One Life Against the World

“Who­ever saves a sin­gle life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.”

-- The Tal­mud, San­hedrin 4:5

It’s a beau­tiful thought, isn’t it? Feel that warm glow.

I can tes­tify that helping one per­son feels just as good as helping the whole world. Once upon a time, when I was burned out for the day and wast­ing time on the In­ter­net—it’s a bit com­pli­cated, but es­sen­tially, I man­aged to turn some­one’s whole life around by leav­ing an anony­mous blog com­ment. I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it to have an effect that large, but it did. When I dis­cov­ered what I had ac­com­plished, it gave me a tremen­dous high. The eu­pho­ria lasted through that day and into the night, only wear­ing off some­what the next morn­ing. It felt just as good (this is the scary part) as the eu­pho­ria of a ma­jor sci­en­tific in­sight, which had pre­vi­ously been my best refer­ent for what it might feel like to do drugs.

Sav­ing one life prob­a­bly does feel just as good as be­ing the first per­son to re­al­ize what makes the stars shine. It prob­a­bly does feel just as good as sav­ing the en­tire world.

But if you ever have a choice, dear reader, be­tween sav­ing a sin­gle life and sav­ing the whole world—then save the world. Please. Be­cause be­yond that warm glow is one heck of a gi­gan­tic differ­ence.

For some peo­ple, the no­tion that sav­ing the world is sig­nifi­cantly bet­ter than sav­ing one hu­man life will be ob­vi­ous, like say­ing that six billion dol­lars is worth more than one dol­lar, or that six cu­bic kilo­me­ters of gold weighs more than one cu­bic me­ter of gold. (And never mind the ex­pected value of pos­ter­ity.) Why might it not be ob­vi­ous? Well, sup­pose there’s a qual­i­ta­tive duty to save what lives you can—then some­one who saves the world, and some­one who saves one hu­man life, are just fulfilling the same duty. Or sup­pose that we fol­low the Greek con­cep­tion of per­sonal virtue, rather than con­se­quen­tial­ism; some­one who saves the world is vir­tu­ous, but not six billion times as vir­tu­ous as some­one who saves one hu­man life. Or per­haps the value of one hu­man life is already too great to com­pre­hend—so that the pass­ing grief we ex­pe­rience at funer­als is an in­finites­i­mal un­der­es­ti­mate of what is lost—and thus pass­ing to the en­tire world changes lit­tle.

I agree that one hu­man life is of uni­mag­in­ably high value. I also hold that two hu­man lives are twice as uni­mag­in­ably valuable. Or to put it an­other way: Who­ever saves one life, if it is as if they had saved the whole world; who­ever saves ten lives, it is as if they had saved ten wor­lds. Who­ever ac­tu­ally saves the whole world—not to be con­fused with pre­tend rhetor­i­cal sav­ing the world—it is as if they had saved an in­ter­galac­tic civ­i­liza­tion.

Two deaf chil­dren are sleep­ing on the railroad tracks, the train speed­ing down; you see this, but you are too far away to save the child. I’m nearby, within reach, so I leap for­ward and drag one child off the railroad tracks—and then stop, calmly sip­ping a Diet Pepsi as the train bears down on the sec­ond child. “Quick!” you scream to me. “Do some­thing!” But (I call back) I already saved one child from the train tracks, and thus I am “uni­mag­in­ably” far ahead on points. Whether I save the sec­ond child, or not, I will still be cred­ited with an “uni­mag­in­ably” good deed. Thus, I have no fur­ther mo­tive to act. Doesn’t sound right, does it?

Why should it be any differ­ent if a philan­thropist spends $10 mil­lion on cur­ing a rare but spec­tac­u­larly fatal dis­ease which af­flicts only a hun­dred peo­ple planetwide, when the same money has an equal prob­a­bil­ity of pro­duc­ing a cure for a less spec­tac­u­lar dis­ease that kills 10% of 100,000 peo­ple? I don’t think it is differ­ent. When hu­man lives are at stake, we have a duty to max­i­mize, not satis­fice; and this duty has the same strength as the origi­nal duty to save lives. Who­ever know­ingly chooses to save one life, when they could have saved two—to say noth­ing of a thou­sand lives, or a world - they have damned them­selves as thor­oughly as any mur­derer.

Ad­den­dum: It’s not cog­ni­tively easy to spend money to save lives, since cliche meth­ods that in­stantly leap to mind don’t work or are coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. (I will post later on why this tends to be so.) Stu­art Arm­strong also points out that if we are to dis­dain the philan­thropist who spends life-sav­ing money in­effi­ciently, we should be con­sis­tent and dis­dain more those who could spend money to save lives but don’t.