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Air bags save approximately two dozen lives for each one lost. This seems to be an eloquent testimonial to the air bag mandate, but on further scrutiny a basic moral dilemma appears. Air bag fatalities do not occur randomly, but instead are concentrated among the young, the old, the frail, and short drivers. The air bag mandate turns out to be not simply a law that produces safety benefits tempered by some occasional harms. Instead, it is a law that knowingly enhances the safety of one identifiable group of citizens at the expense of another. It literally redistributes life expectancy between these two classes.
For this reason, arguments against the air bag mandate go beyond the criticisms that are frequently levelled at laws that seek to protect people “for their own good”. Often, these latter criticisms are themselves quite substantial, but in the case of the air bag mandate we find that it uniquely contravenes some basic moral principles — principles that address the acceptability of forced trade-offs across persons and that govern the relationship between a liberal government and its citizens.
The most fundamental ethical principle deals with the uniqueness and dignity of each person. This is expressed in such well-accepted ideas as the Hippocratic Oath’s insistence on “First, do no harm,” and Immanuel Kant’s dictum that individuals be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as mere means by which others can accomplish their own goals. This idea finds its expression in a host of laws aimed at protecting people from each other and from government. But the air bag mandate, in knowingly advancing the life prospects of one group of citizens at the expense of another, violates this most fundamental moral precept.
The mandate cannot be justified on the ground that it saves more lives than it kills, because balancing life against life is odious. Nor can it be justified with the claim that very few social policies produce only winners and no losers. It is usually impossible to predict in advance just who such losers will be, but in the case of the air bag mandate those who will be placed in jeopardy are readily identifiable. No one will argue that being an infant or aged or frail person is a ground for having burdens thrust on one in order to render better off those who are none of these. If anything, the reverse is true: the particularly vulnerable should receive extra protections, not fewer.
The air bag mandate has generally been discussed as an issue of public health. In assessing it we need to remember that morality does indeed matter, and it is simply unacceptable to save lives by knowingly forfeiting others, especially when those others are the weakest and most vulnerable among us.