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!)