Immorality of the Airbag Mandate

While the air bag issue occupies the full-time attention of dozens of technocrats, its ethical aspects have largely been ignored. At CEI's request, Bowling Green Professor of Philosophy Loren Lomasky undertook an examination of this question. Below is a summary of his paper, Sudden Impact: The Collision Between The Air Bag Mandate And Ethics, which Lomasky presented at a March 10 press conference.

Air bags save on the order of 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 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 of "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 presents itself 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 — the claim, for example, that mandatory vaccination programs inevitably hurt some small number of people due to side effects.

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, aged or frail is grounds for having burdens thrust on one in order to render better off those who aren't young, old or frail. If anything, the reverse is true: the particularly vulnerable should receive extra protections, not fewer.

One argument raised by the government is that children should not be in the front seat at all. The implication is children are not so much victims of air bags as they are of parental malfeasance. While this point is well-taken to an extent, it hardly gets the regulators off the moral hook.

First, it does not address the issue of other vulnerable populations such as short drivers and the elderly. Second, it sometimes is impossible or impracticable to place all children in the back seat. And third, it is in tension with a regulatory structure that is predicated on the assumption that individuals are not competent enough to make their own choices.

The air bag mandate has generally been discussed as an issue of public health. In fact, however, in assessing it we need to remember that morality does indeed matter, and it is simply unacceptable to save lives by forfeiting others, especially when those people are the weakest and most vulnerable among us.

For more information, contact Greg Smith at (202) 331-1010 or at [email protected].