Principles or Solutions?

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting article in the New Yorker (Feb 13 & 20, 2006 issue) entitled “Million Dollar Murray” and it deals with the concept that many social issues follow ‘power-law’ distributions, rather than bell-curve. For example, the findings are that most people who become homeless remain so for just a day or two; but there are a small percentage of chronically homeless people who cause most of the expense of dealing with the homeless. Because many of these people are alcoholics and have many medical problems, they can run up costs in excess of $100K per year in emergency room visits.

Gladwell describes new strategies for dealing with the homeless, which concentrate on taking care of these small numbers of chronic cases, and really supporting them by offering apartments and case worker assistance. It turns out to be a whole lot cheaper than letting them stumble along on their own. But, the idea that the worst cases are getting the most help does offend some moral principles.

As Gladwell puts it, “We can be true to our principles, or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”

I’m all for effective solutions to problems, and I can live with some moral ambiguity. I think in the end it’s more moral to do the appropriate and effective thing rather than sticking with strategies that appeal to our moral sense but in fact don’t do much about the problem.

Applying this type of thinking to abortion, an even more highly charged issue, I think most everyone would agree that it would be best to have the fewest abortions possible. Yet many of those who want to outlaw abortion also want to push abstinence-only programs and restrict distribution of condoms. This is a wonderfully moral position, but it does little to move toward an outcome they desire.

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