Thursday, April 18, 2013

More on the Survival Lottery

**This is from guest blogger, Erik V.**

In The Survival Lottery, Harris presents a system in which a computer program randomly chooses numbers assigned to healthy people in order to have their organs harvested to save those who need them. It’s an attempt to put two of utilitarianism more contested points under the magnifying glass: impartiality and supererogatory nature of utilitarian decision making.

When a normative theory is examined with a good counterexample that goes against moral intuitions, as Harris has given, those who believe in said theory have two options: bite bullets or explain away why the counterexample doesn’t work. I like to think I’m a (lazy) utilitarian and I will attempt to explain away what I think is wrong with this lottery system (I say lazy because I think intentions matter to an extent and I’m sort of shaky on the impartiality bit).

Harris makes a big assumption when explaining the survival lottery, that assumption being that the two lives of Y and Z will generate more overall utility than that of the sacrificed life, A. In other words, Harris is assuming all lives are equal in utility they generate. I don’t buy this, because I, and probably you, know people in real life who are just generally happier and do more things for more people to make others happier as well. Say I have a friend, Ned, who has a wife and kids, volunteers at soup kitchens, runs a successful business at the mall, is always kind to his neighbors, and is always looking at the bright side of things. I have another friend, Moe, who runs a local tavern, is single, stuck in the past, and just generally depressed and dissatisfied with his life. Now say Y and Z have the same personality and tendencies that exist right between Moe and Ned. If the lottery system was enacted and Ned was sacrificed, would it not make sense to say there was no net increase in utility? The math would look something like this:

Utility = ½ Ned/Moe + ½ Ned/Moe – 1 Ned, so net 0 Ned, +1 Moe

There’s no increase. However, I will admit, interestingly enough, that if Moe were sacrificed, there would be an overall net increase in utility because:

Utility= ½ Ned/Moe + ½ Ned/Moe – 1 Moe, so net 0 Moe, +1 Ned

In order for this system to work, there would also need to be some system in which happiness (or misery) of people would need to be taken into account. However, this would then create subclasses of people who would then be more likely to be picked in the lottery, which is something Harris rejected in the paper itself (He says Y can’t be sacrificed to Z because then the lottery would be favoring those who had the misfortune of being diseased. In a similar sense, those who are always down on their luck or suffer depression would then be more likely to be picked. It’s towards the end, sorry, my book isn’t on me write now). At this point, I feel like the whole thought experiment has so many “ifs”, “ands”, and “buts” that it’s too convoluted to even consider seriously. So what do you all think?


Michael Dean Hebert said...

I think you're right that assuming each life has the same amount of utility is a problem for the Survival Lottery. However, I don't think this all of the sudden undermines the thought experiment (I think it a weak thought experiment myself, but not for these reasons).

If Ned and Ned's equally happy twin brother Ted both fall ill and need two (separate) organs, then according to your system it will be fine to take Moe's life in order to save Ned and Ted. That is, kill Moe to take his organs. There's nothing highly convoluted going on here, and it takes into account the difference between the utility different lives have. As you said, either bite the bullet or explain why the thought experiment doesn't work. Go ahead and bite that bullet and say it's ok to kill Moe if you like, but you're going to need to do a bit more work to simply dismiss the entire thought experiment.

P. Stephens said...

I also think that this thought experiment is "too convoluted" to consider seriously.

In class today, I was one of the few who raised our hands when polled on whether this system would be moral. I would like to clarify that I do not believe that the system could possibly be both moral and practical.

The idea of this thought experiment is that utility is increased by the lottery. If this is the case, says the utilitarian, then the system is also moral. Anytime an issue is raised in objection to the system, it seems to appeal to our moral intuitions. Certainly it makes sense to ask whether one would really be increasing happiness if they instituted a random system by which Ned or Moe could be sacrificed.

Instead of committing Simpsonocide, we should simply step back and realize that the idea of implementing a survival lottery would be to increase utility. If we were presented a Ned/Moe dilemma, let's pretend we have a morality machine which decides for us how we might best proceed. It really doesn't make sense to consider all of these objections, because they aren't in the true spirit of the idea of a survival lottery in the first place.

Why, then, do these conundrums pop up left and right? Simply because a survival lottery is impractical; no efforts of society could bring about a lottery system which perfectly operates to maximize utility. It could be the case that Kenny, the recipient of an organ, gets hit by a bus the next day and dies. Surely we can't determine this outcome...and if we can't factor it into utility calculations, we cannot know how to best run a lottery. If we can't put a lottery into operation to begin with, then it seems like we're simply stating its impracticality when we come across a Ned/Moe conundrum. When the lottery is impractical, we aren't really in a position to asses its morality. This would be akin to determining the color of the penguin that was in class on Tuesday.

Anonymous said...

In general, when some counterexample to utilitarianism is raised that has to do with violating a principle of justice (e.g., slavery) or autonomy (respect for self-determination) that would lead to better consequences on a prticular occasion, proponents of utilitarianism will argue that there are extremely negative far-reaching consequences to consider. For example, these sorts of actions set a precedent for the promulgation of such behavior in the future. These consequences also need to be taken into account in the calculation.

Claire S. said...

I think that if you look at the bigger picture - rather than just comparing person X to person Y - then the survival lottery seems more practical. Say, for example, that for every one person picked in the survival lottery that ten people will receive organs for them and would otherwise die. That means for every one person sacrificed there are ten people saved. So say that 100 people are picked in the lottery each year, that means 1,000 people will be saved in a year. I think it's better to look at it this way rather than comparing just one person to another in terms of "value" or happiness-bearing. Plus who's to say who is actually more valuable than another person? Also, think about this fact. Say that it is ten times more likely that on any given day you will get into a car accident than be picked in a survival lottery. Given that it is ten times more likely that you will need an organ rather than be sacrificed (and more likely that one of your parents will need an organ than that they are drawn in the lottery), it seems like everyone would be better off being in the lottery. With statistics in the picture (if they are at all accurate, which I think they roughly are considering that whoever is drawn in the survival lottery will be able to donate many organs like skin, eyes, liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, bone etc) then it is hard to say that you would rather not be included in the lottery. How do those of you who wouldn't want to be included in the lottery feel about this?

Anonymous said...

Do you think that it depends on whether the lottery is voluntary or mandated? We do alloow states to set up a lottery where most people lose quite a bit of money - but the rationale is that profits benefit the community at large. The money goes to support education, etc.