Ethics – Risk Taking Essay, Research Paper

The paper is about risk taking and self-command. It was written for a

philosophy class in ethics.

The title of the paper is “Risk Taking”. It recieved 95 points out of a

possible 100.

Risk Taking

In our lives, it is important to exercise self-command. However,

we should not be so concerned with the future that we stifle the present.

The question becomes what balance should we strike between self-command

and risks? What kinds of risks are acceptable or unacceptable? In this

essay, we will use two examples of risks to show the distinction between

the two and arrive at a conclusion as to the balance one should have

between risk and self command. The first example we will use is of a

person who spends his life savings on a lottery ticket and does not win

the lottery. The second is of a person who spends his life savings on a

hunch regarding a cure for AIDS, a hunch that is false. Before we make

this distinction, however, it is necessary to define the terms acceptable

and unacceptable risks.

Acceptable and Unacceptable Risks

There are several ways in which one could define which risks are

acceptable. One could say, for example, that the only acceptable risk is

one for which the odds of success are greater than the odds of failure.

Another definition of acceptable risk might be a risk that does not harm

one’s future. We might also say that the only acceptable risk is one

where the aggregate happiness is increased, thus increasing the moral good

of the risk, an idea which is based on John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.

Finally, we might define a morally good risk in a Kantian way by saying

that the only acceptable risk is one which is rationally thought out

(Thomas, lecture).

Now that we have several definitions of acceptable risks, we may

ask how these definitions, which seem piecemeal and unrelated, can all

combine to form one definition of acceptable risk. The best way to do

this is to examine the two cases that lie before us and relate the

definitions to them. In the process of doing so, we will determine which

risk is acceptable and which is not.

Risks in the example: the lottery and the AIDS cure

If the average person on the street were presented with the case

of spending one’s life savings on a lottery ticket and losing or spending

the same sum on a false hunch regarding an AIDS cure, he or she would

probably come up with several answers. For the most part though, all the

answers would be consistent with one idea: the AIDS cure is simply

“worth” more and thus is a more acceptable risk. There might be several

reasons for this. One could assume, for example, that the only person who

would attempt to cure AIDS would be a doctor with sufficient experience in

the field. It would follow, then, that the odds of finding a cure for

AIDS would be much greater than the odds of winning the lottery. To win

the lottery, one has to draw 6 numbers out of 46 (a probability that is

very low). However, curing AIDS with medical experience is a less risky

endeavor. In this instance, trying to cure AIDS would be a greater moral

good because it is less risk involved in it than in trying to win the

lottery. This case, although quite valid, is not very interesting. In

fact, we have solved it rather rapidly. The more interesting case, and

the one we will consider in depth here, is the case in which one has no

medical experience whatsoever, but still attempts to find a cure.

Furthermore, we will set the odds such that one has a better chance of

winning the lottery than finding a cure for AIDS. Yet, I will still

show that, regardless of the greater chance of failure, the attempt at an

AIDS cure is still has more moral worth than the purchase of the lottery

ticket, even though both result in failure.

Why does the spending one’s life savings on an AIDS cure have more

moral worth (which makes it a more acceptable risk) than spending the same

sum on a lottery ticket, when the numerical odds of being successful are

the same? Why bother, since in the end, the result is the same? The

answer lies in Mill’s definition of a moral good, that which is done to

increase the common happiness (Mill, Utilitarianism).

The AIDS cure is something that will increase the common happiness, while

a person winning the lottery generally will only increase his or her

happiness. This is almost obvious. Certainly, if I was to win the

lottery, I would increase my happiness greatly, but the increase in the

general happiness would be negligible. However, if I were to find a cure

for AIDS, it would greatly increase the general happiness. Masses of

suffering people and their loved ones would be much happier. Even though

my attempt was unsuccessful, it would still be greatly appreciated. Just

the thought of a cure would have given hope to what could otherwise be a

bleak existence. The mere possibility of being saved from an almost

certain death would increase several victims’ happiness. We see this

today, when, each time a new drug that delays the progression of AIDS is

approved, people flock to it. That such things are not cures and that

some of them do not offer guarantees (indeed, many are experimental) is

almost insignificant. People still try them. Why? Because they offer a

hope of continuing what humans treasure most: life. Similarly, my AIDS

cure would offer some hope to patients who are assured an eventual long,

painful death. Maybe the cure might work for them. If not, that it did

not would be almost insignificant. Spending my life’s savings on an AIDS

cure would almost certainly increase the general happiness, as it would

provide hope. That, in the end, it is a failure is of little, if any,


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