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Sacrifice is worth it

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, March 7, 2007

What is the difference between making a person into a slave and requiring someone to make a sacrifice for the good of another? That is, when does justice require us to make sacrifices? The question is difficult – and probably impossible – to answer to everyone’s satisfaction, of course, but perhaps we can make some progress by considering cases where the harm suffered in the sacrifice greatly outweighs the benefit thereby achieved, or vice versa. The former cases, where trivial goods are achieved through great sacrifice, seem clearly to be in conflict with justice. Just as clearly, on the other hand, justice seems to require minor sacrifices for the sake of very dear goods. We can apply these observations to the question of universal health care.

First we have the sacrifice, in the form of a more-or-less progressive tax scheme. That is, universal health care requires someone to sacrifice some material wealth, of course, and the burden could be laid more heavily on the shoulders of the more wealthy by requiring them to pay relatively more. Next we have the good, the health and well-being of the poorest members of our society. Lest we think this is a trivial good, I would draw your attention to the fact that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 15 percent of the population had no health insurance in 2002, and it’s expected that the number has increased over the past four years. Universal coverage would not prevent all health problems, of course, but it would mean the difference between life and death from preventable and easily treatable diseases for many of the poorest members of our society.

Now, our observations lead us to these questions: Can we claim, seriously, that the material wealth of the richest members of our society is more important than the health and well-being – indeed, the very lives – of the poorest members? In taxing the wealthy for the sake of the poor, do we forcibly remove men and women from their comfortable and secure lives, strip them of all dignity as free human beings, put whips to their backs and force them to obey the capricious whims of cruel masters? Or is that a more accurate description of the life of poverty? Which is the more egregious violation of justice: requiring a wealthy lawyer to pay taxes or requiring a 10-year-old boy to die from an untreated infection because his mother can’t afford for both him and his brother to go to the dentist this year?

Dan Hicks

graduate student

philosophy

March 7