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?