The Line Between Murder and Closing Your Computer
It is pretty safe to say that ethicists, moral philosophers, and ordinary people alike would all agree that if you have a chance to save someone’s life with a relatively low cost to yourself, you should probably do so.
One of the most austere examples of this moral principle is briefly discussed in the Talmud. In the event that you are walking next to a river and see someone drowning, if you can pull them out without significant risk to your own life, you have a moral imperative to do so. Simple enough.
However, we can talk about general moral principles all we want. The difficult part begins when we attempt to apply them to our world, which usually doesn’t do so well with generalities.
For instance, malaria kills over one million people a year. One million! A disease for which we have multiple treatment and prevention tools is killing thousands of people a day.
The simplest way to prevent malaria is by having basic mosquito repellent nets placed over and around a bed. According to GiveWell, a non-profit evaluator, the average cost of saving a life potentially lost to malaria comes out to be slightly over $3,000 when all requisite steps are included.
While $3000 is a hefty sum of money, it isn’t really that much in the grand scheme of things. A large portion of people reading this article would be able to immediately write this check with no noticeable change to their quality of life. A smaller fraction of people reading this article would be able to write them by the dozen.
But we don’t. This morning I spent 3 dollars on a cup of coffee when it could have been used to provide a meal for a starving individual.
Does that make us bad people?
This question, which has floated around my mind for some time now, hit me especially hard this past week. I have recently started volunteering a few hours a week for a suicide texting hotline. Individuals in crisis can text in anonymously at all hours of the day and subsequently be matched up with a volunteer who has undergone high-risk conversational training.
This past Thursday night I had an exhausting shift as there were consistently 30-40 people waiting to be paired up to talk with a counselor. While there is an algorithm that attempts to push the highest risk texters to the top of the queue, it is undoubtedly imperfect and some suicidal individuals were having to wait up to an hour to be answered.
The clock struck 1 AM and my shift was over. It was time to log off, close my computer, and go to sleep. By 1:07 AM I was in bed, eyes closed, but my mind simply didn’t allow me to sleep. I was very awake and deep in thought.
By staying awake another hour I could have potentially helped another individual in a major way, possibly even saving a life. Yes, I was tired and had to be awake enough for work the next morning, but so what? I have stayed up late on Thursday nights before, potentially compromising my morning productivity the next day without so much as batting an eye.
Now, of course, we can claim that any of these arguments can be reduced ad absurdum. One can twist this sentiment into saying that anytime you are not using your time or money to save someone’s life, your opportunity cost (in economic terms) is a life lost. Furthermore, from a certain utilitarian perspective, I should be staying up for multiple nights straight volunteering even if it costs me my job and friends since I would be able to save multiple lives. The same would hold true for money. There never really seems to be a point where it makes moral sense to stop giving.
But perhaps this is the point. When it comes to our moral calling in this world there truly is no upper limit. While we can sit around and discuss how much of ourselves and our resources we should give from a pragmatic view (perhaps in a future article), for now, I think that the lesson to be gained is that no matter how good we are today, there is always going to be an infinite road of potential improvement in front of us.
"It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it." - Pirkei Avot
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