The price of helping someone

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Today, Hypothica-style topic submission!

I’ll quickly answer a question that I get a lot. Most of those posts are a submitted idea, and I’ve written the content myself. Unless the “idea” is completely inapropriate, illegal or is spam, I will post something about it, but I can’t garantee it will be quick. Sometimes I have trouble figuring out how to describe the idea in an interesting matter, so there might be delays. It is also 100% anonymous, as you can see, i’m not putting the name of the person who submitted it.

This post is one of those that I’ve received a pretty long time ago, but I really had trouble deciding what to write about it. Sorry anonymous user for the delay. I’m still not satisfied with the result, but I can’t reasonably delay it more than that.

If you were just walking in the street, and you see someone get hit by a car. You are the only witness around, and the driver runs away very quickly. The person who was hit definitely needs help. You would usually call the police, call an ambulance, and try to help the person by maybe assessing their wounds, giving first aid, just moving them out of the street, etc. You would do something. In many countries, not helping would actually be a crime.

Let’s say that everything ends up fine, the victim survives thanks to you, but this morning you are late to work. That seems like a minor trade-off for saving a life. Your boss will most likely understand and you won’t get in trouble.

But then, what if, instead of being late to your job, you are late to an important meeting, and lose a huge contract because of that. Was it worth it? You will probably still say yes.

What if helping actually needed you to stay here for the whole day? Is your answer still the same?

Now let’s get into hypothican territory, where you can know for sure what would have happened had you done the other thing. We have complete control over ridiculous premises for the sake of argument

In our situation, saving this person, one way or another, made you lose a thousand dollars. You were also planning on using this money to donate to shelters or something like that. In that case, saving that life has a real chance of preventing someone else, maybe many people, from getting help in the near future. Was it worth it?

What if helping this person poses a risk to you? You won’t die, but you might get hurt helping, is it still worth it?

What if helping this person takes a LOT of your time, and considering that time is a limited resource for each of us, effectively costs you a fraction of your entire life, maybe something like a month or a year, is it still worth it?

Precisely, everyone would draw the line somewhere. I don’t think anyone would commit genocide to save a stranger’s life, but most people would be willing to spend 5 minutes of their life to do it.

Where would you draw the line for a complete stranger? What would you be willing to sacrifice to help someone you’ll never meet again?

  • Hmm, this is another of those “is there a mathematical calculus of morals” questions, isn’t it, like the railroad tracks example? Pragmatists always tend to like to associate numeric costs and benefits (as Kingfisher said already) with each action, then essentially add them up:-) But there’s always something pretty unpleasant about that approach, IMO. There’s also the “kin selection/games theory” approach to evolutionary questions, as in J.B.S Haldane’s famous quote “I’d lay down my life for 2 brothers or 8 cousins”, with what I call “Duncan’s corollary”: but only if I really liked them:-)

    In reality, I suspect that each of us bumble through life making rather ad-hoc choices to the dilemmas that face us, affected as much by our mood and recent experiences as by rational calculations. Consistency is for wimps:-)

    From my own experience, my attitude towards charitable donations is highly variable – I’m probably above average in the population in terms of regular giving to about 15-20 charities, as a result I open a huge number of begging letters from the charities I already donate to. Most of them – however worthy – go straight in the bin. Once in a while, one catches my eye and I put it aside and look at it again a few days later. To be honest, most of those “survivors” also go straight in the bin, but occasionally I decide to give them either a one-off donation for a project or increase my regular donation. Thinking about it, I can’t fathom any rational basis for that decision method: it seems quite random to me looking in on myself.

    • Kingfisher12

      I like the Haldane quote, and your corollary. It’s a good way to sum things up.

      I try not to over-think my internal moral calculus, since it generally leads to an uncomfortable level of self-doubt.

      I maintain that human beings are social creatures to their core, so internal morality is necessarily the same as social morality – a collective conscience. We want to be ‘good’, because our society expects it of us.

      When we do actions that are valued by our society, it validates our place in society – which is a desirable feeling. We are more likely to make sacrifices if society places honor on the sacrifice of others. If society judges a sacrifice as foolish we are unlikely to make the same sacrifice. Bravely sacrificing yourself to save a brother is good, while foolishly throwing your life away for a lost cause is bad. There is no objective boundary between the two; only the collective conscience of our society.

  • Kingfisher12

    There are people out there who follow this train of thought quite seriously. If you want to do the most good that you possibly can, the opportunity cost of doing one kind of good becomes very important. The entire concept of triage is based on the idea of “if I help this person now, I can’t be helping that person who needs me more urgently”. I’ve thought about it myself on occasion.

    My solution is a hierarchy. Looking at all of the obligations I have, or may have, I sort them into a set list. If doing one thing means I fail at meeting an obligation lower down on the list, so be it. But if doing something makes me fail in meeting an obligation higher on the list, I’ve messed up. If there is a conflict at the same level on the list, all I can do is my best.

    My personal hierarchy of obligations is in part:
    Conscience (For me specifically this means God, but essentially it’s the core convictions of right and wrong)
    Family (sub hierarchy: wife>children>parents>siblings>onward)
    Community (both those I associate with, and anyone immediately in front of me)
    Nation (Queen and Country)
    All other humans (including myself)
    Other life
    Other non-living things.

    I do not always live up to my ideals, but I try. What it means is that first of all, I’ll never help someone (even my own children) if I believe it is somehow morally wrong – but that should go without saying.

    It means that I won’t go to help a neighbor if my family needs me. I won’t go to the aid of another community if my own needs my help. I won’t help my employer to undermine the good of my country, but I cannot ignore my duty to my employer to help strangers. I won’t save the life of a non-human over a human, and I won’t support the suffering of some life form for any artifact (that isn’t essential for human life).

    Other people may have different hierarchies, but having one helps. Never give up the greater good, but when the opportunity presents itself to sacrifice a lesser good for a greater one, take it.

    I find that if I think about something, I can quickly identify for myself where it would fit on the hierarchy, and choose accordingly.