What are the odds?

What are the odds that a Hamas rocket will land on an Israeli school?
What are the odds that an Israeli bomb will hit a hospital in Gaza?
What are the odds that ISIS or the Taliban will stone a young woman to death
… because she made the mistake of falling in love with a Shiite?
What are the odds that a Buddhist mob will kill Muslim children in Burma?
What are the odds that a six year old boy will make it from San Salvador to his mother in Iowa?

What are the odds that you will interpret these parallel questions
…  as giving equal moral weight to each of these situations?
What are the odds that you will be disturbed by the thought of giving equal moral weight
…  to the Israeli Defense Force or Hamas?
…  to Sunnis or Shiites?
…  to Buddhists or Muslims?
… to a child fleeing gang violence or a woman who ran off with her lover?
What are the odds that you will be disturbed by the question that hasn’t been asked here?

None of these questions ask about right or wrong.
What are the odds that you don’t agree?

Each of these questions asks about the probability of some outcome of a decision to act.
Some neurophilosophers argue that we have no free will,
… that everything is determined by electrical and chemical processes in the brain,
… that “free will” is a myth.
What are the odds that someone will use “no free will” as an excuse to absolve themselves of responsibility for committing some atrocity?
Some theologians try to get their all-good, all-perfect, all-knowing god off the hook
… by claiming that human free will brings evil into this world.
But that means that their god does not have a will effectively free enough to stop evil.
Neurophilosophers and theologians argue “no free will” and the culprits walk free.

Hamas argues that it had no choice because of the rigid economic blockade of Gaza.
Israel argues that it had no choice because of the “existential threat” of the Hamas tunnels and rockets.
What are the odds that Israel or Hamas could have found another way?
Better than the compound probability that Israel and Hamas could have chosen other ways.
As long as we can imagine another outcome or another way to get there,
we only have to open ourselves to the other to start the work of finding a way out.

On the way back from a college visit this week, Anne Mei and I heard an NPR story about doctors who share decision-making with their patients by giving them the odds for different outcomes from different treatments.

That story reminded me and I told Anne Mei about the time the oncologist told Laura that she only had a 12.5% chance of surviving treatment for brain cancer.  For every eight people treated, seven died. Not because of the treatment, but because it didn’t work.

Actually, he didn’t put it that way. You had to compute the compound probabilities from the way he said it.  He also didn’t say and we didn’t want to hear that she had 100% chance of dying in 6-12 months if she had no treatment.  He didn’t tell us about other treatments, just other places where we might go for treatment.  There were not many options with glioblastoma multiforme.  The options Laura had were not presented to her clearly and comprehensively to help her decide.

After the fact I have been bitter than no one told Laura that it was almost 90% likely that any months treatment might add to life would be full of pain and turmoil. There are many reasons why that’s the wrong way to look at her choice.  In the first place, it’s hindsight, and more importantly, it’s me not Laura.  Whatever confusion caused by the circumstances, Laura chose the path where she had at least one chance out of eight.  The Laura I knew would never choose the path where death was certain.  Whether that choice was free or not is not a relevant question.  As long as she could imagine living, she was going to choose that path, whatever the odds.


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