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
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.

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