Friday, March 26, 2010

Kill Yourself to Donate Your Organs and Save 5 People?

I've been wondering about a version of the transplant problem thought experiment for years. The way I've always formulated it was this:
Right now, I could volunteer to donate all of my organs, saving at least a handful of lives at the cost of my one life. Five people (or so) get to live, while only one person (me) has to die.
Am I really that selfish to value my own life so much more highly than those of other people, even if they are strangers? I can think of two "economics"-type solutions to this dilemma, but I can't say I buy into either fully.

First, some might argue, sacrificing myself for organs at age 23 isn't optimal. The world would be better off if I live a long time, experience all sorts of utility for myself, and then donate my organs after I die.

I could be wrong, but I think I could save more people donating now, when I'm healthy, than I could by waiting until I die. At that point, I don't need my organs anymore, so the donation is essentially costless, but I would expect that my organs would be in rather bad shape and thus much less useful. Yet I choose not to donate early. (Anyone with a firmer grasp of biology who sees a flaw in this argument can feel free to point it out in the comments.)

Second, one could argue that you can save more lives by living than you can by killing yourself and sacrificing your organs. If you devote your life to some sort of charitable or missionary work, it's easy to imagine scenarios in which this is true.

This is much more of a stretch, but one could also argue that pursuing your goals is better than sacrificing yourself, no matter what your pursuit. Technology and economic progress have allowed billions of people to enjoy so much wealth and pleasure in ways that wouldn't be possible if people were sacrificing themselves all the time. Such societal progress requires expertise and mastery in countless fields, perhaps including the one you want to work in.

Steven Landsburg's book is again the source of inspiration for this post. The transplant problem is, incidentally, a variation of the more widely known trolley problem. The problems typically involve a third party: If you're a surgeon, would you harvest someone else's organs to save five people who otherwise are going to die within the hour? Would you push a fat man in front of an out-of-control train to save five people tied to the track? However, I've always thought of them in the first person: Would I be willing to sacrifice myself to save others?

(Note to relatives and close friends: I'm very happy with life and not at all on suicide watch. It's just a thought experiment!)


Josh Hattersley said...

This is why a purely utilitarian analysis--with which economic analyses will tend to track very closely--is insufficient when dealing with matters such as the value of a (human) life. You should read some Emmanuel Kant! Particularly germane is his Categorical Imperative, which can is best summed up by this quote: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." In other words, humans should not be treated as fungible goods, at least not within his philosophical framework.

Greg said...

I've been clicking around some stuff about categorical imperatives, and I remember a little about it from college, but I still don't see how it helps here. The transplant patients I could save aren't any less fungible than I am, right? It may be difficult to put value on human lives, sure, but isn't saving more lives preferred to saving fewer lives?

Sorry if I'm missing the point.

Greg said...

Also, now that you've pointed it out, I'm amazed how much overlap there is between economics (at least the libertarian version taught at GMU) and utilitarianism. I hadn't really thought about that.

Josh Hattersley said...

Kant's point is more that, while all human life is valuable, to treat a person as simply a "means to an end" is morally/philosophically opprobrious. The fact that you can save those five patients' lives by sacrificing your own doesn't mesh with the idea that you need to be treated as an end in and of yourself, and not just a means to some other end, even if that other end would result in the saving of five lives. The quantitative argument is largely irrelevant when you run up against this framework.

This is actually a popular conception on how the world tends to operate. A bulk of our decisions are made on utilitarian grounds and require no moral evaluation. But when we run into issues such as the Transplant Problem, frameworks like that posited by Kant kick in and override any utilitarian analyses. Basically, Utilitarianism with Kantian rules for the morally/ethically potent cases.