Saving Humans by Numbers: Part 3 – Lotteries

Dr Jussi Suikkanen

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This series of blog posts considers how we should take numbers into account in saving lives. So far three things have happened. We are considering a simple case in which we can either save one person or five people from death in a case in which no special considerations are present. Intuitively, and according to utilitarianism, in this case we should save the five people.

Yesterday, we considered John Taurek’s objection to this conclusion. According to him, we must be able to justify our plan to save the bigger group to the single person who drowns if we do so. This justification must address the single person’s personal perspective – some real person must be able to put forward the justification to the single person in the form “Unless you bear the regrettable burden of dying, something even worse will happen to me and for that reason unfortunately you can’t be saved”. Taurek’s insight was that no person can give justification of this concrete and personal kind to the single person who is about to drown. The people in the group can only put forward the same personal burden of dying as the single individual to justify the choice to save them, and there is no higher entity who has to bear the burden of dying five times.

From this failure to justify the plan to save the greater number to the single person, Taurek draws the conclusion that both options must be permissible for us: in the simple case, you are allowed to save the single person and similarly you are also allowed to save the group of five. Whichever way you go, you do no wrong. The crucial point is that you are not required to save the group and you are not required to save the single person as these straightforward requirements could not be justified to the people in question for the reasons explained yesterday. We need to keep in mind though that not saving anyone is not an option for you either. This is something you could not justify to anyone.

If you are allowed to save either the single person or the group, what should you then do? For example, can you just do what you want? If you happen to like the shoes a person in the group is wearing, can you thereby save the group? Or if you just feel like saving the single person, can you go for that option?

Taurek claims that making the choice in these ways would not be right even if it is permissible for you to save either the single person or the group. Consider the following example. Imagine that you have two children and you have only one cookie left. Neither one of your children has a special claim for getting the cookie. In principle, it is permissible for you to give the cookie to either one of them. Despite this, you can’t give the cookie to the child you just happen to like more. This would be an unfair way to make the choice.

Intuitively, in this case you should flip a coin. This would be a fair procedure to solve the problem you are facing. It gives both children the same chance. Taurek claims that the right solution to the basic life-saving case is the same. We must use a fair procedure that gives each person an equal chance of being saved. Taurek’s own suggestion is that we should flip a coin here too. If it lands heads, save the single person; if it lands tails, save the group. In this case, each person gets the same 50% chance of surviving, and thereby our procedure for using a lottery can be justified to the people who end up drowning. We can tell them that they too had a fair chance of surviving: in fact, they had the same chance of surviving as the people who got saved. The only way in which we could have given them a better chance of surviving would have been to make the other people face certain death and this is something they wouldn’t have accepted. For this reason, by flipping a coin we do not ask the people who end up dying to bear a more serious burden than anyone else. Because of this, we can justify using the coin flip procedure to solve the problem to everyone.

To summarise, so far Taurek has given a strong argument against the intuitive view that in the simple life-saving case we should save the bigger group. The consequence of this argument is the somewhat surprising conclusion that instead of saving the group we should flip a coin about whom to save. 

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