Risk Taking and Self Command
In our lives, it is important to exercise self-command. However, we should not be so concerned with the future that we stifle the present. The question becomes what balance should we strike between self-command and risks? What kinds of risks are acceptable or unacceptable? In this essay, we will use two examples of risks to show the distinction between the two and arrive at a conclusion as to the balance one should have between risk and self command. The first example we will use is of a person who spends his life savings on a lottery ticket and does not win the lottery. The second is of a person who spends his life savings on a hunch regarding a cure for AIDS, a hunch that is false. Before we make this distinction, however, it is necessary to define the terms acceptable and unacceptable risks. Acceptable and Unacceptable Risks There are several ways in which one could define which risks are acceptable. One could say, for example, that the only acceptable risk is one for which the odds of success are greater than the odds of failure. Another definition of acceptable risk might be a risk that does not harm one's future. We might also say that the only acceptable risk is one where the aggregate happiness is increased, thus increasing the moral good of the risk, an idea which is based on John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism. Finally, we might define a morally good risk in a Kantian way by saying that the only acceptable risk is one which is rationally thought out (Thomas, lecture). Now that we have several definitions of acceptable risks, we may ask how these definitions, which seem piecemeal and unrelated, can all combine to form one definition of acceptable risk. The best way to do this is to examine the two cases that lie before us and relate the definitions to them. In the process of doing so, we will determine which risk is acceptable and which is not. Risks in the example: the lottery and the AIDS cure If the average person on the street were presented with the case of spending one's life savings on a lottery ticket and losing or spending the same sum on a false hunch regarding an AIDS cure, he or she would probably come up with several answers. For the most part though, all the answers would be consistent with one idea: the AIDS cure is simply "worth" more and thus is a more acceptable risk. There might be several reasons for this. One could assume, for example, that the only person who would attempt to cure AIDS would be a doctor with sufficient experience in the field. It would follow, then, that the odds of finding a cure for AIDS would be much greater than the odds of winning the lottery. To win the lottery, one has to draw 6 numbers out of 46 (a probability that is very low). However, curing AIDS with medical experience is a less risky endeavor. In this instance, trying to cure AIDS would be a greater moral good because it is less risk involved in it than in trying to win the lottery. This case, although quite valid, is not very interesting. In fact, we have solved it rather rapidly. The more interesting case, and the one we will consider in depth here, is the case in which one has no medical experience whatsoever, but still attempts to find a cure. Furthermore, we will set the odds such that one has a better chance of winning the lottery than finding a cure for AIDS. Yet, I will still show that, regardless of the greater chance of failure, the attempt at an AIDS cure is still has more moral worth than the purchase of the lottery ticket, even though both result in failure. Why does the spending one's life savings on an AIDS cure have more moral worth (which makes it a more acceptable risk) than spending the same sum on a lottery ticket, when the numerical odds of being successful are the same? Why bother, since in the end, the result is the same? The answer lies in Mill's definition of a moral good, that which is done to increase the common happiness (Mill, Utilitarianism). The AIDS cure is something that will increase the common happiness, while a person winning the lottery generally will only increase his or her happiness. This is almost obvious. Certainly, if I was to win the lottery, I would increase my happiness greatly, but the increase in the general happiness would be negligible. However, if I were to find a cure for AIDS, it would greatly increase the general happiness. Masses of suffering people and their loved ones would be much happier. Even though my attempt was unsuccessful, it would still be greatly appreciated. Just the thought of a cure would have given hope to what could otherwise be a bleak existence. The mere possibility of being saved from an almost certain death would increase several victims' happiness. We see this today, when, each time a new drug that delays the progression of AIDS is approved, people flock to it. That such things are not cures and that some of them do not offer guarantees (indeed, many are experimental) is almost insignificant. People still try them. Why? Because they offer a hope of continuing what humans treasure most: life. Similarly, my AIDS cure would offer some hope to patients who are assured an eventual long, painful death. Maybe the cure might work for them. If not, that it did not would be almost insignificant. Spending my life's savings on an AIDS cure would almost certainly increase the general happiness, as it would provide hope. That, in the end, it is a failure is of little, if any, significance.