Thursday, September 05, 2013

Book notes 3 of 3: The Big Questions by Steve Landsburg - The Headache Problem

"The Headache Problem. A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is kills, in which case they will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person?

I didn't actually understand why this was a dilemma; the answer is yes, for reasons that would be immediately obvious to any economist. The philosopher reached the same conclusion for the same reasons, but took forty pages to get there and then declared the result 'counterintuitive.'

Here's how an economist see the question: First, virtually nobody would pay a dollar to avoid a one-in-a-billion chance of death (We know this for example, from studies of willingness to pay for auto safety devices.) Second, most people - at least in the developed world, where I assume all of this risk is taking place - would happily pay a dollar to cure a headache. (I don't actually know this, but it seems probable). Third, this tells me that most people think a headache is worse than a one-in-a-billion chance of death. So if I replace your headache with a one-in-a-billion chance of death, I've done you a favour. And I can do precisely that by killing a headache sufferer at random.

The philosopher who found this conclusion bizarre and counter intuitive .... must have little experience living in the real world, where we agree to kill people all the time. We drive, install swimming pools, use drain cleaners, and drink tequila, knowing with certainty that some number of people will die as a result."

And a bonus quote to close:

Delight in Losing Arguments
Argue passionately for your beliefs, listen intently to your adversaries, and root for yourself to lose. When you lose, you've learned something.

From The Big Questions by economist Steve Landsburg.

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