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How to Save a Life?
Bad Questions Ɪ
What is the best way to save lives? Is it to donate to food shelves? Buy malaria nets? Could it be activism attempting to reign in a hypothetical ai takeover of the planet?
Before even beginning to try to answer this sort of question, we need to take many steps back. First we must ask:
1. What does it mean to save a life?
2. What counts as a life?
3. What counts as a life worth saving?
In this post, I will be focusing on the first question. I plan on deeper engagement with questions 2 and 3 in a future post regarding AI and personhood.
So without further ado…
What does it mean to save a life?
There are plenty of situations in which the answer to this question seems trivial. If someone is drowning, and one tosses a life preserver which ends up keeping them alive, that seems rather cut and dry. A person is alive now, who would otherwise be dead. However, if this hypothetical person had a month, or a week, or a day to live due to disease, what is it that we just accomplished? These scenarios imply a possible conclusion; saving a life is the same as extending a life. But there is a problem. The phrase “save a life” is rarely if ever used if a cancer patient’s life is extended by a single day. So it seems that the common usage of the phrase includes additional qualitative and/or quantitative components.
Quality and Quantity
When one speaks of saving a life, there is an implication that the life “saved” will extend significantly into the future, but there surely is another factor. Imagine if the drowning person saved by the life preserver earlier will assuredly live for another 50 years or so, but they will be spending that time locked up in a prison, with only the bare minimum food, water, and medical care necessary to survive. How could one consider their life to be “saved”, if they are going to inevitably spend it damned to rot in a cell? Thus saving a life also implicitly includes a sense of worthwhile living for the one saved.
To a degree, the problems here are ones of legibility. When used by institutions such as charities, “saving a life” is an attempt at making a catch-all term in order to allow them to put out specific numbers on donation flyers and board meetings. They don’t have the time or ability to examine the quality and quantity of every life they have influenced. However, behind every legibility creation, there is an obscuration. Reducing lives to numbers will always fail to see the whole story. Say someone donates one mosquito net of funding to a charity. The charity can then buy and ship the net to somewhere useful, hand it out to one in need, and report it as a successful endeavor. They can plug this 1 net given into a spreadsheet used to estimate the “lives they have saved this year”, and can present the sum total in a year end paper. But what of the actual person who received the net! Even assuming their estimations are relatively correct about their impact on reducing mortality rates in the relevant area, they haven’t provided any information as to the quality and quantity (duration) of the lives of the actual people aided. Are they ailing from other diseases? Do they have enough food, water, and shelter to live with any comfort? Do they have economic and social opportunities? Do they have protection from corrupt governments and thugs? As I argued earlier, “saving a life” implies a certain amount of life quality and quantity.
Thus, a presentation of how many lives a charity has saved does little to nothing to show their actual impact on people’s lives. All this statistic provides is a bit of peace of mind, so long as one doesn’t look too closely at the realities of the world.
Based on the evidence presented, I argue that the notion of “saving” lives is one lacking in nuance and specificity. Its lack of clear criteria make it a rather empty phrase when it comes to any specific situation, for it doesn’t actually call attention to the quality and quantity of life at play. Because the phrase includes no specific information on quality or quantity of life, it is insufficient at relaying the most important impacts of charity and aid.
Thus, people chasing utilitarian notions of “lives saved”, whether it be via mosquito nets or preventing a war with AI, ought to grapple with the actual likelihoods of raising life quality and quantity. Ideals of providing “The Best, for the Most, for the Least”are still valuable, but information more detailed than "lives saved" is required in order to be informed on the impacts of possible aid efforts.
Imagine an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, and nuclear weapons were used to blow it out of the sky. The resulting fallout then caused the entire Earth’s surface to become nearly uninhabitable, with massive radiation sickness, crop failures, and societal collapse. Can it really be said that the use of nuclear weapons saved the people of Earth? It seems to me that the decision instead doomed them.
A Note to Readers
Thanks for taking the time to read this post! I am excited my blog’s hiatus is at least for now dismantled! I hope I didn’t end up being too wordy. It is always a balancing act between thoroughness and clarity, and I am always trying to better walk that line. As always, feel free to charitably and kindly discuss your thoughts in the comments, and share any respectful and constructive criticisms you have as well! Right now, I plan on either beginning work on a large project examining the horrors of the advertising industry, or work on a few smaller projects examining what I see as more “Bad Questions”.
I wish you a life of abundant quality and quantity :)
I don’t find it productive to try to figure the exact duration a life must extend to count for the expression. This is essentially a variant of the Sorites Paradox, where someone takes a heap of sand, starts removing it grain by grain, and asks when the sand ceases to be a “heap”. The issue in terms of finding such a point is that “heap” has no clear quantitative boundaries. This issue will return later in my post, as evidence that the idea of “saving” a life is a flawed one.
Like the previous footnote, this resembles the Sorites Paradox. There is no clear distinction for how good or long a life must be to be “worthwhile” or “saved”.
The best outcomes for the most people for the least cost