Friday, June 22, 2012

The Question

I attended a Roman Catholic (Benedictine, to be precise) high school, and like every other person who has ever come within ten miles of such a place, eventually found myself in the middle of the age old debate over what has come to be called Heinz's dilemma, presented here in the variation that Lawrence Kohlberg uses:

Heinz's wife was near death, and her only hope was a drug that had been discovered by a pharmacist who was selling it for an exorbitant price. The drug cost $20,000 to make, and the pharmacist was selling it for $200,000. Heinz could only raise $50,000 and insurance wouldn't make up the difference. He offered what he had to the pharmacist, and when his offer was rejected, Heinz said he would pay the rest later. Still the pharmacist refused. In desperation, Heinz considered stealing the drug. Would it be wrong for him to do that?
Now, in a lot of ways the answer that you come up with is immaterial - there are arguments for either answer to the question. And when you add religion into the mix, things can really get out of hand, especially when people start looking for ways to prove their piety.

But as I've grown older, it occurs to me that there is a different way to look at the dilemma. At the base of the dilemma is a simple question: "When does a need for something become a right to that thing?" Although it's a simple question on its face it lacks a simple answer. Additionally, unless the answer is either "always" or "never," the answer stands a very good chance of not scaling well. Which can be problematic, given that the modern welfare state is built upon ideas of how to answer this question.

However, it can be helpful to boil the question down, as it removes some of the "superfluous" elements of the dilemma. Indeed, part of many people's reasoning that Heinz would be justified in stealing the drug is that in steadfastly demanding a 900% markup, cash up front, the pharmacist comes across as a greedy prick who's willing to watch a woman die through a simple unwillingness to either settle for a whopping 60% margin or extend credit to a desperate man. Rents like that tend to dissolve sympathy for businesspeople. It also removes some of the more creative ways around Heinz's predicament, such as surreptitiously copying the formula for the drug, and offering a rival pharmacist the $50,000 to whip up a batch.

While this is a question that I've been asking myself for years, I've never come up with an answer that didn't, at some point, stray into ethical absurdity. Which, I suppose is the point behind ethics. There are never any answers that are always right. No matter how badly you want there to be.

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