meme Log

February 28, 2010

A Minor Headache

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lynn Fikstad @ 15:00

Steven Landsburg, an economist, poses this question:

A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person dies. Is it okay to have one of the headache sufferers die to cure the others?

Based on what people do and not on what people say, an economist knows the answer immediately. Everyone behaves in such a way to indicate it is okay for a random headache sufferer to die in order to avoid an hour long headache in 999,999,999 people. Here’s why:

Everyone (at least in the developed world) would happily pay $1.00 to avoid suffering a one hour headache. No one will pay $1.00 to avoid a 1 in a billion chance of death. By letting a random headache sufferer die, we do the other 999,999,999 people a favor. In other words we give 999,999,999 a marginal benefit that exceeds the marginal cost. The total benefits to all are substantial; in fact, very substantial.

Someone thinking like an economist may clarify the decision by saying, “Yes it would be okay as long as I will not feel any responsibility for the death or that others will not think less of me because I said it was okay.” These are marginal costs which could easily alter the decision. But the story doesn’t indicate there is any cost other than that of one random death.

Are you still not convinced? We drive 65 mph on the highways, we take OTC medicine, we eat peanuts, and we get out of bed every day. Almost everything we do will result in at least some infinitesimal risk of death to ourselves and others. People die every day because other people go out to a movie or to the store. Why isn’t okay for someone to die in order to avoid a billion people having a headache?

The question sounds so strange and the answer so revolting, but its only because our “over-clocked ape brain” is not intuitively in touch with tradeoffs concerning millions and even billions of people. We’re intuitively keyed into the social interactions of a small group. No one’s going to kill a member of their group to avoid a lot of headaches. We likely evolved to measure costs and benefits, and that ability has become somewhat handy in our modern day lives. But irrational thought remains, including the inability to see that we all behave as if it were okay that someone dies when there is a slight benefit to a billion people. That is the way we live. It’s odd that there is such a disparity between what we think we are doing and what we actually do, but it is a good thing there is, otherwise everyone would need to be saved from feeling horrible about how they behave.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] Earlier I posted this […]

    Pingback by A Minor Headache – Revisit « meme Log — August 5, 2011 @ 15:21 | Reply


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