Belief and responsibility

Peter Singer points out the consquences of ignoring science.

Throughout his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki rejected the scientific consensus that Aids is caused by a virus, HIV, and that anti-retroviral drugs can save the lives of people who test positive for it. Instead, he embraced the views of a small group of dissident scientists who suggested other causes for Aids. Mbeki stubbornly continued to embrace this position even as the evidence against it became overwhelming. When anyone – even Nelson Mandela…- publicly questioned Mbeki’s views, Mbeki’s supporters viciously denounced them. While Botswana and Namibia, South Africa’s neighbours, provided anti-retrovirals to the majority of its citizens infected by HIV, South Africa under Mbeki failed to do so. A team of Harvard University researchers has now investigated the consequences of this policy. Using conservative assumptions, it estimates that, had South Africa’s government provided the appropriate drugs, both to Aids patients and to pregnant women who were at risk of infecting their babies, it would have prevented 365,000 premature deaths.

That’s a conservative estimate, notice, and it’s ‘roughly comparable to the loss of life from the genocide in Darfur.’

[T]he Harvard study shows that [Mbeki] is responsible for the deaths of 5,000 times as many black South Africans as the white South African police who fired on the crowd at Sharpeville…

In Mbeki’s defence, it can be said that he did not intend to kill anyone. He appears to have genuinely believed – and perhaps still believes – that anti-retrovirals are toxic.

But – I thought the instant I read those words – he had no right to believe that. Then I remembered The Ethics of Belief. Well this is a classic case. In a life and death situation, one has no right to believe something in the teeth of the evidence. Mbeki was in just the situation of Clifford’s shipowner.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts.

Mbeki had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. Singer says as much.

[G]ood intentions are not enough, especially when the stakes are so high. Mbeki is culpable, not for having initially entertained a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, but for having clung to this view without allowing it to be tested in fair and open debate among experts. When Prof Malegapuru Makgoba, South Africa’s leading black immunologist, warned that the president’s policies would make South Africa a laughingstock in the world of science, Mbeki’s office accused him of defending racist western ideas…Mbeki must have known that, if his unorthodox views about the cause of Aids and the efficacy of anti-retrovirals were wrong, his policy would lead to a large number of unnecessary deaths. That knowledge put him under the strongest obligation to allow all the evidence to be fairly presented and examined without fear or favour. Because he did not do this, Mbeki cannot escape responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Disturbing, isn’t it.

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