Saving lives through donations: A rational choice

Rationality is about optimal goal achievement. Whatever your goals are, you’re rational if you act so as to maximize their expected achievement, i.e. so as to maximize your life-game EV. This post argues that if people were more rational – reasoned better about what their life goals actually are and how to optimally achieve them – they would likely donate much greater amounts to charity than they currently do. (Cognitive science has shown that human reasoning is full of irrational biases, which also affect poker performance. But there’s hope: By knowing about these biases, we know what we need to improve.)

Consider the following decision situation, first introduced by philosopher Peter Singer: You’re walking past a muddy pond and realize that a child is drowning in it – and that its life depends on your (in)action. As it happens, you’re wearing a newly bought suit and expensive shoes, which you need for professional purposes and which cost you $3,400. Rushing into the pond and saving the child poses no risk to you at all, but it will ruin your suit and shoes – you’ll have to replace them for $3,400, which amount you’d otherwise have spent on some luxury goods. What should you do?

A decision is a choice between options or world courses. If we analyze the options we are choosing between in this situation, we get:

(1) A child suffers and dies
(2) An additional $3,400 worth of luxury goods for you

(1) A child survives and lives happily
(2) $3,400 less worth of luxury goods for you

Most people – caring not only about themselves, but (at least to some extent) also about others – would probably go for Option_2 here: A child’s life is worth more to them than some additional luxury goods they don’t really need. In other words: They have the goals [survival and well-being of a child] and [an additional $3,400 worth of luxury for myself]; the former is rated as more important, as earning them more life-game chips; therefore, if the goals conflict and can’t both be achieved at the same time, the former trumps – going for it maximizes life-game EV.

If that’s the reason behind saving the child drowning in the pond, then the very same reason applies to life-saving donations. It is demonstrably possible to save a life for $3,400. In the drowning child situation, we face the choice between Option_1 and Option_2; in an everyday situation where we possess $3,400 we don’t really need, the choice we face is the exact same: sacrificing $3,400 worth of luxury goods and saving a child – or keeping the money and letting a child die. If the choice is the same, then the most +EV option must be the same, too. If the goal [survival and well-being of a child] is rated as more important than the goal [an additional $3,400 worth of luxury for myself], then sacrificing the money is what maximizes life-game EV in both the drowning child and the donation situation. Sacrificing the money in one situation and keeping it in the other amounts to a contradiction. Since many people in rich countries possess thousands of dollars they don’t really need, they’re faced with the choice between Option_1 and Option_2 multiple times over. In order to achieve their own goals, they should therefore be donating much more.

Tough choices, easy choices? In any case: Life’s a serious game.