in the ocean. The third is that a catastrophic accident occurred and the submersible imploded, instantly killing all those aboard. As the Titan can only be opened from the outside, if either of the first two scenarios occurred the submersible would have run out of oxygen after four days. It now appears that the third scenario happened, as the US Navy picked up an underwater explosion the day contact was lost and debris has been found on the sea floor.
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There’s been a lot of debate over how to view this accident. The creator of the Titan openly said he disdained regulation and safety standards. A CBS reporter who rode in the Titan noted the waiver declares the vessel is experimental and traveling in it may result in death. It was steered by a video game controller. I generally align with the Reason Foundation’s take, that those that are willing to take risks should be allowed to do as long as they are properly informed. That said, the taxpayer shouldn’t be on the hook for an expensive rescue mission.
This final issue is generating a mild amount of controversy. Why are governments spending millions of dollars to try to save a group of people that willingly put themselves in harm’s way? This tweet makes the point directly:
The parallel here is clear. Thousands of poor refugees migrating from Africa to Europe die every year in the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds probably perished in just one accident this week. Why are governments spending millions to save the submersible instead of on a program to more closely monitor migrant routes and prevent ships from sinking? While it's easy to create a class or race-based narrative here, one has to take into account the rule of rescue.
The rule of rescue is “the human impulse to rescue an identifiable person facing imminent threat, regardless of associated costs.” Specific lives in immediate peril will always be prioritized over hypothetical lives, no matter the price tag. Consider the following examples. The Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) estimates that for every $3,500 they spend, they save one life. That is an astonishingly low price to pay to save a life. It makes sense; malaria is a horrible disease and mosquito bed nets aren’t that expensive. The catch, however, is that no one knows whose lives are being saved. The AMF distributes thousands of bed nets each year. The vast majority of those nets do not save a life; it is unlikely that any one individual dies of malaria. A few of the nets do save lives, making the nets very cost-effective. There’s just no way to tell which person would have been infected with malaria absent the nets and who would have been fine regardless.
Compare that to the Thai children who were stuck in a cave in 2018. It is estimated that 10,000 people took part in their rescue. One former Thai Navy SEAL died during the rescue operation, and another died from an infection contracted during the rescue. The world’s eyes were fixated on this one cave, and to my amazement, everyone was saved. The whole event undoubtedly cost thousands upon thousands of dollars.
Could that money have been spent more efficiently? From a cost-benefit perspective, absolutely. But we don’t live in a utilitarian society where everything comes down to cost-benefit. We also take into account morals and values. If a child is stuck in a collapsed well, and an excavation company says they can “probably” get the child out, but it will cost $35,000, that child should be rescued, no questions asked. It would be downright evil to tell a parent, “To try to save your kid it’s going to cost $35,000, and the company can’t even guarantee it will be successful. So instead of attempting to go into the well, we are going to donate $35,000 to AMF because it will save 10 lives by buying bed nets rather than just your child. Sorry!” Extend this logic even further, and every disease fighting foundation in the Western world should also shutter their doors. No cancer research center comes even close to saving a life for $3,500. Only considering cost-benefit soon makes for callous outcomes.
One can argue that a child in a well is different from the Titan submersible, and I agree. What individuals do to put themselves in danger should be one factor among many when deciding to allocate scarce resources (risk to the rescuers themselves is another). But the fact remains that the rule of rescue holds for both. The world is gripped by stories of trapped Chilean miners and children who fall into wells. It may not be the most efficient use of money, but we also have a moral imperative to save those in immediate peril.