I have a little book of questions that I bought for ninety-nine cents at the Salvation Army store on Highway 10 in Langley, British Columbia. It is titled, aptly enough, "The Little Book of Questions," and is basically just a catalyst for conversation or a superb way to cheat if you're engaging another human being in an ongoing intimacy-increasing email game of "question ping-pong." Each question is numbered, so you can also use the book by asking a group of people to take turns picking random numbers between one and two hundred and seventeen, with the understanding that they have to answer the question they have chosen as honestly as possible. This has the potential to be gloriously awkward (some of the questions are really, really personal), but I have found that if there is one thing people hate more than being embarrassed by an awkward answer, it's never getting asked a question in the first place. So sometimes I pick one of these questions out of my head to ask random groups of people - like I did the other day at my year-end faculty brunch. The question I asked is this: If you could invent a new form of transportation that would radically change the way people get around - like, say, teleportation - but knew that it would cause the deaths of around a hundred thousand people a year, would you do it?

One of my colleagues, whom we will call the "Empress of Maklistan," jumped right in and said "No... wait, I mean, yes. You're talking about the invention of the automobile, right? [bingo!] Well, I would still do it. Think of all the lives you could save. It would totally be worth it." There were nods and grunts of approval all around the table, but at that point Steven, the head of our English department, broke in to vehemently point out that you can never save a life, you can only take actions that will cause it to be prolonged for a while (gotta love us English majors), and then the conversation turned to other things. Too late, I thought of a follow up question: Would you still do it if you knew for a fact that your own children (or any similarly important people in your life) would be among the very first killed by the new technology? The answer to that question, I suspect, would reveal a lot about how you view the world.

Why is it so easy to be cavalier about the lives of a hundred thousand strangers when weighing them against some hypothetical advantage, but so immediately horrendous when the question is made personal? Are we really all that selfish? Is it really so difficult to care about what happens to people we don't know?


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