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181:oral Identifiable, anonymous, and statistical victims
  1. Bastian Steuwer
  1. Center for Population-Level Bioethics; Rutgers University; USA


Health priority-setting must sometimes decide between the health needs of identified individuals and the health needs of merely statistical persons. For example, right to health litigation includes an identified litigant claiming resources which otherwise would be to an unknown individual. Preventive public health measures improve statistical health measures, but we cannot identify a token individual beneficiary as we can when resources are devoted to the treatment of current patients.

Psychologically, decision-makers are more likely to benefit identified individuals than to benefit individuals that are ‘merely statistical’. Normatively, writers are divided whether such an ‘identified victim bias’ is morally justified. There have been attempts to justify the moral relevance of identifiability. In my paper, I join critics in rejecting that identifiability is morally relevant. However, unlike these critics I argue that there are good reasons to deprioritize merely statistical harms. This is because, as I show in my paper, the notion of a ‘statistical victim’ is ambiguous between various interpretations. I draw a distinction between ‘anonymous victims’ and ‘merely statistical victims’. I defend this distinction on two grounds. First, I argue that it is normatively attractive. Anonymous victims are morally alike identifiable victims and unlike merely statistical victims. Second, I argue that preliminary psychological evidence shows that decision-makers in fact treat anonymous victims differently from merely statistical victims.

In the last part of my paper, I return to examples of health priority-setting and show what my view implies about these examples. It turns out that my view constitutes a middle path. In some cases it vindicates the preference for prioritizing identifiable persons over statistical persons while in others it condemns such a preference.

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