Sunday, April 16, 2006


Is it really a good quality that someone might be willing to sacrifice oneself for a stranger? Let's imagine a theoretical scenario in which a small child is about to be hit by a train. It's just you and the child; nobody else is around. You can either let the child be hit by the train with a 100% chance of death, or you can sacrifice yourself with a 100% chance of death, but a 100% chance that the child will survive.

Should you sacrifice yourself to save the child? I'm not so certain. It's safe to assume that if you're reading this, you're older than the child I'm picturing, so the child would probably live longer than you, and therefore all things considered, he or she would contribute more to society. We have no idea whether this child will grow up to be a good or evil person, of course. But, what we do know is that if you're the type who would sacrifice your own life for a random kid, you're probably a pretty good person. So, society trades a person who's almost certainly good (assuming that fewer than 50% of the world would make that sacrifice, which may not be true) for a person who has a 50% chance of being better than average and a 50% chance of being more evil than average. Plus, if you assume that for the first quarter of your life you're pretty much just a drain on society, it makes that older person even more attractive, especially if they've just finished that first quarter of theirs.

It looks to me like society's probably better off if that really nice person just lets the kid get hit by a train.

My, that's morbid.

So, what's the point of this post? If you ever go with me to play near some "abandoned" train tracks, watch your step.

(I assure you that I have no secret motive for posting on the topic of sacrificing one's own life on Easter Sunday. Just something that came to mind.)


Steven said...

I would save the kid if it were mine, otherwise the kid is a gonner. I'd call it natural instincts though, because if I were in that situation I probalby wouldn't have time to debate it.

I bet someone's position in life would also play a factor. Such as an army guy or firefighter. Both of which I would never sign up for.

On another line of though. If this kid is playing on the tracks. Sees/hears this large locamotive coming towards them and it doesn't occur to them to move. Well, perhaps its darwin's theory.

Luke said...

To me, I observe mostly what I believe to be good people in the world and very few evil ones. To me, the probability of saving a kid who grows up to be Charles Starkweather is kind of unlikely.

And anyway, the criteria you use to separate the somewhat good people from the very good people are completely arbitrary. Some kid saves lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and some kid develops better radios. Who's better? Who knows?

How many jerks do we have in the army who make racial slurs, get in bar fights, beat their wives, and then go out and risk theirs to fight our enemies?

Travis said...

It's purely a theoretical exercise. I was using "good" as "better than average," and "evil" as "worse than average," as a total sum of everything that person did and would do over the course of their life. That would make the world 50% good and 50% evil. And of course what a "good" act and what an "evil" act are are completely up to the person performing this purely theoretical exercise.

I'm not so sure that the men in the army who beat their wives are all there to defend their homeland. I'm sure some are, and just have some psychological problems or something. But there certainly have to be some people of an unknown proportion in the armed forces who are there because it's a job that pays well, or because they pay for college tuition, or because they want to shoot people.

MajorLB said...

I've thought about this before. Even Steven's comment about saving your own child is against nature. (Not that I wouldn't do the same for my child.) If there's not enough food, a mother bear will eat before her cub(s). She can have other children, but the cub won't survive if she dies. Makes sense.