I want to commend you for taking on a topic that is wholly lacking in our sensationalism-driven, hyper-sensitive COVID-19 fixation thanks to our modern media. You elaborated eloquently about how we don’t have a rational relationship with reporting on the causes of death and this leaves us poorer and more vulnerable to false information. I could not agree more.
I’m believe you exaggerated your position to in order to make your point and in doing so lost some of the nuance that I feel compelled to address. You alluded to it in your statement:
This principle does not mean that we are wrong to care about some causes of death more than others – on the contrary, it would be reckless to replace it with a principle that ‘every cause of death matters equally‘.
I’ve known you long enough to recognize you are pitching a position with the hope that somebody will engage with it and so I will happily oblige. Below I address your post in three parts:
All Deaths Do Get Counted
You say that all causes of death should be counted and I’m pleased to say they are now thanks to innovators like Max Roser who created Our World in Data. Max has gifted us freely-available information so we can have a more balanced relationship with events that affects us. His motivation was to help us understand how the world is really doing instead of relying on the sensationalism and despondence-voyeurism that pretends to be news.
It is now possible to develop a sensible relationship with the causes of death that can occur. Looking at the chart above we find disease in various forms filling out the top ten causes of death despite taxpayers spending billions of dollars for treatment and research. Is it not interesting that we cannot solve some of our most deadly diseases? Or is it even solvable given the prominence of familial genetics or lifestyle decisions? These are questions that we can ask now that we have some research and metrics to work with.
So I commend Mr. Roser and his associates for challenging the media establishment with research instead of sensationalism. He has provided us an amazing tool to help us understand ourselves better. Death is getting counted and it reveals excellent questions.
How Does One Judge How One Dies
You’ve asked one of those questions indirectly as you’ve written “…it would be reckless to replace it with a principle that every cause of death matters equally“. I agree that assuming that every cause of death matters equally would be absurd because doing so would lead to analysis paralysis. The question then becomes: How do we judge some causes of death being less worthy of attention that others? The media makes this decision every single time when they report the news.
Is it about the numbers of total deaths?
Is it the more rare and sensational causes of death?
Is it the tragic and preventable causes of death?
When you spoke of drone-assassinations and automobile accidents as both being worthy of further discussion, I found that placing those two together stretched the point you were trying to make. There is no way I could value them equally as the first is entirely political which carries with it a weight of intention/guilt while the other occurs in the line of industry or recreation. Yet we can agree that ignoring easily preventable deaths because the victims live on another continent is ethically and morally wrong.
But what about tragic and senseless deaths that are closer to home? Does death through suicide, drug-overdose, gang-hits, recklessness, and criminal activity deserve more attention? I admit I’m skeptical about our ability to mitigate these causes of death as I see despair and criminality being deeply embedded with human behaviour. The cosmic irony is that Westerners commit suicides or die by recklessness despite having god-like standards of living while desperate immigrants are literally risking their lives to move to the West.
Perhaps if we were to rank the causes of death according to some kind of criteria, we could then focus our energies on our politicians and society to improve in these areas. Instead of ranking by the specific causes of death, I customized a listing that is broad and cuts across types of disease. The listing is made up of macro-causes of death and are ranked in importance by my imagined ability to intervene/mitigate:
- Poverty – Low cost improvements to our fellow world citizens such as clean drinking water and protection against mosquitoes is easily the biggest bang-for-buck return we could do.
- Lifestyle – the vices of modern living that shorten our lifespan is mostly changeable with education and skilful pressure as demonstrated through public smoking cessation campaigns.
- Occupational – It is hard to know how many deaths are captured but showing up to work should not be a life-risking routine for most of us. Legislation that demands better workplace safety practices is pretty common but needs the proper enforcement.
- Pathology – This is by far the largest killer of us and I am made skeptical that our investment in this translates that well especially with poverty and genetics being such a huge determinant of lifespan and health.
- War & Political Oppression – The number of deaths by war is very low compared to the 20th century while I suspect the number of internally directed war through political oppression is high. This is not easily changeable in many nations where democracy is not practised.
- Homicide & Suicide – It surprised me that suicide outnumbers homicide but then again suicides do not make news. I’m sadly skeptical that these number can change much because of entrenched human delusion.
- Natural Disasters / Accidental – These are rare and in most cases uncontrollable, though there is evidence that modernity has helped reduce such deaths.
My ranking runs contrary to the media sensationalism that typically dictates our perception. Terrorism gets way more press and sensationalism than it deserves based on raw numbers of deaths. Homicides are over-reported in detail and are a form of morbid voyeurism that ends up making citizens feel more unsafe than they need to.
It would be helpful to find a fresh way to establish what deaths we need to spend energy on mitigating. While my listing is a rough draft that needs further critical analysis, it is a starting point. Such a listing can help us focus our energies since there is only so many hours in the day and our lifespans are limited. We would be wise to get wise about what causes of death we should pay attention to.
Having a Good Quality of Death
As a religious person I think that death holds a sacred significance. Death is an end and a beginning. Death for each one of us is a time of judgment and determines our afterlife. I believe that such judgment is rendered according how well we live a life without regret.
Death is a borderland between this life and the next and we approach this borderland with peace or dread depending on how have we lived. Did we pursue short-term materialistic goals? Was happiness defined by pleasure-seeking? Did we neglect the needs of others for our own needs? Such actions will show up as regret and we will carry this self-judgment with us to the afterlife.
I don’t personally believe in a sentient supreme being that judges our actions. Instead I subscribe to the concept of karma which can be visualized as a vast storehouse of every single action, thought, and communication we have taken. Regardless of one’s religious outlook, every single one of us will need to face our mortality and come up with our own conceptual models to help navigate this shrouded borderland.
Life is not sacred because it is a gift or something rare for if we look around we see the Earth (and I suspect the Universe) teems with life. It isn’t Life itself that is special but it is what we do with this life – our karma, our actions – that matters and so we build a destiny from our present, as our present was built from our past.
So I will chime in to add to your position that every cause of death counts and say at death everything counts.
With respect and affection,