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The Ethics of Self-Sacrifice March 25, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Following the story of the “Fukushima 50,” now up to 1000 workers, still working in shifts under what seems to be an increasing threat level, here from USAToday:

…Two workers have gone missing and 25 have been hurt or overexposed to radiation since the magnitude-9.0 earthquake hit March 11, according to the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns and runs the plant. Most of the injuries occurred during explosions that resulted from uncontrolled buildups of hydrogen and oxygen in two reactor units.The latest injuries were reported Thursday, when TEPCO said two workers were sent to the hospital after their legs were contaminated with radiation, indicating the facility remains dangerous. Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), says it could be weeks before the radiation is under control.”Anybody that voluntarily enters a situation that puts their lives on the line can be called a hero, and those workers certainly meet that definition,” says David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists.”I don’t know any other way to say it, but this is like suicide fighters in a war,” says Keiichi Nakagawa, associate professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of Tokyo Hospital.

In the emergency, Japanese authorities increased the permissible radiation exposure to five times what plant workers normally are allowed in a year.

That move “ethically is a problem,” says Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician at Columbia University in New York and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “On the other hand, there are large-scale population needs and somehow that needs to be balanced. It’s basically men and women voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way so thousands of others can be safe.”Such self-sacrifice is not uniquely Japanese, Redlener says. “It is something about human nature in emergencies that people step up to the plate in the interest of the greater good,” he says, citing battlefield troops and responders who entered the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The key word here, from a Western moral perspective at least, is volunteering. Willingly taking on a burden that will help others, but endanger your own life and wellbeing is what makes the ethics of altruism so challenging, and fascinating. It is hard to evaluate what cultural/professional pressures that may be involved in the current situation at Fukushima, because the Japanese tradition does value the ethics of self-sacrifice—but as long as we’re not talking about a company deliberately sacrificing its workers for the common good, utilitarian-style, a group-ethics pressure to volunteer doing helpful, but life-threatening work still requires a personal decision, and that decision is still a heroic act—even if it may be embedded in the cultural tradition, and expected in times of need. And, as the article points out, it is not unique to the Japanese tradition.

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