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Saving lives through donation: 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. 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. 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:

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

Opition 2:
(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 best 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.