Risk 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.