When I heard that several top AIDS researchers were aboard the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down, it struck me as especially tragic. Whether or not this was the most compassionate response, I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in thinking this: It’s impossible to quantify what cures they might have discovered had fate (and Russian-backed separatists) not intervened, prematurely ending their lives and work.
This also got me thinking about an even larger point. While one airplane full of passengers obviously does not serve as a microcosm for the world, if the loss of several top AIDS researchers might have larger implications, then it’s also possible that any life cut short could also shortchange society, depriving us of…who knows?
It is common for writers and philosophy majors to — over a well-lubricated dinner, or perhaps when sitting around the dorm room — imagine an alternative history, where, for example, Adolf Hitler was killed during World War I, saving the world from the rise of Nazism, the holocaust, and the destruction of World War II.
It’s less common to imagine what positive things might have happened had a life been spared.
This is the kind of hypothetical pondering that could drive one mad if he’s not careful. Lest you think I’m suggesting that the lives of brilliant researchers are somehow more precious than others, there is a six degrees of separation aspect to this, as well. (For example, what if a person who dies tragically today wasn’t destined to invent a great cure for disease, but would have, instead, been the police officer who saved the life of a great inventor twenty-five years from now?)
Without going too far down this rabbit hole, suffice it to say that, pace Malthus, more people equals more ideas and more innovation. It’s impossible to know how many brilliant cures, ideas, inventions, or works of art have been prematurely snuffed out by disease, abortion, war, crime…you name it.
It may be that the person who would have cured cancer was never given the chance. The loss of life is personally tragic enough. But sometimes, there is a multiplier effect for society.