Symposium: Foreign Life Valuation
54 Pages Posted: 3 May 2015 Last revised: 28 Jul 2015
Date Written: January 16, 2015
This symposium on Foreign Life Valuation brings together perspectives from philosophy, psychology, and various legal sub-disciplines to address this question: How many — if any — scarce domestic resources should be allocated to the prevention of foreign harms?
An earlier article "Valuing Foreign Lives", co-authored by Arden Rowell and Lesley Wexler, identified a number of policy puzzles posed by foreign life valuation. In this symposium, scholars from diverse fields bring their expertise to bear on these puzzles and other questions of foreign life valuation.
The symposium opens with philosopher Colleen Murphy’s piece entitled “Differentiating Moral Duties.” Murphy makes three main contributions by: noting the moral difference between doing and allowing, and articulating how that difference might influence valuation; identifying the moral significance of special relationships to identify the varied duties and obligations of individuals and states; and canvassing philosophers working in distributive justice to explore whether the state’s duty to provide distributive justice is bound by political borders or extends to foreign lives.
While Murphy focuses on the state’s potential duties and obligations to foreigners, law professor Jonathan Masur emphasizes foreign individuals’ lack of accountability to states other than their own. Because many life-saving actions may require the cooperation of multiple states to achieve the greatest life valuation, Masur notes that “the welfare-maximizing valuation will be whichever valuation is most likely to encourage foreign action, and that figure may differ dramatically from case to case.” He similarly argues for case-by-case foreign life valuation in the military context and cautions against widespread transparency as it may hamper negotiations. He concludes that the foreign context may need to remain ad-hoc in a way that the domestic system does not.
In “Valuing Immigrant Lives,” law professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales interrogates the implications of foreign life valuation in the specific context of immigration policy. She notes that immigrants challenge the definition of foreign lives. She then thinks through the particular distributive justice concerns raised by the valuation of immigrants both inside and on the way to our physical borders. She argues that treating such individuals as “domestic” would require a massive and likely politically unpalatable reform of current policies ranging from detention to entry to the weight given to family reunification. Yet treating them as foreign raises complicated questions of causality and reciprocity.
Psychologist Paul Slovic explores the implications of a particular psychological bias — the prominence effect — on decisions about foreign life valuation. Focusing on humanitarian interventions as a setting in which foreign life valuation is implicated, he puzzles over why elite decision makers who profess to strong foreign life valuation nonetheless rarely engage in humanitarian interventions. Slovic points to a “prominence effect” under which “lofty humanitarian values are systematically devalued in the decision-making process” because more psychologically prominent concerns, such as national security, crowd out other conflicting values. He cites laboratory experiments to both test the strength of the prominence effect on foreign life valuation, as well as to identify potential countering techniques such as decision analysis and value-focused thinking.
In “Valuing Foreign Lives in Genocides and Mass Atrocities: law, humanitarian intervention, and the prominence effect,” law professor Lesley Wexler explores how international and domestic legal institutions may interact differently with the same foreign valuation practices and the same psychological biases. Wexler explores the impact of the prominence effect on valuation by addressing the effect’s possible role: the United States’ Atrocity Review Board (“ARB”). Wexler discusses the legal context in which the ARB operates, evaluating both international law related to states’ obligations regarding genocide and mass atrocities, and the domestic legal structures that empower and constrain the ARB’s operations. She then explores possible prescriptions for responding to the prominence effect, emphasizing the importance of contextualizing those prescriptions to the institutional realities in which they operate.
Law professor David Dana concludes our symposium by widening the scope of foreign valuation beyond simple life valuation. In the face of impending climate change, Dana questions whether states should expend additional resources to preserve or recreate foreign communities and cultures as opposed to simply protecting the individuals that hearken from them. He queries whether the otherness and out group biases that pervade foreign life valuation will be exacerbated for the valuation of cultures and communities unknown or radically different than our own and opens a conversation about factors, such as distinctiveness and domestic preferences, that might weigh in favor of significant resource expenditures. Rather than endorse domestic preferences as the only relevant or most decisive factor, Dana views willingness to pay studies eliciting domestic preferences as a necessary first step to “highlight and perhaps to correct — via promoting thoughtful debate and engagement — over and under allocations of resources.”
Finally, law professor Arden Rowell concludes the symposium by synthesizing lessons and continued challenges for the study of foreign life valuation. She notes that, however policymakers should value foreign lives, in the vast majority of cases, the way they are doing so now is both atheoretic and opaque. The combination is troublesome: although opacity may be helpful in some contexts, so long as the choice of opacity is atheoretic, there is no particular reason to think that there will be a good match between opacity and the circumstances that make opacity valuable. As a result, it is important to identify strategies for foreign valuation that can help policymakers develop more considerate policies. Building on the contributions of the symposium, she suggests that future valuations might be improved through continued interrogation and contextualization of foreign valuation practices.
Keywords: valuation, distributive justice, international law, immigration law, genocide, mass atrocities, climate change, transparency
JEL Classification: D6, D62, D63, D70, D81, F35, H40, J17, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation