Philosophy and worldviews matter. The title question of this article was asked to a room full of teachers and it was assumed that answering “yes” was crazy.
That assumption comes across as lazy and uncritical.
What matters in answering this question? If you are utilitarian in any capacity, you would have to ask, “how much is a life worth and is an abstract life worth more or less than my own specific life?”
After asking those questions you have some basis as to whether playing russian roulette for one million dollars is crazy because it is now framed more rationally than the uncritical assumption that, “my life is priceless.”
My Own Answer
I plan to “save” at least one life each year until I die by donating to the most cost effective organizations in the world. Presently, GiveWell believes that Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) is the most cost effective with the ability to statistically save one human life for approximately US$3,400.
I am almost 30 years old. If I live to be 80 years old (hoping for 121), I have 50 years of life left and that comes out to saving 50 additional lives. If I were to play russian roulette with a six shot revolver (I would try negotiating for one with more rounds!), that means I have a one in six chance of dying. Given that I do die, that is a forfeiture of 50 lives saved over the next 50 years, plus my own life, which comes out to 51 lives “lost”.
However, I would have a five in six chance of winning one million dollars. In donating that amount to AMF, that comes out to preventing 294 human deaths (assuming the US$3,400 per life given above). Now we can do the expected outcome for this “game”.
Expected outcome = (⅙)*(-51)+(⅚)*(294) = 236 lives
Now the question can be reposed. Is your life worth more or less than 236 other human lives? If you believe it is worth more than 236 other human lives, you would not play the game. If you believe it is worth less, you would play the game.
A slightly more visceral way to frame it is by asking, “If you had to choose between 236 other people dying or you yourself dying, which would you choose?”
This is essentially the trolley problem, rephrased with 236 people on one train track and one person (you) on the other track. Would you pull the lever to divert the train away from the large group?
I’d go with yes. Am I crazy? I’d argue we all have a number at which point the scale tips. If you say I am crazy, it may be worth considering at which point you would give up your life for others. Is the number one thousand, one million, one billion? We’ll all answer differently, but the answers do matter for how we live our lives and the world that leave behind.