Cutting in Line.

With the recent hullabaloo about immigration into America, I have been thinking about the value that I assign to other people whom I will never meet. I am trying to figure out what my life is worth to me in comparison to theirs. This is one situation I’ve been thinking about:

Someone has taken the entire world’s population hostage. Everyone except for me is made to kneel down in a straight line. The order is completely random. The hostage taker says I can kneel down anywhere in the line. I can kneel at the beginning and be the first to die, at the end and be the last to die, or anywhere in between and the killing will stop when I am executed. Where do I kneel?

What if the scenario were a bit more complex.

There’s no longer a line or a hostage taker. I’m standing in a group of everyone I’ve ever encountered in my entire life. I’ve lived quite a few places and in a good sized city, but I don’t know how many that would be. Let’s say I’ve interacted with 50,000 people. So we’re standing in a group talking about the like button not working on my Facebook page with a burgundy rope barrier around us forming a circle. Meanwhile, everyone in the world that I haven’t had the chance to interact with is standing around outside the fence. Every once in a while, people leave the circle or come in to it. This is life as we’ve known it for oh so long, then it changes dramatically.

There’s an explosion somewhere far outside the circle that kills 10,000 people. The blast sprays a bit of blood and debris into the circle and a few of the folks on the inside get wet. I don’t know the cause of the explosion. I’ve heard people say it was a serious disagreement between a bunch of outsiders. I’ve heard other people say it was someone who just wanted to hurt people. I’ve even been told by a handful of people that the explosion didn’t actually happen (they’re wrong). Whatever the cause, people on the outside start panicking and run for a opening in our nice red rope barrier, but I clasp the little hook at the end of the rope onto a loop on one of the metal poles and close the gap just in time. No one got in. Whew!

But there they stand, crying and begging. They’re scared for their lives.

They don’t want to be outside of my rope circle because it’s more dangerous. I don’t know who caused the explosion, so what if I let the killer in? There are so many people out there, the circle won’t fit them all. Everyone on both sides of the luxuriously soft rope looks to me and asks me to make the decision. What do I do?

This is a bit more complex, for sure. What do I have to consider?

  • There is already a risk that someone inside my circle will be hurt or killed by someone the killer inspired.
  • If I let people from the outside area enter my circle, that risk goes up because I could let a killer in.
  • The more people I let in, the more that risk rises.
  • If I don’t let anyone in the circle, they’re all out there with one or more killers.
  • If it is a disagreement between two groups, it may escalate and kill more innocent people.
  • If it is someone who just wants to hurt others, same story and even more people could die.
  • If a lot more people die, who knows what kinds of unique things our little roped off world loses? Art, knowledge, wisdom?


The most important question in my mind is: Are the lives of the people on the inside of my circle worth more than the lives of those on the outside?


That’s it, the real meat and potatoes of my thought experiment. What follows is all extra. Continue if you wish. If you’re going to keep reading, know that I’m just adding tidbits and questions to the scenario to make help provoke thought.

Let’s say that I let 20,000 people into the circle, then 700 people who were already inside are hurt or killed. We catch the guy who did it. Turns out he didn’t like the red of our rope. He’s not on the lose anymore, though. Do I let more people in? Have I helped enough?

What if a second explosion goes off outside our rope circle killing 100,000 outsiders. People want into the circle more than ever. Their children are dying. Their parents and cousins and sisters are dying. What do I say now?

What I want to ask you is: How many non-American lives are worth one American life? How much risk are you willing to take on behalf of your fellow human being for a chance to save lives or even entire cultures? Do we have a duty to assist foreigners as regular citizens, outside of the allotted federal aid budget (military and non)?

It all leads to infinitely more questions. At what point is it reasonable to actually stop helping people we may never know? Will we close our borders when something is conveniently wiping out the citizens of countries we don’t get along with? Should someone be working on a way to estimate the increase in risk to American lives per immigrant from a specific location? Is our military the only tool we have to assist in global crisis that we deem worthy of our intervention?

I don’t know most of the answers because I’m still thinking about these things. I know that I don’t want to see our soldiers treated as poorly as they are because we couldn’t think of another way to lend a hand. I know that non-American lives are worth more than nothing and that I don’t want to see anyone’s culture disappear. Lastly, I know that everyone assigns the value of their choice to their own and to other people’s lives and it’s something we should be discuss more often.

What do you think about all this?

What do you know?

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