The Ethical Obligation to Save Trapped Miners

Life is priceless, right? Well, no, actually. No matter how often it is said, no one actually believes that life is literally priceless. If we accept the assumption, common within the social sciences, that what we really believe is reflected in what we do (rather than in what in we say) then our actions demonstrate that we actually believe that the value of human life is quite finite. We can, and do, put a price on human life. Examples are not hard to find. Lives cannot — in any civilized place — literally be bought and sold, but there are other ways in which the concept of pricing gets attached to human lives. The notion of life insurance is based on the question of how much one person’s life (namely, that of the insured) is worth to another (namely the beneficiary), and courts routinely place a value on lost human lives in cases of wrongful death. And governments and individual consumers implicitly put a price on life by means of all sorts of spending prioritization decisions.

So, what’s a human life worth, then? Well, that depends quite a lot on context. So, let’s be more specific: how much is a corporation — say, a mining company — obligated to spend on rescuing an employee in peril? This isn’t a random question, but a sadly poignant one, given the tragic recent events at a coal mine in Virginia, where 25 miners have already died and 4 more remain missing.

Here’s the latest on this story, from the NY Times: No Signs of Life From 4 Missing in Mine.

Rescue workers continued the precarious task early Wednesday of removing explosive methane gas from the coal mine where at least 25 miners died two days before, but they had not received any signs of life from the four people still missing….

So, how much is the company that owns this mine (The Massey Energy Company) obligated to spend on the rescue? I suspect that, for practical purposes, the answer to “how much must the company spend?” is “whatever it takes.” The only thing that stops that amount from climbing without end is the sad fact that, eventually, hope will run out.

Now, it may be relevant that the mining company is not exactly blameless in all this:

The mine owner’s dismal safety record, along with several recent evacuations of the mine, left federal officials and miners suggesting that Monday’s explosion might have been preventable….

So, their safety record is pretty bad. And we generally thing that when you make a mess, you have some significant obligation to clean it up. So Massey arguably has more of an obligation to spend (and spend and spend) on rescue than they would if this were a freak accident that they could not have prevented.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that there is (for better or for worse) a strong social norm, here. We are often, collectively, willing to spend vast sums of money on rescue. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that we’ll spend far more (socially) to treat a sick child than we would have spent to keep that child healthy in the first place. Our spending patterns here are not, at least in any straightforward sense, rational, though it might be that these patterns have some use in signalling, socially, in a very public way, the extent to which we value human lives, or our attachment to compassion more generally. From that point of view, spending what would otherwise be insane amounts of money to rescue a single human (or, in some well-publicized cases, a horse or dog) makes a certain amount of sense.

The problem, of course, lies in the economic notion of “opportunity costs” — roughly speaking, the idea that every dollar spent on one thing (like rescue) is a dollar not spent on something else (like making mines safer in the future). So, in principle, a million dollars spent on rescuing a small number of miners could instead be spent on safety improvements that could save many more lives than that, in the future. But then, it’s not an obvious either/or decision: it’s not like the vast sum of money spent on rescue is going to be subtracted from some actual or hypothetical mine-safety budget for next year. But still…there has to be some limit on what a company should spend on rescue. The question is, what is that limit? Or, more generally, how should a company calculate that limit?

p.s. note that my intention here is not at all to suggest that, at some point, we ought to let the company off the hook. My point is just that, no matter what you value, there’s always going to be some alternative use to which money spent on rescue could, otherwise, be put. So it’s worth at least considering whether or when money ought to be conserved to be spent on other things. It’s a hard question, but it cannot be avoided.

8 comments so far

  1. ~*~KRISTYN~*~ on

    Hey Chris ~ Interesting topic.. In my opinion, I think that the obligation is to put in all effort until no hope is left. The reality is that no one will be willing to come up with an actual dollar figure of $xxxxx and after that, those needing help are just out of luck. That being said, I also don’t think it falls on just the shoulders of the mining company. I think anyone with an ability to help, by contributing time, money, resources, know how, should do so. Maybe if people helped eachother without the expectation that someone was going to need to foot the bill after, it would be a kinder place to live. I am not suggesting that people give up all they have, but if everyone gave a little, it equals alot 🙂

  2. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for your comment.

    So, what about the other good causes that same money won’t get to be spent on. Tough luck? Miners’ lives are worth more than anyone else’s?


  3. andy on

    Maybe it is just a simple cost-benefit analysis. Companies have to pay for all of the prevention measures, but not the response….the state largely covers those (ambulance, police, etc.). Coal mines in the US run on a thin margin and safety is an expense. Thus there is an inherent risk that both the mine owners and those that work in them are willing to accept for the sake of employment. With the unfortunate circumstance where people die, it is factored in and payed out (insurance). In this circumstance where someone is possibly alive, I believe it is for a short time, a sincere effort at recovery. A soon as the odds of survival fall out of favour, it is more of a PR exercise so that the company appears socially responsible. The alternative use of this money isn’t prevention, it was decent paying jobs in West Virginia.

  4. Anonymous on


    What you say is, as you note, fairly obvious. But there’s another layer to it, starting not from the opportunity cost of this coal company’s money (or even society’s money), but from the values of miners and other people who work in hazardous occupations.

    So, as I understand it, miners have a “social contract” among themselves that they will stop at nothing to try to rescue other miners when disaster strikes. It’s a kind of quid pro quo: in light of the danger involved, miners want no holds barred if they should be the victims. I suppose you could put a Kantian spin on this too.

    Likewise, I believe that the U.S. Marines have a commitment that they will NEVER leave a fellow soldier — dead or alive — on the battlefield. There is no compromise on this norm. Period.

    So, from the miners’/marines’ point of view, money has nothing to do with it. According to their values and norms, their lives are literally priceless in such situations.

    So, from this point of view, your question could be re-phrased thus: how much should the company (or society) pay in order to support them in meeting their obligation to each other? In the case of the Marines, they do whatever it takes to rescue their fellow soldiers, and American society willingly absorbs whatever social cost is involved; indeed, I think this norm is held up as a point of pride. In “the old days”, mine rescues would have been done by fellow miners with hands and hand tools. Now, it’s probably not too much to ask the coal company — which appears to be driven by greed and power, witness the long string of safety violations and the apparent purchase of the services of a West Virginia Supreme Court judge — to drill some vent holes.

    As for your point about helping specific identifiable people (the sick child) in distress, well, I remember the public fascination (obsession?) and the large amount of public money devoted to the attempt to save a single whale that was trapped in the Arctic Ocean as the winter ice formed and prevented its escape. This example suggests that no price is too high in these situations, as long as there is hope that someone (it’s pretty clear that the Canadian public considered the whale to be a someone, at least for the duration of the news story) is still there to be saved.

    People appear to think differently about policy issues (e.g., how safe should cars be, in general) and the fate of specific identifiable people (and whales) in distress. There’s something in this about the problem of letting people die that’s relevant. Off the top of my head, is there a trolley car-type question here?

    With regard to Andy’s comment, it’s not just a simple case of cost-benefit analysis, although that’s involved. The cost-benefit analysis comes out favourably because (in the economic vein of this column) the mine owner is playing a moral hazard game: to the extent that the risks and costs of either preventing or rescuing are transferred to others — either the miners or the public — the benefits of lax safety procedures exceed the cost. And I’m not too sympathetic about the risks faced by the mine owners — although I imagine that’s not what Andy was intending to express. They’re accepting risk all right, but they’re transferring a lot of it to others, without having had to buy an insurance policy.

    Jim Gaa

  5. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comments.

    I think I agree with all of that — especially the bit about the connection between public & private spending, and the transferring of risk from corporations to the public. That seems to me to be a crucial part of this.

    Of course, as far as I can see, we still don’t have a prescription for anything other than “spend without limit” — and that goes for both public & private expenditures.

    I guess it’s also worth adding that there’s a kind of implicit, a priori limit on public spending, manifested in prior decisions about how big and well-equipped local emergency-response organizations are. A local government might not be able to put a dollar-figure on the amount it’s willing to spend on rescue, but if they only have one fire truck and 6 firefighters, the amount is effectively pretty limited — for better or for worse.


  6. […] should point out that the view I articulate in the video owes a significant debt to comments made by Gim Gaa on my original posting on this topic. Thanks, Jim!) « Greenwashing the […]

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  8. […] the drilling be paid? Back in April, after a mine collapse in West Virginia, I blogged about the Ethical Obligation to Save Trapped Miners, and pondered the extent of the financial obligations of the mining company and the government in […]

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